In 1802, after years of unhappy relations with Imperial Russian fur seekers in Southeast Alaska, the local Tlingit attacked the Russian settlement at Sitka. Catching the inhabitants unaware on a June afternoon, the Tlingit burned the fort and the houses around it, took the sea otter pelts stored there, and killed or captured nearly all the settlement’s Russians and Aleut hunters. A handful of survivors were eventually rescued by the crew of the British ship Unicorn.
A few weeks later, when the Unicorn arrived in Kodiak, the ship’s master demanded a ransom for the Sitka escapees to Alexander Baranov, the Russian Alaska governor. Baranov paid, reluctantly, and then put his mind to the recapture of Sitka.
The Tlingit, meanwhile, fully expecting the Russians to return to Sitka in force, spent the next two years building a massive fort of their own just above a shallow beach at the mouth of the Indian River, a few miles from Sitka. They called the stronghold Shísgi Noow, or the “Fort of Young Saplings,” and chose the site in the hope that the shallow water beach would prevent the inevitable Russian warships from getting within close cannon range.
The Tlingit planned to hunker down in the fort until the Russians ran out of cannonballs and went back to Kodiak, after which the Tlingit could get on with their lives in the wild coastal rainforest they had inhabited for 11,000 years.
In Kodiak, Baranov was hoping for a different outcome to the unavoidable battle, and gathered the forces and materiel necessary to prevail in Sitka. But while Baranov had hundreds of Russian and Alutiiq fur hunters and baidarkas, and two or three small sailing vessels, he lacked the seagoing firepower, namely cannons, which would give him a decisive advantage.
In September 1804 he decided to head for Sitka anyway, with the forces he had. But then, in an extraordinary and unexpected stroke of fortune, a state-of-the-art Russian warship, the Neva, arrived in Kodiak.
The Neva, under the command of Lt. Comm. Yuri Fyodorovich Lisianski and served by 50 sailors, was 110 feet long and carried 14 cannons. For her time, she was a serious piece of military hardware. She had sailed from the Baltic Sea port of Kronstadt two years before with another Russian warship, the Nedezhda, on a round-the-world Russian flag waving exercise.
The two ships had parted ways in Hawaii — the Nadezhda sailing for Japan and the Neva for Kodiak.
Baranov had no trouble enlisting Lisianski in his plans to recapture Sitka, and by late September 1804, Baranov, the Neva, three other smaller armed sailing vessels, 150 fur hunters, and 500 Alutiiq in 150 baidarkas were in Sitka harbor, seeking a conversation with the Tlingit about the events of 1802.
The Russians went ashore at the Tlingit winter village, some distance from their “Fort of Young Saplings,” and tried to negotiate a return of their burned out fort in Sitka. The Tlingit rejected the Russian offers but kept the conversation going, hoping to distract the Russians long enough to move their people from their winter village, and their arms and gunpowder from a nearby island storage site, to their newly built fort.
In a serious miscalculation however, the Tlingit chose to retrieve their gunpowder in broad daylight. The Russians sighted them, opened fire, and hit the canoe carrying the Tlingit’s gunpowder, which went off in a terrific explosion. When the smoke cleared and the wood chips stopped falling out of the sky, the canoe and its cargo were gone, and with it a number of high-ranking warriors.
By this time the Russians were well aware of the Tlingit fort and, around Oct. 1, Baranov ordered his fleet of Alutiiq baidarkas to tow the Neva from its anchorage in Kristof Sound to the mouth of the Indian River. The Russians then stormed ashore with 150 men, Baranov at the front, but were met with a lively volley of gunfire from the fort.
The Russians fell back down the beach, chased by a fury of Tlingit fighters and the Tlingit war leader K’alyaan, swinging a blacksmith’s hammer. A second band of Tlingit swooped out of the forest further down the beach, catching the Russians in a classic pincer movement. Baranov and a dozen other Russians were hit by Tlingit musket fire as they tried to run between the bullets to their boats.
At that critical moment, however, just before the Russians were overrun and massacred, the Neva opened fire. Cannonballs careened and bounced across the beach, taking off the limbs and heads of a number of Tlingit and chasing the rest into the trees at the top of the beach.
The Russians abandoned several small cannons they had come ashore with, but they made it into their boats and rowed enthusiastically back to their ships, their dead and wounded lying in the bilges. As the sun went down, the Tlingit celebrated in their fort, counting the day a success.
In the morning, with Baranov alive but out of the fight, Lisianski took command and ordered the Neva to pound the Tlingit fort with cannon fire. By early afternoon, however, it was obvious to both sides that the cannonballs would not be leveling the logs and packed earth of the fort’s walls any time soon.
Lisianski sent a messenger ashore under a white flag, demanding the Tlingit’s immediate surrender. The Tlingit sent the Russian emissary back with their own demand that the Russians surrender, which the Russians themselves rejected. The Russians kept firing until darkness fell and they could no longer see to aim their guns.
That night the Tlingit held a war council and considered their options. While the Russian cannon fire was having no serious effect on their integrity of the fort, people inside it were being hit with splinters as the cannonballs shattered the spruce logs of the walls, and the Russians showed no signs of sailing back to Kodiak any time soon.
At the same time, the loss of much of the Tlingit gunpowder in the canoe explosion the day before severely limited their ability to persuade the Russians to leave. The Tlingit decided to make a covert retreat into the forest behind the fort and establish a stronghold deep within the further reaches of Baranof Island, beyond the reach of the Russians.
On the morning of the third day of the fight, the Russians renewed their bombardment of the front of the fort while the Tlingit evacuated their women and children out the back. Playing a delaying game again, they continued sending messengers under white flags offering various cease fire terms, all of which were rejected by the Russians.
The next day the Russians kept up the cannon fire and both sides sent truce offers back and forth between barrages. But after the sun had set and the cannon fire had stopped, the Tlingit decided to abandon the fort and held a ceremony to honor the people they had lost in their fight for their homeland. The Russians heard the drums and thought them a signal of surrender.
In the morning however, when the Russians came ashore to accept the imagined Tlingit surrender, they found the fort empty, but for the dead the Tlingit had left behind. Among the bodies were children wounded by Russian cannon fire but killed by the Tlingit themselves so the Russians would not hear their cries and track the retreating people through the forest.
Over the next few weeks, the Tlingit walked across Baranof Island, eventually crossing toChichagof Island. The Russians rebuilt their fort on “Castle Hill,” and in 1808 Alexander Baranov relocated the capital of Russian America from Kodiak to Sitka. Eventually the Tlingit and Russians reached a détente and the Tlingit returned to the area to hunt and fish.
When the Russians sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867, the Tlingit maintained that the only real estate in the Sitka area the Russians had any authority to sell was the site of the Russian fort.
The question of indigenous land ownership in Alaska was not finally settled until the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed in 1971. In 2021 the Tlingit “Fort of Young Saplings,” was rediscovered by archeologists above the beach at Indian River, in what is now Sitka National Historic Park.