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'Lost' Indigenous fort built to repel Russia rediscovered in Alaska

NBC News logo NBC News 1/25/2021 Tom Metcalfe
a column in a forest © Provided by NBC News

Archaeologists have discovered traces of a 200-year-old wooden fort in southeastern Alaska built by Indigenous people to resist an invasion by Imperial Russia.

The discovery confirms the events of the 1804 invasion by Russia, which went on to govern parts of Alaska as a colony for 60 years until 1867, when it was purchased by the United States.

It’s also of cultural importance to the indigenous Tlingit people, and especially to those of the Kiks.adi, or Frog clan, whose ancestors defended the fort near the town of Sitka on Baranof Island in what's known as the Alaskan Panhandle, and who now regard it as a symbol of their resistance to colonialism.

“The fort’s definitive physical location had eluded investigators for a century,” said Cornell University archaeologist Thomas Urban, a co-author of a study published Monday in the journal Antiquity that detailed the discovery.

Decades of searching had turned up only clues, and archaeologists debated whether the fort was really sited near a forest clearing in the Sitka National Historical Park said to approximate its location, he said.

A detailed archaeological survey by Urban, however, has revealed electromagnetic anomalies and ground-penetrating radar signals around the clearing show the distinctive shape of the “sapling fort” – "Shiskinoow" in the Tlingit language – but not at proposed alternative sites.

diagram, engineering drawing: The © National Park Service The

“The area of the fort was larger than the area of the clearing,” he said. “As such, the detected fort perimeter is in the forest that surrounds the clearing.”

The discovery matches both Tlingit and Russian accounts of the Battle of Sitka in 1804, said co-author Brinnen Carter, an archaeologist at the U.S. National Park Service who was stationed at Sitka during the survey.

Although the Tlingit had occupied the region for about 11,000 years, Russia established a settlement in 1799 at Old Sitka, about seven miles north of the modern town, to profit from a lucrative trade in sea-otter pelts, he said.

In 1802, following disputes with the Tlingit, that settlement was destroyed and the Russians were repelled.

They returned in 1804 to invade the region with up to 1,500 attackers – some of them Russian sailors, and some warriors from the Aleutian Islands – but found the Kiks.adihad built the “sapling fort” to resist them beside a river mouth, Carter said.

The fort was strategically situated behind tidal flats and out of range of the Russian naval guns; it was surrounded by thick walls of alder saplings in a trapezoidal shape about 240 feet long and 165 feet wide.

The invading Russians estimated the fort was defended by at least 800 men, and Tlingit histories record that Kiks.adi women fought there, as well. The defenders were armed with guns and cannons they had purchased from British and American traders.

map: Electromagnetic anomalies, in color, and ground-penetrating radar signals, inset in gray, match the distinctive shape of the © Courtesy Thomas Urban Electromagnetic anomalies, in color, and ground-penetrating radar signals, inset in gray, match the distinctive shape of the

According to Tlingit accounts, the Kiks.adi suffered an early loss when a canoe bringing their reserves of gunpowder to the fort was hit by a Russian gun and exploded, killing many of their leading warriors.

But they nevertheless held out against the fierce Russian attacks on Shiskinoow for several days, in part, thanks to the strength of their fortifications.

“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],” Yuri Lisyansky, the captain of the Russian warship Neva, recorded at the time.

Ultimately, running short of gunpowder, the Kiks.adi decided they could not continue to defend the fort; so they abandoned it and embarked on a “survival march” across the island – a grueling trek fatal for many and still recalled in oral histories, Sitka Tribal Council member Louise Brady said.

The Kiks.adi later returned to the area and made a treaty with the Russians, allowing them to trade at Sitka but restricting them to settlements along the coast, she said.

The agreement influenced the subsequent indigenous legal claims against the United States, which purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. The Tlingit argued that the whole of Alaska was not Russia’s to sell, but only their coastal settlements, Brady said.

a group of people sitting around a dog: The Kiks.adi defenders of the © Louis S. Glanzman The Kiks.adi defenders of the

Those claims culminated in a $1 billion settlement by the government in favor of indigenous people under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which remains the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history.

Brady, a member of the Kiks.adi clan and the lead ranger at the Sitka National Historical Park, said the story of Shiskinoow remained an important part of local oral histories, while the fort site itself in the foreshore forest is a place of remembrance – a status confirmed by the latest scientific finding.

“It’s a very sacred place,” she said. “You have the river there, there are lots of eagles, there are ravens … it is incredibly beautiful.”

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