Archaeologist May Have Found Site Of Alaska Massacre

SITKALIDAK ISLAND, Alaska - In 208 years, a lot of history can be forgotten - the Russian cannon fire, the cries of women and children hurling themselves 100 feet into the sea, the defeat of a proud people.

All of these things happened at a small raised buttress known as Refuge Rock near the village of Old Harbor. A Russian force, led by fur traders, conquered the Alutiiq of Kodiak Island, leaving hundreds dead.

How many? No one knows. What happened that afternoon in 1784? Accounts differ.

The site of the massacre was lost for two centuries. But now there's reason to hope more will be known about this bloody moment in Native history.

Archaeologist Rick Knecht discovered the spot two years ago while flying overhead on other business. Recently, 10 volunteer archaeologists - prompted by Native villagers who wanted to know more about their past - began excavation of the site.

Why delve into this sad chapter?

"The beginning of forgiveness is understanding," Knecht explains during a trip to the site, "and the beginning of understanding is knowledge."

The battle, he says, "broke the back of Native resistance; it was the Wounded Knee of Alaska."

In the mid-1700s, Russian fur traders and their hired seamen fought for a foothold in the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak Archipelago. As expeditions moved east, the explorers battled Aleut and Alutiiq warriors intent on repulsing the white man's landings.

In 1784, trader Grigori Shelikhov moved to end the impasse and impose the Russian will by force. After stopping at Three Saints Bay on southeastern Kodiak Island, Shelikhov sent several boats with 2 1/2-pound cannons and 130 armed men to Refuge Rock.

Villagers traditionally had gathered at the refuge while under threat of attack during the frequent battles between Native groups from Kodiak and the Aleutians. They felt safe atop the fortress-like rock connected by a spit at low tide to nearby Sitkalidak Island.

Historical and Native oral accounts of what happened that August afternoon vary in detail and tone, although the outcome is largely undisputed: Shelikhov and his men sailed their boats into a hidden inlet behind the rock, a secret route shown them by an Aleut translator and guide known as Kashpak.

After several days of negotiations and a brief skirmish between the groups, the Russians attacked, using artillery and muskets against spears and arrows.

The village and fortress were destroyed.

Historians note that Shelikhov and his men had prepared for battle before leaving Okhotsk in the Russian Far East. That was unusual.

Shelikhov - as was the common practice - demanded the Natives turn over hostages and trade with him for the highly valuable otter furs then in great demand with buyers in China. The Natives refused.

The Russian czar prohibited merchants and traders from using violence against North America's Native people, except in extreme cases and only in self-defense. So Shelikhov's description of the day's events were favorable to him.

He insisted in his reports that he had been badly outnumbered and was attacked first.

Ship physician and eyewitness Miron Britiukov, in a scathing account to the czar, cited numerous atrocities and denounced Shelikhov's action.

Eyewitness reports indicate there were about 2,000 villagers at the refuge. Britiukov estimated 500 were killed and more drowned, including those who threw themselves off the seaside cliffs 10 stories high to escape the onslaught. Others were taken prisoner; some were executed.

Other accounts put the death toll at 200 to 300 villagers.

Lydia Black, a Russian-born anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says her studies indicate neither extreme view is entirely accurate.

Shelikhov overstated the fierceness of the Natives, their number and the threat they posed to his party, she says; Britiukov understated them.

There had been a stiff Aleut and Alutiiq resistance for years, Black notes. Warriors had destroyed four ships and their crews in the years before the landing at Sitkalidak, and Shelikhov came looking for a fight.

Black describes the attack as a watershed event in the Russians' settlement of what became Russian America, and later Alaska.

"This was the beginning of the end for the Alutiiq of Kodiak Island," she says. "Shelikhov really smashed their military might. It was their first major military defeat."

Native leaders eventually want to have the site entered on the National Registry of Historic Places. Later this summer, a Russian Orthodox priest from Old Harbor will conduct a memorial service there, and a Russian Orthodox cross will be erected on Refuge Rock.