During its first comprehensive inventory for archeological resources, Sitka National Historical Park in Alaska discovered the location of the Tlingit fort built to prepare for battle with the Russian colonists. Materials from the Battle of Sitka in 1804 include several cannon balls and musket balls. The inventory team used metal detectors and other geophysical methods in addition to other survey techniques to identify the fort site and areas that will receive further investigation.
Russian efforts to establish a colony in North America have left an indelible impression on the community of Sitka, Alaska. Between 1741 and 1867, the Russian Imperial Government colonized Alaska with a focus on economic enterprise. Colonization efforts were carried out first by independent Siberian fur traders known as promyshlenniki. Fur traders’ success led to the charter, in 1799, of the Russian American Company, a commercial fur company that was granted a far-reaching monopoly in Alaska. For 68 years, the Russian American Company expanded and developed imperial Russia’s colonial interests in North America. This empire briefly extended as far as California and Hawaii, but the principle colony was Novo Archangel’sk, known today as Sitka.
Sitka National Historical Park, located near the community of Sitka, is the only park in the National Park System that focuses on the story of colonial Russian America. It preserves the site of the 1804 Battle of Sitka, fought between the Russians and the Kiks.ádi Tlingit.
The Battle of 1804
The Battle of Sitka is one chapter in the story of Kiks.ádi Tlingit resistance to Russian colonization. In 1802, Tlingit warriors successfully attacked the Russian fort at Starrigavin Bay. Killing or driving off the inhabitants of the fort, they destroyed the buildings and a ship that was being built. Survivors fled to Kodiak Island, and notified Alexandr Baranov, Chief Manager of the Shelikov-Golikov Company (a fore-runner of the Russian American Company) of the attack.
Anticipating retaliation, the Kiks.ádi constructed a unique, palisaded fort known as Shish’k’i Noow (Green Wood or Sapling Fort), at the mouth of Indian River. According to Urey Lisiansky, Captain of the Russian ship Neva, “The fort was an irregular square, its longest side looking toward the sea. It was constructed of wood, so thick and strong, that the shot from my guns could not penetrate it at the short distance of a cable’s length.”
The fort was attacked by Russian forces and a naval escort, led by Baranov, in early October 1804. Although the Kiks.ádi, led by K’alyaan, repulsed a ground attack, the defenders concluded that ammunition and reinforcements were inadequate to hold the fort in the face of extensive cannon fire from the Russian ships, including the 350 ton Neva. (A memorial established by the Russians for the sailors and midshipman who died during the battle and a collection of totem poles brought to the park in 1906 are also part of the park’s enabling legislation. The 1843 Russian Bishop’s House was added to the park in 1972. Since 1969, the park has also been home to the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, one of Alaska's oldest Native arts and cultural organizations.) Under cover of darkness, the Kiks.ádi withdrew from the fort and the island, and established a new settlement at Peril Strait.