An Empty Victory

The war-chief Katlian and his Shaman, Stoonookw, walked along the ramparts of the fort they had spent nearly two years constructing. The walls were nearly fourteen feet thick in some places, made of a thousand spruce trees. It was called the “Fort of Young Saplings” and it was built in expectation of the return of the Russians; the Tlingit Clan had slaughtered and expelled them from southeast Alaska with the help of British-made musketry in 1802.

It was now September 28th, 1804, and as the Tlingit warriors peered down across the rocky shoals of Indian River, the Russian naval forces lay still in Sitka Sound. Onboard the lead ship, the Neva, the chief manager of the Russian-American company, Alexandr Baranov, and Lieutenant Commander Yuri Lisyansky conferred upon their strategy.

Baranov held a downy eagle feather above his head and released it. It spiraled straight down to the deck.

“Not a whiff, captain. We can’t sail, let alone maneuver in those shallows,” he said to Lisyansky.

Lisyansky took a quick look down at the foc’sle where scores of Aleut Indians were lounging, waiting for orders.

“I don’t think we’ll need the winds today, sir.”

A few hours later, the Neva, along with her three heavily-armed escorts, was crossing the Sound. In one of the most spectacular scenes in naval history, the four massive vessels were being towed by hundreds of baidarkas; two-man kayaks powered only by the uncommon strength of Aleuts arms.

For four days, the Russians bombarded the “Sapling Fort” with canons. When a reconnaissance contingent was sent ashore to assay the fort’s condition, the scene shocked them. The Tlingits had silently abandoned their position during the cover of night, slitting the throats of their children and animals on the way, a trail of tiny corpses leading into the forests.

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