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Sunday 10 April 2016

Russian Alaska

The area we know as Alaska was claimed by Imperial Russia in 1741 and rented out to the Russia-America Company in 1799 which then managed it, an arrangement similar to the way that some British colonial territories were managed by private companies. In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the USA.

For some collectors, mail from or to Russian Alaska is a Holy Grail. Back in 1960, Tchilingirian and Stephen devoted two pages to "Russian America" in Part Six of their Stamps of the Russian Empire Used Abroad. At the end of their two pages, they write "no material known so far"(page 496).

Nowadays, the Internet makes it easy to establish that letters from Russian Alaska exist, notably in museums and archives in Finland, since Finns were very active among the sailors, traders and adventurers who made their way to Alaska. But I do not know if anyone has studied the letters for postal markings - if the letters were entire letters then they would be addressed and probably show some markings. The letters are referred to in historical studies of the colonisation of Alaska.

However, a new development has now occurred. An 1851 entire letter from Alaska to Finland has appeared in auction, and was sold by the Swedish firm Philea on 10 April 2016 for  15 500 euro hammer ( on 3000 euro Starting Price). The letter is undoubtedly genuine and here it is:

Click on Images to Magnify

The letter is written in German (or possibly some mix of Swedish and German - it is hard for me to read) and the writer is Henrik Johan Holmberg (1818 - 1864), a Finnish naturalist, geologist and ethnographer who is known to have travelled to Alaska in 1850. He is writing from New Archangel [Novo Archangelsk] also known as Sitka even then - see the heading to the letter - on 1 May 1851.

It is known that the Russia-America Company's ships departed to Alaska from Kronstadt and returned there. The routes varied, but late April / early May appears to have been a period at which ships departed Alaska for the five or six month journey to Russia. Weather would have been the major factor in deciding sailing dates, both ways.

The letter is addressed to Anders Olivier Saelan (1818 - 1874) in Helsingfors. Holmberg and Saelan were born in the same year and my guess is that they went to school together. Saelan was a pioneer of technical education in Finland. Note that the address is written first in Cyrillic and then in Roman.

My guess is that this letter travelled on a Russia-America company ship headed for Kronstadt, where the letter was either put into the Imperial Post or transferred as just one in a bag of letters to St Petersburg, where the bag was opened for sorting and cancelled on 19 September 1851.

There are two rate markings: a "10" on the front and a "60" on the reverse. These appear to be written in the same hand with the same pen. I invite experts on the matter to interpret these markings.

There is one other marking on the letter in a different (blacker) ink and hand, "No. 514" underlined in the top right corner. My theory is this:

Registry markings for Imperial Russian official mail take the same form, but normally are at bottom left of letters from this and later periods. Alaska, of course, was not under Imperial administration but systems may have been similar. I do think the "No. 514" is a Registry mark and I put forward the hypothesis that it was applied in Alaska for one of two reasons: either to indicate that it was an item of Russia-America company mail or for more general book-keeping purposes related to the fact that mail could have been handed in at the company offices at any time but would have to sit there and wait for a ship that could take it away -and such ships probably only departed a few times a year, or even less than that. The "No. 514" could function to indicate (for example) that Holmberg had paid the fee for carriage of his private letter, since to the best of my Internet-based knowledge, he was not a company employee. 

1851 Entire Letter from Novo Archangelsk, Alaska to Helsingfors with transit cancellation of St Petersburg, very very rare and a bargain at its hammer price of 15 500 euro.

1 comment:

  1. I think the "10" on the front is postage from St.Petersburg to the destination. The "60" on the reverse might be a Finnish notation, I know nothing about those.
    My best guess? The letter traveled by non-postal means from Alaska to SpB and was mailed in SpB. The "534" may be archival in nature I very much doubt it was related to registration and the letter shows none of the other signs of registration from this period. Still a marvelous find!