Animal Skin Tokens – The Russian-American Company

Posted on 7/24/2012

Although created to collect scientific information on plants and animals, The Russian-American Company quickly became a valuable trade facilitator.

The Russian-American Company (RAC) was Russia’s first joint-stock company. Charted by Tsar Paul in 1799, it was to be responsible for collecting scientific information on the world’s plants and animals. But the Russian Government quickly realized the capability of this company as a valuable trade facilitator; because of its far reaching outposts. It quickly grew and gained a monopoly on Russian-American trade; primarily in the fur trade. The RAC established forts and settlements in Hawaii, Alaska, California and even as far south as the Mexican Territory.

The administration we find of particular interest is the Alaska administration, where the Walrus, or Seal skin notes were issued from 1816-32. We recently had one of these Walrus Skin Notes come through the grading room and were impressed by the originality of the note. These notes are scarce and have an incredible history behind them.

Russia, Russian American Company 1816-52 1 Ruble
Graded 35 NET Choice Very Fine
Click image to enlarge

When the Russian Government still had administrative control over Alaska, in the early to mid 1800s, they needed a way to settle accounts with the hunters with whom the RAC was doing business, and also provide money to the employees of the settlements that the RAC was establishing. These notes, or tokens, could be exchanged in RAC stores for general goods and services, but not for items such as alcohol.

Since parchment and cotton were expensive imports, and seals and walruses were plentiful, this seemed the obvious choice. In fact, otter skins were shipped in waterproof walrus or seal skin bags, and these bags were often recycled into tokens that we see today. The notes were different size, shape and color according to their denomination (10, 25, 50 Kopeks and 1, 5, 10, 25 Rubles).

When the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Government in 1867, the RAC ceased operations.

To learn more about these interesting notes refer to Randolph Zandler’s 48 page 1996 report The Alaskan Parchment Scrip of the Russian American Company 1816-1867. To any collector interested Russian-American affairs, this would be a wonderful addition to their collection.

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