PRELUDE TO THE BATTLE OF SITKA, 1804
The Russians appeared, coming down from the north, after depleting the sea otter stocks in the Aleutian Islands, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound.
The English appeared from the south after they depleted the natural stocks of sea otter around Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Islands.
The Yankees were late comers into the fur trade, but they arrived in force in the late 1770s. They were the first to trade muskets and gunpowder the Tlingit Indians in exchange for the valuable sea otter pelts.
The Russians established forts at Yakutat and Sitka in an attempt to gain control of Southeast Alaska. The Hudson Bay Company made its move and some historians say that they called the northern Tlingit Tribes to a meeting in Angoon in 1801. At this secret meeting they offered muskets and gunpowder to the Tlingits in exchange for exclusive fur trading rights.
A plan was agreed upon. The tribes would unite for an attack against the Russian Fort Saint Michael at Old Sitka. The Hudson Bay Company would supply the muskets and gunpowder. The attack would take place in the spring of 1802.
Some historians say that the warriors from the following villages took part in the Battle of 1802: Sitka, Angoon, Kake, Hoonah, Auke Bay, and Klukwan.
The same historians say that the attack was planned to take place while the Russian sailing ships were away in Kodiak.
The attack was a complete success.
Fort Saint Michael was completely destroyed and the warriors returned home victorious.
Soon after the battle, the Sitka Kiks.ádi shaman foresaw the return of the Russian sailing ships to seek revenge for the loss of Fort Saint Michael.
Shaman Stoonookw was adamant about the need for a new fort capable of withstanding cannon fire. Against strong opposition he prevailed and the fort was under construction in 1803.
The Sitka Kiks.ádi prepared themselves for total war.
In August of 1804, the Russians, under the command of Baranof, returned in their three small sailing ships along with 400 Aleut sea otter hunters in bidarkas. They were joined by the Russian frigate Neva, a 200-foot-long, three-masted sailing ship that weighed 350 tons. It had 14 cannons and was manned by a crew of 50 professional sailors.
The Neva was of English design and construction. It was a new ship and state-of-the-art in warships of that era.
Neither side rushed into battle. The Sitka Kiks.ádi sent messages to their allies of 1802, but did not receive any affirmative replies or commitments.
While awaiting replies from their allies of 1802, the Sitka Kiks.ádi devised a battle plan.
In a surprise move the Kiks.ádi appointed a new war chief, Katlian, who replaced Shk'awulyéil, leader of the successful war of 1802.
Each of the six Kiks.ádi house groups quickly rallied around their own "house chief." As they had done down through the ages, all of the house groups would fight as military units under their own house chiefs, but under the direction of the war chief and his shaman.
The plan was simple. The Kiks.ádi would test the strength and intentions of the Russians at Noow Tlein, the fort on Castle Hill, then fall back on the new fort called "Shís'gi Noow," or "Second Growth Fort," located at the high water line near "Kaasdahéen" or the stream now called Indian River. This fort was roughly two hundred feet square and approximately one thousand logs were used in its construction.
The fort had been constructed there to take advantage of the long gravel beach flats that extend far out into the bay. It was hoped that the distance would reduce the effect of cannon fire from the Russian ships.
Once settled in Fort Shís'gi Noow, the Kiks.ádi would use delaying tactics to gain time for the northern tribes to arrive. The shaman were consulted to see if the northern tribes were on their way to Sitka. The shaman reported backthey could not see any of their allies traveling toward Sitka. They continued to see a "dark force" in the future.
The Kiks.ádi house chiefs and their shaman met again and again. It was apparent that time was running out. The northern allies would not make it in time. The house chief considered the situation. The Russians demanded that the Kiks.ádi surrender. The house chiefs were unanimous in their conclusion. "We cannot surrender and become the slaves of the Russians. We will fight alone if we have to!" The decision was madeWe will fight alone.
The entire reserve of gun powder was located in a small cave on one of the small islands in Jamestown Bay, one half mile away.
An elite crew was picked to go to get the gunpowder and bring it to Shís'gi Noow. The crew included the high caste young men from each housemen who were being groomed to be the future leaders of those houses. A respected elder was chosen to lead the party.
The gun powder was picked up and, in the spirit of the occasion, the crew decided not to wait for darkness to cover their return to Fort Shís'gi Noow; instead they would return immediately in broad daylight.
The Russians opened fire as soon as they came into range. The young warriors fired back with their muskets. Suddenly there was a great explosion. When the smoke cleared away the canoe was gone.
The entire canoe was gone. The entire reserve gun powder supply was gone. The elite young men from every house were gone. The respected elder leader was gone. A tragic loss before the battle was fully underway.
The next day Baranof launched his attack