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Russian Indian Fighters? – When The Tsar’s Men Clashed With American Natives

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The 1804 Battle of Sitka.

The 1804 Battle of Sitka.

One normally doesn’t associate Russia with the so-called “Indian Wars” of North America — the 300 year long near-constant state of conflict between white Europeans and aboriginals.

While the English, French, Dutch  and later Americans and even Mexicans all fought a variety of indigenous tribes of the New World, Russian colonists were also in contact with aboriginals in the Pacific North West throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. These interactions were not always cordial. Case in point: the Tlingit War of 1802 to 1804.

During the two-year war, troops from the Russian America Company and the Imperial Russian Navy, along with their Aleutian tribal allies, fought an intermittent conflict with several hundred warriors from the Tlingit Nation at New Archangel or what is now Sitka, Alaska. Located on Baranof Island in the archipelago that makes up the southern Alaska panhandle, the area had been chosen by the Tsar’s Alaska-based joint stock corporation as the site of a trading colony in 1799.

Once the stockade was erected, tensions began to mount between the Russians and the local Tlingit clan known as the Kiks Adi. Anger among the warriors and chiefs grew as Russians colonists attracted the affections of several young Tlingit women. The whites also demanded that the natives swear allegiance to the Russian monarch. When the traders conscripted native men to work the outpost, the tensions finally boiled over.

In June of 1802, a war party of Tlingits struck at the Russian settlement at Sitka burning cabins, warehouses and dry-docks, massacring 150 Russians and Aleutian workers, and even capturing some of the families of the dead settlers.

The captain of an American vessel in Alaskan waters negotiated for the release of some of the captives and immediately made sail for Kodiak, the capital of Russian America, to report the incident. The governor of Russia’s Alaska colony, Alexandr Baranov, paid a ransom for the release of the remaining captives.

Two years later Baranov organized an expedition to reclaim the island. In late September of 1804, the Russian warship Neva arrived in the area along with a flotilla of Aleut dugouts.

The four-day battle that followed saw a Russian shore party comprised of 150 soldiers, sailors and company men along with 400 allied Aleuts attempt to storm the nearby Tlingit village. The settlement’s defensive palisade, which had been reinforced all summer in anticipation of just such a retaliation, was too strong. The natives also managed to lay down heavy fire with muskets acquired from British and French traders and even a cannon supplied by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The assault was a failure; 12 Russians were killed.

Baranov, who himself was wounded in the action, responded with a naval artillery bombardment of the native camp that lasted for four days.

The Tlingit sustained an unknown number of casualties in the attack and ended up calling for a truce. In the aftermath of the battle, the band evacuated the region altogether. They would return in the 1820s.

The Russians re-established their base on the island, eventually moving their Alaskan capital there in 1808. Sitka became a bustling frontier town for the Russians boasting an administrative nerve centre and a lively cultural scene. The small city would continue to thrive for decades. From Sitka, the Tsar would go on to establish small trading outposts on Hawaii and even the coast of California.

In the 1850s, the Tlingits would attack Sitka yet again. A raiding party very nearly captured the town in a two hour battle but were eventually repelled by Russian artillery crews.

In the 1860s, the Russians would hand control of the region over to the United States. 

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One Comment

  1. Fascinating piece of history ! I’m beginning to believe the white-man (WASP) is determined to takeover no matter where they go…seems they have a hard time accepting the ways of other people… a little humor there, very little… You are, obviously, a fantastic researcher ! For what it’s worth, I’m impressed.

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