In 1799, the Russian American Company, led by Alexander Baranof, landed from their base in Kodiak, established Redoubt St. Michael (today the Old Sitka State Historic Site, 7 1/2 miles north of town -- just a grassy picnic area with interpretive signs), and claimed the Pacific Northwest of America for Russia. The Tlingits, sophisticated traders who had already acquired flintlocks, attacked with knives, spears, and guns, and destroyed the redoubt in mid-June 1802, killing almost all of the Russians. Tlingits warriors quickly began building fortifications on the site now within the national historical park, anticipating a Russian counterattack, which came in 1804. Baranof returned with an attacking force of a Russian gunship and a swarm of Aleut kayaks, which towed the becalmed vessel into position to begin the bombardment. The Tlingits withstood the siege for 6 days, then vacated their fort at night after a canoe delivering gunpowder exploded, leaving them short of ammunition. The Russians founded and heavily fortified the town of New Archangel, and in 1808 it became their administrative capital. But the Tlingits name is the one that stuck: Shee Atika, since contracted to Sitka.
The historic significance of the battle site was recognized early. President Benjamin Harrison, a friend of Alaska missionary Sheldon Jackson, set the land aside as a public park in 1890. In 1902 and 1905, a collection of totem poles from around Southeast was brought here, and in 1910, the site was designated a national monument. The park visitor center and grounds emphasize the Native perspective. There is no better place to learn about Tlingits art and history. A naturally lit hall with a 30-foot ceiling displays original poles (many of those outside are reproductions) in startlingly good condition, despite their age. Extraordinary poles by current Native artists stand outside, and within the building, artisans of the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center work in a series of windowed workshops creating traditional crafts of metal, wood, beads, textiles, and woven grass. Visitors are invited to enter the workshops and ask questions. A free 12-minute video provides a good historical overview.
The outdoor totem trail and the site of the battle also must not be missed. The totems stand tall and forbidding along a pathway through massive spruce and hemlock, where misty rain often wanders down from an unseen sky somewhere above the trees. The shore-side battle site and the nearby fort site -- only a grassy area now -- are along the trail. While plenty of imagination is needed to place a desperate fight in this peaceful setting, it is easy to feel deep down what the Tlingits were fighting for when you stand among the trees and totems and hear the lapping sea and raven's call.