The Atkinsons and Andrew White, the founder of Cornell University

It has been known for some time that the great American educator Andrew Dickson White, the founder of Cornell University in America, met the Atkinsons during a six-month stay in St Petersburg that began at the end of October 1854. As a young man White obtained what we would probably call an ‘internship’ at the US Embassy there, helping with translations, as none of the permanent staff could speak or read Russian or French. The Atkinsons had been in the town since December the previous year, having spent six years travelling in Siberia and Central Asia.

Recalling those days in St Petersburg, White wrote in his autobiography:

“As to Russian matters, it was my good fortune to become intimately acquainted with Atkinson, the British traveler in Siberia. He had brought back many portfolios of sketches, and his charming wife had treasured up a great fund of anecdotes of people and adventure, so that I seemed for a time to know Siberia as if I had lived there. Then it was that I learned of the beauties and capabilities of its southern provinces. The Atkinsons had also brought back their only child, a son born on the Siberian steppe, a wonderfully bright youngster, whom they destined for the British navy. He bore a name which I fear may at times have proved a burden to him, for his father and mother were so delighted with the place in which he was born that they called him, after it, Alatow-Tam Chiboulak.”[i]

A photograph of Andrew Dickson White in 1885

Now I have been able to find further comments by White about the Atkinsons, published in his diaries and letters.[ii] Although there are only a handful of comments that mention Thomas Atkinson, they add several important points to our knowledge of the explorer and artist. In a letter to his mother, written on 7 December 1854, White was clearly referring to Atkinson when he wrote:
There are some very fine English people here and to meet them freely is no small pleasure. We have quite often at dinner a finely educated English gentleman who has devoted the best part of his life to travelling in Asia especially in Siberia and Tartary. He is now employed on a great work on Siberia under patronage of government. It was his conversation last Sunday evening which caused me to be so unfilial as to put off writing.[iii]

What he meant by “under patronage of government” is unclear. White had already noted Atkinson’s presence in his diary. On 1st November, the day after he arrived in St Petersburg, he went to the US legation to meet the staff, including the ambassador, Governor Seymour, who showed him around. “While asking me a thousand questions, he showed me all over his house, pointed out my room, etc, etc. Everything was capitally arranged for my reception. Afterward rode out with him and called upon Mr Atkinson, author of work on Siberia, and Mr _____, the artist.

A few weeks later, on Sunday 12th November, White noted he had the company of Mr Evans and Mr Atkinson at his home, with Thomas staying for tea and dinner: “He gave very curious accounts of his travels in Siberia and China. Prisoners, political, in the former country not treated in some cases with great severity—offenders, ‘princes’ of 1827 thereabouts—though in the mines for the first two years, now live in grand style. Chinese better people than we generally think…”.

Atkinson was clearly referring to Prince Sergei Troubetskoi and Prince Sergei Volkonsky, both of whom had been exiled to eastern Siberia for their parts in the Decembrist uprising and both of whom he had met and become friends with in Irkutsk.

On New Year’s eve 1854 White had Atkinson to dinner before heading off to a concert in aid of the wounded of Sebastopol – presumably Thomas did not attend that event.

Six week later, on 16th February 1855 White made his first mention of Lucy and Alatau, the Atkinsons’ son: “In the morning to Mrs Atkinson’s to coffee. Thence with young Tartar Alaton Tamchibolak to the booths of the Isak plain.[iv] The battle between the Turks and Russians, in which, of course, the Moslems came out second best. Thence we strolled through the menageries, whirling railway sledges, etc, etc. The most interesting thin by far being the crowd of mujiks in their glee at the dancing and juggling and stirring up of the animals…”.[v]

White discusses in detail the death and burial of Tsar Nicholas I and the accession of his son, Alexander II, giving detailed descriptions of the ceremonies and events in the Russian capital.

On 26th March 1855 White went in state to foreign minister Karl Nesselrode’s villa, garden and greenhouses a mile or two outside the town, where he was struck by the beauty and variety of plants on display, including rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas. Nearby was the tomb of Nicholas I. Afterwards he went to Cluzels, a bookshop, to pick up some books. He notes the following: “Curious reply of our driver. A, who talks Russian, asked him if he was hurt when the horse kicked very near him. ‘God saved me’, was the reply. So goes faith among the mujiks.” ‘A’, as explained in a footnote, was Thomas Atkinson. There has been much speculation about whether or not Thomas spoke Russian. It is clear from this comment that by 1855, after nine years in the country, he could.

On 22nd April White went to inspect the headquarters of the prestigious Cadet Corps, where he was joined by Thomas Atkinson “and we commenced our tour about the immense institution in which are educated for the army boys of all ages.” They saw the rooms of Peter the Great, the collection of antiquities and medals, the dormitories and the classrooms. “Afterward to lunch at Mr Atkinson’s and received present of malachite Easter eggs…”. Presumably Thomas had picked these up during his travels in the Urals, where the malachite was mined. On Sunday 6th May White walked into town and went afterwards to the Atkinson’s home on Vasily Ostrov.

After a quick journey to Moscow, White was ready to leave Russia, which he did by the end of the month. Clearly he had enjoyed his encounter with the Atkinson, particularly with Alatau. According to an article in The Hawaiian Star, White had tried in later life to get in touch with Alatau: “For about fifty years Dr White had tried to find [Alatau] but without result…The rumour was that the young fellow had gone into the navy in after years and so Dr White often but vainly enquired after him at British naval depots…”.[vi] In fact the two men did finally get in touch with each other, probably sometime after 1900.[vii]


i] Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography, Vol 1, Dodo Press, p374.

[ii] Robert Morris Ogden (ed.), The Diaries of Andrew D White, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, 1958.

[iii] See Cornell University archives,

[iv] Appears to be a reference to some kind of funfair.

[v] Ogden, op. cit., pp53-4.

[vi] The Hawaiian Star, 9 December 1911.

[vii] As explained in a footnote in White’s autobiography: “Since writing the above, I have had the pleasure of receiving a letter from this gentleman, who has for some time held the responsible and interesting position of superintendent of public instruction in the Hawaiian Islands, his son, a graduate of the University of Michigan, having been Secretary of the Territory.” White, op. cit. The reference to Alatau’ son, is to ALC Atkinson, known as Jack, his eldest son.

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