New Archangel (1802–1813)

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Battle of Sitka by Louis S. Glanzman, 1988

Series of sieges in which Tlingit Indians attempted to regain their Alaskan land from the Russians

Between 1741 and 1867, the Russians controlled territory in North America from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska down to a portion of northern California. Inuit lived in scattered settlements, mainly on the Arctic Coast and near the Bering Sea, and had little contact with the newcomers. As the Russian traders moved eastward, they met the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, and Tsimshian, who lived along the coast, as well as some tribes of the interior. The Tlingit, called “Kolush” by the Russians, presented the greatest problem to the Russian fur trade.

The Tlingit controlled some of the prime sea otter grounds in Russian North America. They were also a fiercely independent people. By the time the Russians came into their territory, the Tlingit were trading with the British and Americans. Russians rarely traded guns and ammunition, but British and American firearms, including cannons, found their way into Tlingit possession. The Tlingit became quite skillful in the use of these weapons, which would become a major problem for the Russians in their eventual confrontations with the Indians. Warriors would further confound the Russians by wearing armor of wooden rods bound together with leather thongs, large wooden hats, and MASKS representing heads of various animals to protect their faces. Russian bullets could not penetrate this thick covering.

In the 1790s, Alexander Baranov, governor-general of a Russian trading company, established the settlement of New Archangel at Sitka, Alaska. The Russians antagonized the Tlingit of the region by invading their territory to hunt sea otters, whose pelts were the most highly sought. The Indians were concerned about the extermination of the animals that were necessary for British and American trade. The Russians exacerbated the problems by kidnapping Tlingit women to serve as concubines, although some became common-law wives.

In 1802, the Tlingit made the first of several attempts to rid their land of Russians. War parties ambushed Russian-Aleut hunting and trading parties throughout their area. A large group of Tlingit also invaded and captured New Archangel, burning all its buildings, confiscating 4,000 pelts, and killing 20 Russians and 130 Aleuts. Two years later, Baranov returned, with an armada of war ships and shelled the Tlingit positions at New Archangel. After much bloodshed, Baranov and his men landed and reestablished Russian dominance in the area.

The Tlingit’s next attempt to expel the Russians was thwarted by tribal women living at New Archangel. In 1806, 2,000 warriors in 400 boats set sail for another assault on Sitka, but Tlingit women in the fort warned Russian officials of the impending attack. Knowing that they could not withstand such an enormous force, officials invited tribal leaders to a feast at the post. Thus, the Indians’ plan to destroy New Archangel was deflected with lavish gifts and entertainment.

The Tlingit did not stop their harassment of the Russians, however. By 1808, when Baranov moved the seat of company government from Kodiak to New Archangel, guerrilla attacks by Tlingit raiders was making life extremely uncertain. A year later, and again in 1813, these attacks became so serious that Baranov appealed to the Russian navy for protection. By 1818, a Russian warship was patrolling the harbor at Sitka.

Interaction between Russians and Tlingit became slightly more stable after a series of councils. Baranov wanted the Indians to stop trading with the British and Americans, but the Tlingit refused because they considered Russian trade goods inferior. Moreover, British and American sea merchants had guns, hatchets, knives, blankets and textiles, which the Russians could not supply. The Russians did, however, agree to an exchange of hostages to ensure better relations. Baranov gave the Tlingit two young men of mixed European and Indian ancestry in exchange for the chief ’s nephew. Hostilities quieted for a time and some trade occurred.

Nevertheless, Russian officials remained wary of the Tlingit well into the second half of the decade. As late as 1850, there was concern over the 500 well-armed Tlingit who lived close to New Archangel. In 1863, officials went so far as to warn the parent trading company that military provisions at New Archangel needed to be reinforced to repel Tlingit attacks. Then, in 1867, the United States purchased all Russian territory in North America. The fort at New Archangel was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867, and the Russians fur traders left North America.

The influx of American settlers, with their alcohol and diseases, quickly decimated the Tlingit population. Current Tlingit are part of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and are accomplished fisher-people, artisans, and craftspeople.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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