The very evening before the town of Marienburg was assaulted and taken by storm, she was married to a young Livonian sergeant, a very excellent young man, of reputable family and possessing a little property. In the horrors of the tempest of war which immediately succeeded the nuptial ceremonies, her husband was slain, and as his body could never be found, it probably was consumed in the flames, which laid the town in ashes. General Boyer, moved with compassion, took her under his protection. He ascertained that her character had always been irreproachable, and he ever maintained that she continued to be a pattern of virtue. She was but seventeen years of age when Peter saw her. Her beauty immediately vanquished him. His wife he had repudiated after a long disagreement, and she had retired to a convent. Peter took the lovely child, still a child in years, under his own care, and soon privately married her, with how much sacredness of nuptial rites is not now known. Such was the early history of Catharine, who subsequently became the recognized and renowned Empress of Russia.
“That a poor stranger,” says Voltaire, “who had been discovered amid the ruins of a plundered town, should become the absolute sovereign of that very empire into which she was led captive, is an incident which fortune and merit have never before produced in the annals of the world.”
The city of Petersburg was founded on the 22d of May, 1703, on a desert and marshy spot of ground, in the sixtieth degree of latitude. The first building was a fort which now stands in the center of the city. Though Peter was involved in all the hurry and confusion of war, he devoted himself with marvelous energy to the work of rearing an imperial city upon the bogs and the swamps of the Neva. It required the merciless vigor of despotism to accomplish such an enterprise. Workmen were marched by thousands from Kesan, from Astrachan, from the Ukraine, to assist in building the city. No difficulties, no obstacles were allowed to impede the work. The tzar had a low hut, built of plank, just sufficient to shelter him from the weather, where he superintended the operations. This hut is still preserved as one of the curiosities of St. Petersburg. In less than a year thirty thousand houses were reared, and these were all crowded by the many thousands Peter had ordered to the rising city, from all parts of the empire. Death made terrible ravages among them; but the remote provinces furnished an abundant supply to fill the places of the dead. Exposure, toil, and the insalubrity of the marshy ground, consigned one hundred thousand to the grave during this first year.