Jyväskylä University Museum


Uno Cygnaeus in Alaska

Alaska - a Russian Colony populated by European Settlers
During the late 18th century, Russia had extended its sphere of influence across the Bering Strait to Alaska, attracted by its various natural resources. In order to administer their exploitation, the Russian American Company was founded after the European model. The Chief Manager of the company, Aleksandr Baranov, took a particular fancy to the Island of Sitka on the southwest coast of Alaska. The climate seemed temperate, and the geography of the island easy to defend. The fact that it was located in the very heart of the warlike Tlingit tribe's territory did not prevent the Russian American Company from establishing a settlement in the area. The purpose of the company, besides its business interests, was to propagate Russian culture and Orthodox faith among the Native population.

People were recruited from various parts of Russia to settle in the colony. The government officials brought along their families, and made an effort to preserve their way of life as it was back home in St. Petersburg. By the beginning of the 1840s, the total number of residents of European origin in Sitka amounted to 400-500.

The Finnish Governor
Arvid Adolf Etholén, who was Finnish by birth, was the governor of the colony in the early 1840s. He obtained an authorization from the Emperor to establish a Lutheran congregation in Sitka, on account of the fact that nearly one third of the government officials in the colony were Lutherans. The priestly office in the new parish was offered to Uno Cygnaeus. It was not an easy desicion for him to make. Not only his own inexperience, but also the long separation from his relatives made him hesitate. On the other hand, he was eager to explore faraway lands. The post was also a considerable mark of confidence.
The itinerary of Uno Cygnaeus on his journey

The itinerary of Uno Cygnaeus on his journey
Publication of the Sitka Lutheran Church historical committee.


Shell Uno Cygnaeus Sets Sail for Alaska
The trading company's sailing vessel Nikolai departed from Kronstadt, off the shore of St. Petersburg, for Alaska on August 19, 1839. The ship's crew was for the most part Finnish. There were altogether 53 people on board, well over ten of whom were members of the crew. The passengers included Governor Etholén with his wife, as well as Uno Cygnaeus. The living conditions on board the ship were restricted, but in Rio de Janeiro and in Valparaiso the passengers had an opportunity to see the local way of life. After eight months at sea, they finally reached Sitka on May 12, 1840.
    "Den 5 Jan. 1840 lyftade vi anckar föratt anträdä den i fordna tiden så farliga resan omkring Cap Horn. Vi hade ej seglat många dagar åt söder, förrän den ena efter den andra bortlade de tunna och lätta kläder man burit i det heta Brasilien och småningom antog vår Nordiska Vinterdrägt ehuru vi hade den aldra bästa sommartiden i de trakter der vi befunno oss.  Kölden tilltog allt mer och mer så att vi om morgnarna ej hade mer än 4 gr. värme.  Denna resa från Rio Janeiro till Walparaiso är i allmänhet just ej något särdeles att bjuda på, äfven då den går så lyckligt som vår, vi gjorde denna tour på 40 dagar och det anses bra snällt ty ofta åtgår tour på 4 månader.  Blott en enda gång sågo vi land neml. det så kallade Staaten landet vid östra kusten af Patagonien för resten blott himmel och vatten, den förra vanligtvis mulen och dimmig, det sednare stormigt och svallande.  Sjelfva Cap Horn sågo vi ej.  En liten omvexling gaf oss åsynen af Hvalfiskar i stora flockar ja ända till 15-20 stycken, då de majestätiskt svimmade på alla sidor af fartyget, och ibland lika ett förspann framför skeppet.  De gåfvo oss dock ingen annan sysselsättning att beskåda dem, men annat var det med en slags fåglar kallade Albatrosser, som finnas i otrolig mängd omkring Cap Horn.  De äro stora som svanar men hafva ej så långa halsar hvaremot deras vingar äro alldeles ovanteliga, de hålla emot 5-6 ja till och med 8 alner mellan vingspetsarna.  Dessa fåglar fångas på ett eget sätt, man tager vanliga metkrokar naturligtvis betydligt stora, på den sätter man irter eller kött och lagar korkflöten som hindra krokarna att sjunka, denna apparat fästes vid ett snöre af 30-40 famnars längd och lämnas att slöpa efter fartyget, snart nog hugger en på kroken med sin stora näbb och fastnar."
    Extract from a letter Uno Cygnaeus wrote to his mother, brothers and sisters (in Swedish), dated Valparaiso, Feb. 26, 1840.
    Finnish National Archives

The Lutheran Congregation in Sitka
Cygnaeus's nationalistic enthusiasm was put to the test in the austere working conditions of Sitka. When officiating at a Communion service, he encountered illiterate people with scarcely any knowledge of the Christian Faith. A proper church building for the Lutheran congregation was completed in 1843. In the social hierarchy of the settlement, Cygnaeus was one of the few educated people, who observed a strict etiquette both in their dressing and table manners. At length the social life of this small circle would prove rather uneventful, although a welcome change was provided whenever interesting new people, or at least mail from the home country, arrived on the ships.
    "För att göra mitt bref till ett verkligt Poutpuri skall jag beskrifva för dig om en masqverad som hölls 13de dag jul och som var kanske den briljantaste i Sitka. Där funnos Kasacker, Skotter, Turkar, Greker, Aleuter, Tyrolare, Franska sprätter, Ryska bönder och bland damer Amazon Drottning Hippolyte, Tyrolskor, Ryskvinnor, Dalkullor etc. etc"
    From Uno Cygnaeus's letter to his sister Johanna (in Swedish) in 1841. 
    Finnish National Archives

The pulpit of Sitka Lutheran Church, possibly designed by Uno Cygnaeus.


The Tlingit and Haida Indians lived outside the palings which marked the limits of the town of Sitka. On the neighbouring islands there lived Aleut people as well, in houses which were partly built underground. Such a house could accomodate as many as 150 Aleuts of the same family. Cygnaeus became acquainted with parishioners in the more remote regions of his parish, as well as the Natives of the country, on a governor's tour of inspection in the summer of 1841.
    "Sedan vi i 7 dagars tid kryssat utanför Unalasckas hamn utan att kunna komma in lyckades oss sluteligen att tränga in i den emellan höga berg bortskymda hamnen. Vi möttes snart af Aleuterna i sina Bajdarkor, små farkoster af sjölejon skin, och Bajdarer, stora farkoster af samma skin."
    "Emellan höga snöbetäckta berg hvaraf ena hälfte är beklädd med den vackraste grönska och den andra bländrande hvit, ligger i en half cirkel omkring hamnen en med manshögt gräs bevuxen herrlig dal genomskuren af en i tusende krökningar sig slingrande å och i denna dal längs ut med hafs stranden ligger små nätta hus, bland hvilka en på långt håll sedd ganska nätt kyrka höjer sitt torn och cupol. På hverdera ändar af byn hafva Aleuterna sina eländiga jord hyttor byggda af torf och till hälften underjordiska och utan golf. Här bo de arma Menniskorna mera i likhet med djur än Menniskor och äro så nöjda med sitt råa hvalfisk kött, sjöstjärnor, snäckor."
    From Uno Cygnaeus's letter to his sister Johanna (in Swedish), dating from Johanna's Day in 1841.
    Finnish National Archives

Back Home
In the spring of 1845, Cygnaeus' five-year contract came to an end. He had succeeded in helping the congregational life of the Lutheran parish in the colony off to a good start. In June 1845, Cygnaeus began his journey back home by way of Siberia, arriving in St. Petersburg in December. Later in life, Cygnaeus often recalled his years in Sitka. He said that it was there that he realized the great value of manual skills and craft, and the education of women. During his stay in Alaska, he also discovered the genuine importance of textbooks written in the native language of the people. The Sitka Lutheran Church still cherishes the memory of its founder, Uno Cygnaeus.

Jyväskylä University Museum