I am sorry to announce that social distancing restrictions mean the launch of my new book Travellers in the Great Steppe, due to be held at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 1st July, has been postponed until September. If restrictions remain in place the event may take place as a virtual launch. I will let you know as soon as I hear any further details.
One unforeseen consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown is that it has given many of us the opportunity to do the little jobs we have all been meaning to do for years. Such was the case with Paul Dahlquist who lives on Big Island in Hawaii. Paul, who is a direct descendant of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, decided it was time to go through some old papers. “With all the time I have had on my hands, I have been rummaging through a box containing family letters from at least the 1920ʻs to the 1970’s,” he tells me.
Imagine his surprise when he came across a scribbled note and three metal buttons. The note reads:
“Gun metal (Russian) cuff buttons, or studs, given to the Revd. Canon Alexander Mackintosh of St. Andrewʻs Cathedral, Honolulu, by Alatau T. Atkinson, Esq of Pauoa Road. The buttons belonged to Mr. Atkinsonʻs father the famous traveller. So it is fitting that the son of Helen Dahlquist, being the 5th generation, should possess the buttons. Canon Mackintosh landed in Honolulu for 1st time with Mr. & Mrs. Atkinson & carried Zoe on shore!”
The note describing the buttons left to Paul Dahlquist
Paul adds: “I don’t know who wrote the note but think it might have been not long after I was born in December 1940, perhaps at my Christening, but there is no mention of the buttons in a list of attendees, gifts given, and the food for that august event. The really important fact is they once belonged to TWA. And I didn’t even know we had them. There are 3 buttons, two look like cuff links to me but Iʻm not sure as they have an unusual, to me, clasp. The third is larger and has a fastener like a pin, so I don’t know what that might have been.”
The silver buttons, two of which have been converted into earrings.
From what we can gather from the note, it would appear that Thomas and Lucy’s son Alatau Atkinson, gave the buttons to Alexander Mackintosh, the canon of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Honolulu. Mackintosh had travelled to Hawaii in 1869 with the Atkinsons and, according to the note, had carried their daughter Zoe ashore in Honolulu. The two men were clearly very close friends. Alatau played the organ at St Andrews and was a regular churchgoer.
Alexander Mackintosh died in 1930, but it would appear that one of his descendants decided to return them to the Atkinson family a decade later and presented them at Paul’s christening in 1940.
The Revd. Canon Alexander Mackintosh surrounded by his family in Hawaii.
As for the buttons, rather than being Russian military buttons, they look very similar to buttons that were made of silver and decorated with niello in the Central Asian steppes and were highly prized. Most nomadic clothing did not include buttons, but they were widely used to decorate the elaborate headdresses of women. In fact, the traveller John Castle, writing in the 1730s, tells how all his buttons were snipped from his clothing by the women in the yurts in which he stayed with members of the Junior horde of the Kazakhs.
Kazakh silver buttons similar to those once owned by Thomas Atkinson
Two of the buttons rediscovered by Paul have been converted into earrings, while the other has a simple pin. They join the small group of artefacts, including a samovar, a pair of acquamarine earrings, a penknife, some letter seals and various other objects that have survived within the family for more than 170 years. Who knows what else will turn up!