Scientists plan to travel to the Aleutian Chain of Alaska this summer to see if they can find evidence of a Russian attack on the Aleut people that happened 250 years ago. They will be looking for bullets and other artifacts that would confirm stories that have been passed down for generations.
There have been many stories about the brutality of Russian fur traders and merchants upon the people of Alaska that date back to first contact in the mid-1700s. There’s also record of Alaska’s people rebelling against the Russians in other parts of the Great Land, including Southeast Alaska.
After finding a spot about six miles north of the present town of Sitka, Alexander Baranof – chief manager for the profitable and influential Russian American Company – exchanged beads and other trading goods for a small piece of Tlingit ground on which to erect a Russian settlement in 1800.
Although the inhabitants of the new trading post became less fearful of an attack from their Tlingit neighbors during the next two years, the Natives in the area remained sullen and hostile toward the Russian intruders. And by 1802, they were ready to take back their land.
That summer, while Baranof was away in Kodiak, a horde of warriors quietly crept out of the woods and climbed over the stockade at Mikhailovsk before any alarm was made.
The Russians attempted to barricade the main buildings, but the assailants broke down the doors and windows and poured into the settlement.
A hunter, who survived the massacre and destruction of the fort, later told his tale:
“In this present year 1802, about the 24th of June – I do not remember the exact date, but it was a holiday – about two o’clock in the afternoon, I went to the river to look for our calves, as I had been detailed by the commander of the fort, Vassili Medvednikof, to take care of the cattle.
“On returning soon after, I noticed at the fort a great multitude of Kolosh people, who had not only surrounded the barracks below, but were already climbing over the balcony and to the roof with guns and cannon; and standing upon a little knoll in front of the outhouses, was the Sitka toyon, or chief, Mikhail, giving orders to those who were around the barracks, and shouting to some people in canoes not far away, to make haste and assist in the fight.”
The Tlingits soon slaughtered the males within the settlement and carried the women and children away as slaves. After emptying out the buildings, they set fire to the compound and retreated back into the woods and their villages.
The hunter spent eight days hiding in the woods until he spotted an English ship in the bay and then told its commander his story.
Capt. Barber accompanied the hunter to the destroyed fort, where they examined and buried the dead. He then seized the Tlingit chiefs and threatened to hang them if they did not hand over all captives and possessions taken from the Russian post.
The commander took the returned survivors to Kodiak, where he demanded Baranof pay him 50,000 rubles in furs as ransom. Baranof, learning that the captain’s only expense had been in feeding and clothing his passengers, paid him 10,000 rubles for the release of three Russians, five Aleut men and 18 women and children.
In April 1804, Baranof returned to Sitka with four small ships and 300 canoes, along with a crew of 121 Russians and 800 Aleuts. He retook the fort, erected a stronger stockade and buildings and renamed the settlement New Archangel.
Following the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867, it was renamed once more. Sitka – Tlingit for “by the sea” – is Alaska’s fourth most populated city today. It has the largest harbor system in Alaska, with more than 1,350 permanent ships, and is the sixth largest port by value of seafood harvested in the United States.