Alaska's Winter Mails

The Gold Rush Era, 1898-1911


Scott US 370
William H. Seward
issued 1909.
Seward was Secretary of State in 1867 when he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire.


Scott US 800
Alaska Territory
issued 1937.
Honoring Alaska's first 70 years as a US possession, this stamp was issued along with three others for Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.


"Seward's Folly" and "Seward's Ice Box" were among the epithets attached by newspaper editorials to the Alaska Purchase of 1867. William H. Seward (1801-1872), whose foresight would not be recognized for another four decades, arranged to buy the territory from Russia. The acquisition cost 7.2 million dollars and included about 590,000 square miles of land.

Alaska received its first U.S. Post Office in 1867 at Sitka, actually a few months before the official turnover from Russia. Until the 1880s, it was governed as a military province. A judicial district was organized in 1883 and the courts acted as the primary governing body until 1912, when the increase of population caused by the gold rushes finally permitted the election of a territorial government with limited authority.

Until the Klondike gold rush of 1897-98, the interior population of Alaska was extremely sparse. Mail service was largely haphazard, whenever letters could be sent along with someone "headed in that direction." In areas along waterways, some ship service was available during the summer, but there would be no mail in or out during the long winter. The influx of population that resulted from the gold rushes provided the impetus for change.

Reproduction of an advertisement printed on the back of an envelope, urging would-be prospectors to purchase their tools and supplies and debark from the port of Seattle. "Seattle Has Three Transcontinental Railroads, and is the Sailing Port for all Steamers for the Gold Fields" it proclaims.

Actual examples of mail originating in the Klondike or along the Yukon during this era are scarce. It is easier to find advertising material, commercial covers, and other items from Canada or the lower 48 states that make reference to the Yukon. However, contemporary accounts, including those of author Jack London as well as government agents and military personnel, convey a good idea of the difficulty of providing mail service, particularly in the winter months.

Picture postcard above was printed for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held at Seattle in 1909. The caption reads "Ben Atwater, Arriving at Lake Bennett from Circle City with US Mail, Alaska." (Circle City is deep in the interior, and was originally named because the first settlers thought they were at the arctic circle. In fact, they were off by about 90 miles. Lake Bennett is the source of the Yukon River, in Canada just north of Skagway, Alaska.) Note the mixed breed dogs. During the gold rush era, dogs were in short supply and were literally worth their weight in the precious metal. Any and all breeds that could be obtained, including many stolen from points farther south, were pressed into service.

During the brief, bright sub-arctic summers, mail traveled largely by water. Steamers plied the Yukon, carrying would-be prospectors and supplies into the territory and the lucky few and their valuable gold out to civilization. But in the winter, the rivers froze and even large stretches of the sea coast became unnavigable due to ice packs and bergs. River communities might have no mail in or out from October to May, unless it could be carried overland or along the frozen river by dog team.

Another postcard, dating from the period of territorial government, captioned "Bob Griffis, U.S. Mail carrier, one mile in front of Nome on the Behring Sea." Though the photo is certainly a winter scene, this card was actually mailed from Nulato on July 26, 1921. Nulato is located on the Yukon River, and would have been served by steamship mail at that time of the year (see message side, shown below.)

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Created by Gary Lee Phillips, mail to fuffle@ix.netcom.com.

1998 Gary Lee Phillips.