Are there old Russian samovars buried in Alaska?
March 24, 2009 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Heard a story years and years ago that after the US bought Alaska, local Russians could not carry all their worldly goods back west. In a dog-in-the-manger move, they buried their samovars and then left. (Potential treasure if you're into samovars.) Sounds like myth or legend, esp. given the small numbers of Russians left by 1860, but I've not been able to find any reference or story like that. This sound familiar to anyone?

Parallel examples or greater or lesser weirdness welcome for no particular reason.
posted by IndigoJones to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Why, if you were abandoning something, would you go to all the work of burying it before you left? Digging is hard work, and it doesn't seem to serve any purpose. I would suspect it is a myth.
posted by procrastination at 10:20 AM on March 24, 2009

You might bury something if you were planning to come back, or if you didn't want someone else to get their hands on your precious samovars. Although in that case why you wouldn't just destroy them is another question.
posted by crickets at 10:27 AM on March 24, 2009

Best answer: I don't know about samovars, but some of the earlier Russian explorers seem to have had a practice of burying commemorative plates and crests in Alaska and other territories to signify Russian imperial sovereignty. It's possible that, on the way out, some similar symbolic burials took place. But I've never personally read about it.

As for treasure hunting, those earlier plates may still be in the ground, and they could have some historical worth.
posted by zerzura at 10:49 AM on March 24, 2009

Best answer: I'm from an old Russian fort town and my family is Russian and Native Alaskan - I've not heard any stories or really much mention of buried Russian artifacts beyond the commemorative plates mentioned above. There may be some out there, but the nicer ones are in the various little museums and historical societies in all the small towns in the state. Many are still kept in families with the old china. But if you're really after one I'd just suggest an antique shop!

Also, there was a brass foundry in Sitka back then, so I suspect people would buy the cheaper locally made versions rather than the fancy Russian made varieties that you may be after. I believe even the samovar from old Sitka Castle was made in Sitka (verified in this 1899 text).

You could always ask someone at the Sitka Historical Society if you wanted more info about Alaskan samovars.
posted by Craig at 11:50 AM on March 24, 2009

As a child growing up in Southeast Alaska, I can tell you that I spent a great deal of time seeking out clues and making massive excavations looking for buried treasures. Finding a Russian samovar would have been the highlight of my life at that point. My best finds ever were a medicine bottle from the gold rush days, circa 1890's, and various pieces of rusted mining machinery. So I've never heard this samovar story and I'm fairly certain that my friend Doug and I, with our half-sized shovel and pickaxe, would have discovered at least a few of them if they were there.
posted by otolith at 12:01 PM on March 24, 2009

Why, if you were abandoning something, would you go to all the work of burying it before you left? Digging is hard work, and it doesn't seem to serve any purpose. I would suspect it is a myth.

Very often, people tend to think that, one day, they will return. I'm from a part of the world where people have been burying things for centuries, literally. And every now and then, someone digs something up that was obviously carefully buried, despite having little real value. In the past two weeks I've reread a book about Pontic Greeks in Turkey being sent on a death march in the early 20th century, and many of them buried their simple clay dishes, pots and pans. I've seen I don't know how many references (just in the past year) to Jews burying stuff before getting on trains to concentration camps. When the war started in Bosnia, one of the first things we did was to bury some rare coins and family mementos, just in case. Some of it is still buried, I just haven't had the will to try to retrieve it (my sole trip back was traumatic.) So I don't have any problem believing the samovar story at all. Back in the times when people's possessions were both few and dear, this would have simply been a sensible thing to do.

I'd imagine the problem in finding references to this has more to do with its commonplace (and therefore unworthy of mention) nature.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:09 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Good enough, probably the plates were conflated with samovars because a more dramatic story. You've satisfied a years old itch, and for that and other thoughts and musings, I thank you all.

(Quite right, Dee, on the commonplaceness. Reason I was hoping the locals might have a better line on this than Google, as indeed they did.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:45 PM on March 24, 2009

By the time the Russians sold Alaska, the fur trade was in decline and the transition from Russia to America wasn't rushed. The Russian American company had been relying on American trade vessels for some time. I have never heard of samovars being unburied. The plaques were the double-headed eagle symbol of Russian America and they were buried so, if challenged, the Russians could claim they were in an area first and could claim it as theirs. They have been found as far south as the San Diego area. If you want to learn more about the plaques, I have a paper produced by the Alaska State Museum about them.
posted by Foam Pants at 8:33 PM on March 24, 2009

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