Wednesday, May 11, 2022

October 1, 1804 - Russian Defeat at Battle of Sitka

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Russia was in a unique position in the fur trade. Because of its eastward claims of North American territory across the Pacific, Russia held under its domain vast territory rich with valuable fur-bearing wildlife while the western claims of other European powers had largely been tapped out by overhunting. However, the Alaskan claim was farther away from Europe than any other, requiring a ship to sail across at least two oceans either around Africa or South America or an overland trek of thousands of miles across Siberia.

Alexander Andreyevich Baranov served as the first governor of Russian America, tasked by the Russian-American Company to develop the fur trade and act as the proxy for the Tsar since St. Petersburg was some 4,000 miles away. With a mind keen for business, he moved the main Russian settlement to Kodiak for better access and established numerous outposts on other islands to facilitate trade with the native Tlingit. Pushing southward to prevent British incursion on Russian claims, Baranov purchased land on Sitka Island. In 1802, Baranov left his newly founded Sitka outpost to go back to Kodiak.

Disagreements arose between the settlers at Sitka and the Tlingit, largely based on the philosophical question of whether land could truly be owned. While the Russians documented ownership in legal writing, the Tlingit saw the “purchase” as gifts in exchange for becoming neighbors. Feuds encouraged the Tlingit to ask the Russian newcomers to leave. When the Russians refused, Chief Katlian attacked the settlement and wiped out the Russian fort. The British ship Unicorn (which had likely supplied the Tlingit with gunpowder and firearms and encouraged the attack) had been nearby and returned the survivors for a tidy ransom.

Despite the violence, both sides knew that the Russians would eventually return. Stoonook, a Tlingit shaman, pushed his tribesmen to build fortifications strong enough to withstand European-style weapons and sieges. Baranov, meanwhile, received a promotion from lower nobility to a much higher office, giving him unquestioned command over the officers of the Russian warship Neva. With Aleut allies and Russian soldiers, Baranov sailed to seize the island. Upon word that the Russians were approaching, Tlingit civilians fled while warriors gathered in the Shís'gi Noow ("Fort of Young Saplings"). A skirmish broke out when a Russians sighted a group of Tlingit in canoes bringing their gunpowder supply from another island back to the fort, but the Tlingit managed to avoid Russian cannon-fire and escape to safety inside the fortifications.

On October 1, Baranov led a landing party to assault the Tlingit fortress. The Tlingit responded with a terrifying barrage of small-arms fire that drove the party into retreat. Katlian charged after them, and the Tlingit drove the Russian force back to the water. Only the cover fire from the Neva enabled them to escape. Two of the Russians had been killed, and Baranov and more than a dozen others seriously wounded. The captain of the Neva took command, ordering bombardment of the Tlingit fortress. The wooden defenses backed by earth proved strong enough to withstand the Russian warship’s cannons indefinitely. Nevertheless, the Neva continued its assault throughout the day, pausing to call for the Tlingit to surrender. Stocked with ample gunpowder themselves, the Tlingit were in no hurry to give up.

When Baranov had recovered from his wounds enough to resume negotiations himself, he approached Katlian with a flag of truce. Baranov had been greatly humbled by his injuries and inspired by the Tlingit’s ingenuity and tenacity. At last he determined to have the Tlingit as allies rather than enemies. Katlian, Stoonook, and Baranov conducted extensive negotiations that at last settled differences in native and Russian understandings. Ultimately, Baranov’s outline for Alaskan government with large swatches of communal land between claims for permanent settlements were not too different from the historical Russian mir where serfs lived, albeit with much more self-rule.

Baranov left twenty Russians to build a new settlement as part of the Tlingit community and returned to Kodiak with his outline for an extensive colonial government largely led by native politics. With Russian efforts maintaining peace and encouraging economic growth, Baranov set out to build the colony. He appealed to St. Petersburg not for the usual requests of weapons and building supplies but for engineers and scholars who could establish methods of making weapons and industry in Russian America. Russian Orthodox missionaries contributed to the education efforts, especially in medicine for native populations such as inoculation against smallpox.

Russian America thrived as Baranov sought to bolster native economies. Geologists trained scouts in what to seek out for signs of mineral deposits, and scouts returned showing the land was rich with potential for mining. Near the Russian Fort Ross north of San Francisco, scouts told of vast gold deposits that could easily be panned. The RAC soon turned away from fur-trading and instead established mines and foundries. To encourage settlement, Tsar Nicholas I promised liberation to any serf family willing to move to Russian America. Serfs migrated by the hundreds of thousands, building up the route known as the Trans-Siberian Highway, which would become a railway in the 1870s linking St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.

Baranov never returned to Russia. When he received word that his Russian wife had died in 1807, he married his Aleut lover and legitimized his children with her in the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition to his genetic legacy, Baranov left numerous towns and geological features named for him. His efforts also contributed to the web of nations left behind as the Russian Empire transitioned into a republic following the First World War. Former Russian “colonies” that were essentially led by native governments dominated the northern Pacific including Alaska, Russian California, and Hawaii, all tied together in an economic confederation that would inspire much of the European Union decades later.



In reality, the Tlingit warriors bringing the store of gunpowder had been hit by a lucky shot from the Russian ship. The destruction of the gunpowder, along with the loss of many of the young leaders who had risked themselves to bring it, meant that the Tlingit could not last a long siege. They decided to disappear into the night so that, when the Russian landing party advanced on October 4, they found the fortress empty. The Tlingit continued with mutual distrust of the Russian settlers. Baranov’s new settlement at Sitka became the Russian colonial capital in 1808, and Baranov died on the passage back to St. Petersburg in 1819.

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