The Indigenous Tlingit people had occupied the area for 11,000 years. So when colonialist Russian forces moved in, the Tlingit weren't going to give up without a fight.
Neither sleet nor snow could stop resilient archaeologists in Alaska from making the discovery of a lifetime. According to NBC News, researchers on Baranof Island have just unearthed the remnants of a 200-year-old Indigenous fort used as a defensive base against the Russian invasion of 1804.
According to Archaeology, this trapezoidal fort measured about 240 in length and 165 feet in width. A defensive “sapling fort” (or Shiskinoow), it was built by the Tlingit and Kiks.adi people in their battle against colonialist Russian forces.
The remarkable find has finally quashed any doubts that this historic site actually existed. According to the new study published in the journal Antiquity, scholars have tried to pinpoint the fort’s exact location for about 100 years, with nary a trace ever found. For decades, experts had only uncovered vague and circumstantial evidence of its existence.
While archaeologists like study co-author Thomas Urban of Cornell University are relieved at this long-overdue discovery, the greatest catharsis is surely that of the local Indigenous Peoples. From the Tlingit people to the Kiks.adi, or Frog clan, the fort’s discovery has become a powerful reminder of their ancestors’ resistance against foreign invaders.
As for scholars like Urban, locating the site in the first place had long since started to feel like a fool’s errand. But Urban paid no mind to the skeptics and instead executed a finely-tuned archaeological survey of the area where the fort was believed to be located. At last, in a clearing at Sitka National Historical Park, his ground-penetrating radar found electromagnetic anomalies below — revealing the fort.
The fort’s discovery provides a window into a pivotal yet often overlooked period in Alaskan history. Much of what is now Alaska was under Russian control until the United States purchased the area in 1867. While the Russians ruled the area, the Indigenous populations put up a harsh fight against this aggressive colonialism.
Conflicts began soon after Russian fur traders set up shop in the area in 1799. Three years later, the Tlingit people destroyed the Russian settlement, known as Old Sitka. The Russians soon went back home, defeated — only to return in 1804.
Determined to secure trade settlements in the area once and for all, the Russians came back with 1,500 men in tow. Unfortunately for them, the Tlingit had purchased hundreds of guns and cannons from British and American traders during their absence. They had also built a fort, now manned by 800 Kiks.adi members.
In building the fort, strategic positioning was imperative. There was no telling how many attackers would be coming back, or what weaponry they would be employing. As such, the Indigenous groups built their structure behind tidal flats, and ensured that it was not within range of Russia’s naval artillery.
To fortify the structure itself, they used thick alder saplings on the outside walls. All of these preparations proved to be essential when the Russians returned and the battle began.
“It was constructed of wood so thick and strong the shot from my guns could not penetrate at the short distance of a cable’s length [between 600 and 720 feet],” wrote Yuri Lisyansky, who served as captain of Russia’s Neva warship, at the time.
The bloody conflict ultimately took days to come to an end, and only concluded when the Indigenous groups ran out of gunpowder and fled inland. In the end, the Tlingit agreed to let the invading horde post up along the coast and trade their sea-otter pelts — in a treaty which saw the newly-uncovered fort quickly become largely useless.
But the entire treaty itself became useless when Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. The Tlingit had occupied this area for 11,000 years, and suddenly saw the entire region sold off to America by the Russians — who only owned certain coastal areas in the first place.
In the end, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 saw the U.S. dole out almost $1 billion to the land’s original inhabitants. It’s still the largest land claims settlement in American history.
But much of the Alaskan history in question has long been shrouded in uncertainty. As long as the Sitka fort remained undiscovered, a piece of the story about the Russian invasion was always going to be missing.
Today, however, not only are the legends confirmed, but those whose ancestors fought in the bloody battle of 1804 now have a monument to the sacrifices of their forebears.