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Researchers locate site of Tlingit battle fort that symbolized resistance to colonization over 200 years ago

Over 200 years ago, the Tlingit clan clashed with Russians, battling over a slice of land that now falls within the Sitka National Historical Park. Since then, the exact location of a fort that served as the focal point of the battle has been a mystery.

Researchers said this week that the fort’s location has now been pinpointed.

In a report published Monday in the archaeological journal Antiquity, researchers Thomas Urban and Brinnen Carter detailed their research into the site, which is a symbol of Tlingit resistance to colonialization.

The K'alyaan Pole commemorates the pivotal Battle of 1804. It stands in the Sitka National Historic Park. (National Park Service photo)

In 1802, a dispute between Russians and the Tlingit community broke out and ended with Russians leaving the area, according to the National Park Service. A respected tribal shaman predicted the Russians would return and urged the Tlingit clans to unite and build a fort.

The Shís’gi Noow, or Sapling Fort, was constructed near the mouth of the Indian River near shallow tidelands to provide defense from ship-based attacks, the park service wrote. The Russians invaded the area again in fall 1804. After days of attacks from both parties, the Tlingit eventually ran short on gunpowder and began a tactical withdrawal. The Russian forces destroyed the fort.

The battle in 1804 marked the last major armed conflict between Alaska Natives and Russians. Tlingit clans returned to the area in 1822. Russia had a stronghold on the area until the sale of Alaska in 1867 to America for $7 million, the park service said.

Urban, who is a research scientist at Cornell University, has collaborated with the National Park Service in Alaska for about the last decade, he said by email Thursday. He said the Sitka National Historical Park invited him to research this project.

The fort’s exact location was lost after the battle and several previous archaeological investigations were contested or inconclusive, the study said. The National Park Service designated a probable location in a forested clearing, but some believed it may have been in a different location.

The Indian River estuary enters Sitka Sound in Jamestown Bay. (National Park Service photo)

“The fort’s definitive physical location had eluded investigators for a century,” the study said. “Previous archaeological digs had found some suggestive clues, but they never really found conclusive evidence that tied these clues together.”

Urban said it took roughly two weeks in fall 2019 to pinpoint the location. Researchers used geophysical instruments to scour the grounds for differences in electrical or magnetic properties. According to the study, this was the largest archaeological geophysical survey in Alaska.

“Many archaeological features will have different (electrical and magnetic) properties than the surrounding ground, often allowing a distinction to be made,” Urban said by email.

The technology detected a distinctive pattern similar to historic descriptions of the fort at the clearing and ruled out alternative locations.

“We therefore believe that the geophysical survey has yielded the only convincing, multi-method evidence to date for the location of the sapling fort — a significant cultural resource in New World colonial history, and an important cultural symbol of Tlingit resistance to colonisation,” the study said.

At the site of the fort, a 35-foot K’alyaan Pole stands as a memorial to the Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan and other Tlingit ancestors who died during the battle, the park service wrote. The totem pole has been there since 1999 as a way to continue telling the Tlingit story.

“Using technology to connect with and confirm oral histories about the battle is of interest to the community and gives a reason to retell this fascinating story,” Urban said.