The First Battle Between Russians and Tlingit: Prince William Sound, 1792

A few months ago I wrote about interactions between Tlingit and Spanish at Bucareli Bay near Prince of Wales Island, Alaska in 1779. Now I would like to share another story from 18th-century Tlingit history—the first battle between Russians and Tlingit. Both of these stories were drawn from research done for my just-finished thesis, and this story in particular is based on the awesome work edited by Nora Dauenhauer, Richard Dauenhauer, and Lydia Black, Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká, Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804 (Seattle; Juneau: University of Washington Press; Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2008), p. 55-57, 63.

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A few years before the Russian-American Company came into being, in 1792, the Russians and Tlingit had their first verifiable violent encounter near Hinchinbrook Island in Prince William Sound, west of the Tlingit Gulf coast.

Aleksandr Baranov had recently become chief manager of the Golikov-Shelikhov Company,  and in June of 1792 he set off with a party of Russians and Kodiak Sugpiaq to “pacify” the Chugach Sugpiaq communities around the sound. One night, Baranov’s encampment fell under attack, surrounded by men who began cutting down the Sugpiaq. Baranov later wrote that the attackers “came up so stealthily in the darkness that we saw them only when they began to stab at our tents.”

He described further:
…We shot at them without any result because they had on thick armor made of three and four layers of hard wood and sinews, and on top of that had heavy mantles made of moose hides. On their heads they had thick helmets with the figures of monsters on them, and neither our buckshot nor our bullets could pierce their armor. In the dark, they seemed to us worse than devils. The majority of them kept perfect order, advancing toward us and listening to the commands given by one voice and only a part of them ran back and forth doing damage to us and to the Natives in our party.
Aleksandr Baranov: chronicler
and participant in the first
Russian-Tlingit battle (source)
Eventually the use of the Russians’ cannon caused their assailants’ retreat. They had killed two Russians and ten Kodiak auxiliaries, while losing twelve of their own number.

A wounded attacker, captured by the Russians, said they were Tlingit of the Yaawkdáat Ḵwáan who had come in response to a Chugach raid on their home the previous year.

Baranov believed that after they discovered the presence of Europeans after launching their surprise assault, the Tlingit had continued attacking, “hoping for rich booty.” The Tlingit already knew of Russian activities in Sugpiaq territory, and Baranov further thought the Tlingit had planned to attack Russian settlements after defeating the Chugach.

After the battle in the Sound, however, this did not occur. Tlingit and Russians would have their next close interactions at Yakutat in 1795, when the Russians built their first post in Tlingit territory there.

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