Mon. Sep 26th, 2022
Color illustration of a log fortress with buildings within the walls
enlarge This interpretive sign on the supposed “fort-clearing” includes a reconstruction of what the fort probably looked like in 1804.

In 1804, Tlingit warriors hid behind the walls of a wooden fortress on a peninsula in southeastern Alaska, preparing to repel a Russian amphibious assault. An archaeological survey near the modern community of Sitka recently revealed the hidden outline of the now legendary fortress, the exact location of which had been lost to history since shortly after the battle.

The coolest battle you’ve never heard of

The Tlingit had already bagged Russia once, in 1802, after three years of mounting tensions over the Russian-American trading company (a venture akin to the more famous British East India Company), which had a presence on what is now called Baranof Island. Believing that the Russian troops would soon be back in greater numbers, the Tlingit elders – especially a shaman named Stoonook – organized the construction of a fortress at the mouth of the Kaasdaheen River to help defend the area against attacks from the sea. .

By 1804, the Tlingit had purchased firearms, shot, gunpowder, and even cannons from American and British merchants. They had also built a trapezoidal stockade, 75 meters long and 30 meters wide, of young spruce trunks, sheltering more than a dozen log cabins. The Tlingit called it Shis’gi Noow – the Sapling Fort.

The Tlingit had built fortifications earlier; in 1799, the Russians established their trading post practically in the shadow of a hilltop fortress called Noow Tlein, or Big Fort. But this time, Stoonook and his people had designed their fortress specifically to counter the threat of naval guns.

“This fort is unlike other forts in Tlingit and may have been modified in response to an anticipated naval attack,” Cornell University archaeologist Thomas Urban told Ars. The log palisade had to be sturdy enough to deflect cannon projectiles, and the odd trapezoidal shape was “probably a function of the expected directions of naval gunfire, but not sure,” Urban said.

Lead vs. Wood

When the Russian war sloop (a small warship) Neva arrived in September 1804, the ship’s guns couldn’t even make a dent in the sturdy wooden stockade. (To be fair to the Russians, a war sloop has relatively little impact.) “It was made of wood, so thick and strong that the shot from my guns could not penetrate it at the short range of the length of a cable ( about 185 meters),” wrote Lt. cmdr. Yuri Feodorovich Lisyansky, Neva‘s commander.

The Russians sent 150 men ashore, mostly Aleut warriors fighting for their Russian allies. But the landing force faced a hail of gunfire and a clever two-pronged attack by the Tlingit. While half of the Tlingit troops emerged from the fortress to attack the enemy head on, the other half waited in the forest to attack the unprotected flank of the Russians and Aleuts. The would-be invaders hit a disorganized retreat back to… Neva under the dubious cover of the sloop’s guns.

For modern Tlingit, “the fortress is a cultural symbol of resistance to colonization, and the site is considered sacred by many members of the community,” Urban told Ars. But for the last 200 years, only the approximate location is known. A recent geophysical survey of the peninsula revealed the ghostly outline of the fortress, long hidden underground.

Historic Fort Lost and Found

Urban and his colleagues used ground-penetrating radar and a technique called electromagnetic induction, which measures differences in how the soil conducts an electrical current, to search a 17-acre stretch of the Alaskan coast for traces of the past. Both investigations revealed the buried foundations of trapezoidal walls about 75 meters long and 30 meters wide, just as the fortress described in Tlingit oral history and Russian writings. It could just be the Sapling Fort.

“The location and protection of the fortress and wider battlefield has long been of great importance to the Sheetka Kwaan Tlingit, especially those of the Kiks.adi clan,” Urban and his colleagues wrote. The Kiks.adi clan built and defended the Sapling Fort under the leadership of war leader Ḵ’alyaan.

Archaeologists have been trying to pinpoint the exact location of the Sapling Fort since 1910, when then-President William Taft declared the site a national monument (now Sitka National Historic Park). Conclusive clues to the location of the fortress have been found in several excavations, such as cannonballs and possible fragments of buried walls. With the evidence available, the National Park Service could only point to a cleared area on the otherwise forested peninsula. Meanwhile, archaeologists and historians continued to suggest alternative sites for the fortress.

The recent geophysical survey appears to have resolved the issue. It agrees well with the results of a 1958 survey that claimed to have excavated portions of the southern and western walls of Sapling Fort. Electromagnetic induction also found some buried metal debris in the northwest corner of the fort, near where a previous investigation had found cannonballs.

A symbol of resistance

But why was the fortress lost for 200 years? The Russians burned it to the ground a few days after the Tlingit repulsed their amphibious assault.

The Tlingit had hidden their stash of gunpowder across Sitka Sound, perhaps to keep the fortress from accidentally blowing up if a stray cannonball landed in the wrong place. Early in the siege, a Russian cannon sank the Tlingit canoe and returned to Sapling Fort with a load of powder. The resulting explosion cut off the Tlingit powder supply, killing a respected elder and several high-ranking young members of the Kiks.adi clan.

Despite the setback, the Tlingit held back the advance of Russia and Aleut for several more days. The delaying action gave the clan’s citizens time to flee to safer (and less contested) territory. In what is now called the Sitka Kiks.ádi Survival March, the women and children trekked north across Baranof Island, then rowed canoes across a strait to Chichagof Island (both islands are now part of the modern Alaskan town of Sitka). ).

Meanwhile, the fort’s defenders even managed to make a stealthy, organized retreat under cover of darkness to form a rearguard for the fleeing Tlingit civilians. The next morning, a few days after the first landing, Cmdr. Lisyansky and his Aleut allies entered the empty fortress. They sketched it out in detail before burning it to the ground.

“Maybe the battle could have gone in a different direction” [if the Tlingit hadn’t run out of gunpowder]’ Urban tells Ars. “But in the end, Russia had more resources to wage war, so a different outcome of the battle didn’t necessarily mean a different outcome in the long run.”


But the people of the Kiks.adi clan had accomplished no small feat; they’d bloodied the invaders, held them back for a few days, and brought the clan’s people to safety—all without the help of other clans whose alliance they’d been asking for for two years. The Battle of Sitka, as it is known today, is a proud piece of history for the modern Tlingit.

“Tribal members are constantly engaged and interested in archaeological work in the park, and representatives of the Sitka tribe of Alaska have responded positively to the new findings,” Urban and his colleagues wrote.

Antiquity, 2021 DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.241 (About DOIs).

List image by Lisyanski 1804

By akfire1

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