Researchers Find Elusive 19th Century Alaskan Fort
Researchers in Alaska have pinpointed the location of an elusive 19th century Alaskan fort using radar technology. They’ve found the remnants of a significant historical site - the Tlingit clans’ last physical barrier against Russian colonization forces.
The Historical Significance of Shiskinoow, the “Sapling Fort”
The Tlingit clans built Shiskinoow (also spelled Shís’gi Noow and translated to the “sapling fort”) to bolster their defenses against the Russian army. An Antiquity press release for the new paper explains the story behind the creation of this culturally significant Alaskan fort:
“In 1799, Russia sent a small army to take over Alaska in order to develop the fur trade, but the Tlingit successfully expelled them in 1802. Expecting the Russians to return, the Tlingit built a wooden fort over two years – the trapezoidal-shaped Shiskinoow. The Tlingit armed it with guns, cannons and gunpowder obtained from British American traders.”
Historical drawing of Shiskinoow, the sapling fort. (By Y. Lisyansky; U.S. National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Shiskinoow was built on a peninsula where the mouth of Kasda Heen (Indian River) meets Sitka Sound in what is now Sitka, Alaska. Today, this is located in the Sitka National Historical Park. “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,” Thomas Urban, a researcher at Cornell University and a co-author of the current study, said.
Location of Sitka National Historical Park. (U.S. National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park /Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Shiskinoow was the last physical bulwark to fall before Russia occupied Alaska in 1804. In a major battle, the Tlingit clans held the Russian army and their Aleut subjects off for five days, but they suffered a huge setback when a gunpowder supply blew up in a canoe on the way to the fort. That event led the Tlingit clans to escape Shiskinoow at night by crossing Shee (Baranov Island) to Cháatl Ḵáa Noow (Halibut Man Fort). The story of this battle has been passed down in Tlingit oral history and was recorded in Russian sources.
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Following the retreat of the Tlingit clans, the Russian/Aleut forces razed the abandoned fort, but not before they drew a detailed map of the site. The Russians then set up a trading post at what is now Sitka. Russia remained in control of the region for a little more than 60 years, until the United States purchased Alaska for $7 million in 1867.
How Researchers Identified the Culturally Significant Alaskan Fort
A new paper on the Alaskan fort’s discovery states that “several archaeological investigations have been undertaken to determine the true location of the ‘sapling fort,’” however they have all turned up inconclusive or with heavily contested results. Thus, the Alaskan fort’s location had been lost for a century. Study co-authors Thomas Urban and Brinnen Carter write, “While the U.S. National Park Service had designated a probable location for the fort at an open area on the forested peninsula known as the ‘fort clearing’, alternative locations were suggested and the question remained unanswered, with many believing the debate would never be resolved.”
Now, geophysical imaging techniques and ground-penetrating radar have enabled the researchers from Cornell University and the National Park Service to confirm the lost, trapezoidal-shaped wooden fort. Urban said, “The fort’s definitive physical location had eluded investigators for a century. Previous archaeological digs had found some suggestive clues, but they never really found conclusive evidence that tied these clues together.”
Electromagnetic induction (EM) quadrature result (showing the area south of the Indian River), indicating variations in electrical conductivity shown with associated ground-penetrating radar results. The two methods reveal a similar anomalous pattern at the same location, which bares striking resemblance to the historical drawing of the important Alaskan fort. (T. Urban / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Urban created a grid to see if electromagnetic induction methods could find the Alaskan fort’s unusual perimeter shape. When the outline of the fort was detected, Urban created a small grid for dragging the ground-penetrating radar over the location.
Electromagnetic induction (EM) in phase result for the broader survey (areas south and north of the Indian River). The strong anomalies are caused by ferrous metals, some of which are related to more recent activities at the park, while others may be related to the battle. The ground-penetrating radar result has been overlaid in the appropriate location. (T. Urban / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Study co-author Brinnen Carter of the National Parks Service explained that extra steps needed to be taken before confirming the site of the important Alaskan fort, “A large-scale survey was necessary to convincingly rule out alternative locations for this historically and culturally significant structure,” Carter said. The researchers also note that their EM survey “was the largest archaeological geophysical survey ever undertaken in Alaska, covering approximately 17ha.”
The researchers write that “there are no plans for additional work at the site,” however their results lend support to previous archaeological research. In particular, the site’s location provides more context for descriptions and plan drawings from 1958, which are said to show the remnants of the south and west walls of the Alaskan fort. The new findings also support survey and excavation results from 2010, which found cannon balls and shot in the north-west corner of the suggested site of the fort.
Photograph of interpretive sign at fort clearing. (Sitka National Historical Park/ Antiquity Publications Ltd)
The new paper ‘Geophysical survey locates an elusive Tlingit fort in south-east Alaska’ is published in the journal Antiquity.
Top Image: Tlingit totem pole in Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, USA. An elusive 19th century Alaskan fort has also been identified in the same National Historical Park. Source: Patrick /Adobe Stock