Along the southeastern coast of Alaska, archaeologists have discovered the site of a long-lost fort used by Indigenous people as a last wall of defense against colonization from Russia 200 years ago.
The fort can scarcely be seen today with the naked eye, but it was recently revealed by a team of archaeologists from Cornell University and the US National Park Service using cutting-edge geophysical imaging techniques and ground-penetrating radar. Their findings were recently reported in the journal Antiquity.
The fort was built by the Tlingit Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America on a peninsula in modern-day Sitka, Alaska, and is still an important cultural symbol of their resistance to colonization In 1799, when the Russian Empire sent a small army to take over Alaska to exploit the region’s resources, namely animal fur, and to compete with other European colonial powers.
The initial conquest was not as straightforward as Russia had hoped, however. The Tlingit successfully defeated the Russian invaders in 1802 and expelled them from Alaska. Realizing this was unlikely to be the last they’d see of them, the Tlingit built the fort near the mouth of the Kaasdaheen, now known as Indian River, and armed themselves with guns, cannons, and gunpowder bought from British-American traders. It became known as Shís’gi Noow, meaning “sapling fort” in the Tlingit language.
By 1804, the Russians were back. Despite some success at defending Shís’gi Noow, gunpowder started to dwindle and the Tlingit elders decided to abandon the fort. The Russians destroyed the empty fort, but not before drawing a sketch of the site that documents its dimensions.
This illustration would prove very useful to those attempting to rediscover the fort centuries later. Armed with an approximate location, this new project carried out a geophysical survey of the area and discovered the subtle presence of an unusual shape, a fort-like structure in the ground. The Russia sketch was then used to confirm the archaeologists’ suspicions that this was the long-lost site of Shís’gi Noow.
“The fort’s definitive physical location had eluded investigators for a century,” Thomas Urban, study author and research scientist at Cornell, said in an emailed press release. Previous investigations had offered up some tantalizing clues, but there wasn't enough conclusive evidence.
“We believe this survey has yielded the only convincing, multi-method evidence to date for the location of the sapling fort, which is a significant locus in New World colonial history and an important cultural symbol of Tlingit resistance to colonization,” Urban said.
Many chapters of the Indigenous history of Alaska and North America have been lost in recent centuries, but modern science has had some success at finding new stories and affirming long-held wisdom about this important time in human history. Earlier this week, researchers published a study that suggests some of the first people to enter North America likely brought their dogs along with them from Siberia.