Cannon fire boomed across shallow tidal flats separating the Russian frigate Neva and the thick-walled Tlingit fort Shís’gi Noow (Sapling Fort). Inside, over 1,000 Tlingits prepared for a Russian ground assault. It was 1804 and Alexander Baranov, chief manager of the Russian-American Company, had returned to Sitka Sound to reestablish the newest Russian colony on the northwest coast, eventually to become Novoarkhangel’sk (New Archangel or Sitka), the capital of Russian America. This battle was one of the most historically significant events of Russia’s New World colonization and Alaska Native resistance.
Until 2019 however, the Tlingit fort’s exact location was unknown. Modern archeological techniques used in a survey by Thomas Urban of Cornell University and Brinnen Carter from the National Park Service reveal the true location of the fort in Sitka and bring to life the battle of 1804.
In 1799, spurred on by European competition over Alaska’s lucrative sea otter pelt industry, Russia sent Baranov to establish a trading post on Sitka Sound. Three years later, however, in response to Russia’s contempt and disrespect, the Tlingit Kiks.adi clan overran and burned the settlement. This destroyed Russia’s southernmost colony and claim to southeast Alaska’s otters. Certain that Baranov would return for retribution, the Kiks.adi constructed a fort intended to withstand naval fire. Built in a 240-foot by 165-foot trapezoidal shape, the fort featured a thick palisade wall surrounding 14 buildings.
In 1804, Baranov returned to Sitka Sound to reestablish Russian control, found a new Russian capital, and avenge those killed during the Tlingit raid. The battle of 1804 lasted four days and included a ground assault which the Tlingit rebuffed, unsuccessful negotiations, and daily cannon fire. Finally, on the fourth night of battle with gunpowder running low, the Tlingit strategically withdrew from Shís’gi Noow. The next day, the Russians entered the empty fort and destroyed it. A Russian drawing and first-person accounts as well as Tlingit oral history were all that remained as clues for archeologists to uncover the fort’s location.
Sitka National Monument (later redesignated a National Historical Park) was established in 1910 to commemorate the battle, preserve Russian colonial history, and honor the area’s Tlingit heritage. Over time, archeological investigations uncovered cannon balls, shot, and iron artifacts.
The park service set aside a clearing near the tidal flats in Sitka as a possible fort location. The precise site, however, remained a mystery for over a century.
Building upon past surveys and armed with modern remote-sensing technology, Urban and Carter embarked upon the largest archeology geophysical survey ever undertaken in Alaska to definitively pinpoint the fort’s location. Their survey covered 42 acres, an area large enough to rule out all alternative locations within the park. Urban walked through the forest and clearings with electromagnetic induction and ground penetrating radar instruments—a difficult task given the abundance of trees and shrubs.
“The instruments detect differences in electromagnetic properties due to the presence of material that contrasts with the surrounding soil (such as wood) or some alteration to that soil like digging, compacting, or burning,” says Urban. “These materials cause variations in electrical and magnetic properties that can be sensed by our instruments.” The results reveal an anomalous pattern that matches the known shape and dimensions of the fort.
Today the park rings with birdsong and pattering rain, but the sound of cannons still echoes in the past. “The fort’s discovery is a great opportunity to educate the public,” says Urban. “Worldwide, millions of people now know about the 1804 battle.” Beneath the trails, grass, and sprawling spruce roots, battle remnants rest as a tangible reminder of a time when history turned on gunpowder and cannon fire at Shís’gi Noow.