Story last updated at 2/27/2017 - 8:39 pm
Courtesy of the Sitka History Museum
In July, an international team of archaeologists returned to the coast of Kruzov Island in their search for the lost Russian ship, Neva, wrecked in 1813 in one of the worst maritime disasters in Alaskan history. Following up on last year’s discovery of a Russian period survivor’s camp, researchers uncovered significant new wreckage and artifacts, and most somber, the grave of one of Neva’s forgotten crewmen or passengers who perished during the wreck. New finds leave little doubt that the elusive wreck site has been located after more than 200 years. The team has also begun piecing together the amazing story of its shipwrecked crew.
The demise of the Neva
The Russian-American Company (RAC) ship Neva was arguably one of most celebrated and reviled ships in early Alaskan history. Between 1803 and 1806 it was the first of two ships to circumnavigate the globe for Russia’s fledgling Navy. It also played the pivotal role in the 1804 Battle of Sitka, using her guns and crew to break Tlingit resistance to Russian settlement. For years the ship supplied the RAC with crucial supplies and personnel, and again made history in 1807 as the first Russian ship to sail to Australia. Yet Neva’s luck ran out during what would become her final voyage in late August, 1812.
Leaving the Siberian port of Okhotsk to deliver supplies to New Archangel (Sitka, Alaska), she was plagued by an unsettling series of misfortunes. Initial plans for the ship to visit Japan on an emissary mission were scrapped at the last minute, sending her into Alaskan waters late in the season. Ominously, Shturman Vasil’ev, Neva’s newly appointed captain, drowned when his skiff overturned during an initial inspection tour.
Fleet Lieutenant Iakov Podushkin assumed command of the vessel, sharing duties with Navigator Daniil Kalinin. Contrary to others’ advice to sail directly to New Archangel, Podushkin chose to sail down the Aleutian chain in hopes of re-supplying with fresh water. A fierce storm pounded the Neva, breaking the mainsail and damaging other rigging. Too sick to continue, Podushkin relinquished command to Kalinin. In late November, changing winds brought the battered ship to safe harbor in Prince William Sound. Already 15 had died on board during the voyage. Uncertain if the weak and shaken passengers could survive the winter there, Kalinin sailed for Sitka.
Despite uncertain winds and more hardships, the Neva finally came within welcome sight of Sitka Sound in early January 1813. On Jan. 8, with favorable winds, Navigator Kalinin undoubtedly felt relief and ordered the vessel to stay its course while he slept in preparation for arrival. In the early morning darkness the ship shuddered and ran aground in a disorienting fog.
All attempts to save the doomed vessel failed as her keel broke in two, throwing the entire crew into the raging surf. Thirty-two drowned, desperately clinging to wreckage while being battered by sharp volcanic rocks. Only 28 made it to shore, where two others later died of trauma or hypothermia. Among those who perished onshore was Tertii Stepanovich Bornovolokov, a high status nobleman who was to replace Alexander Baranov as Chief Manager of the RAC. Survivors remained stranded ashore on a remote island for nearly a month in the depths of winter.
Rescue came three weeks later when one of the survivors flagged down a Alaska Native boy in a boat from the fort and, after promise of a shirt for his trouble, was taken to report the tragedy to Baranov. The 26 survivors were immediately rescued and taken to Sitka, and Russian parties returned to salvage what they could from the surf. No detailed Russian-American Company records of the wreck have been discovered. Other than secondhand accounts recorded years later, the location of the wreck site and tales of crew survival were lost to time. The oral history of the Sitka Tlingit recounts that the wreck, in a place sacred to the tribe, was the result of a shaman’s retribution for atrocities against them during the 1804 Battle of Sitka. While the Neva remains infamous among many, the Sitka Tribe formally made peace with the Russians in 2004.
Archaeologists located the first traces of the Neva in 2012 when remains of cooking fires and Russian axes were found along the rugged coast of Kruzov Island. Beginning in August 2012, several attempts at underwater survey were conducted through the use of a marine magnetometer, sonar, and scuba dives. The dense kelp, iron-laden rocks, and frequent heavy seas, however, made these efforts all but impossible. Armed with a National Science Foundation grant and working closely with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and U.S. Forest Service, specialists from the United States, Canada, and Russia returned to the site in 2015. Their excavations uncovered traces of an early Russian-period camp where the scientists recovered period navigator’s chart dividers, ships nails, and battered gunflints likely used to spark warming fires. Pieces of copper hull sheathing were found cut and fashioned into possible awls and a crude fishhook. Burned bone and shell at the site was found to be wild game and shellfish. Many artifacts were clearly those of the lost Neva crew. The team also discovered a previously unknown Tlingit camp, occupied at least 50 years after the shipwreck.
In 2016 the team returned to further study the site. Eroded from the survivor’s camp was a scabbard fragment of bronze or brass, possibly from a Naval-style dirk or dagger. More scraps of copper hull sheathing were found, hammered into useful survival items. Additional cooking fires and food bones were found, confirming the Neva survivors were organized enough to send out parties to fish, scavenge, and even dispatch deer. The crew appeared to occupy a single large camp, possibly in makeshift tents or shelters salvaged from sailcloth and other wreckage.
But some of the most significant finds were made in the closing days of the 2016 project, discoveries that left the team stunned.
“She’s not in the ocean, she’s in the tree”
In 2016 scientists adjusted the survey, searching a wider area along the coast looking for other traces of the ship and crew. Not long after, the team stumbled on a large piece of iron in plain sight, wrapped in the arm-like roots of an ancient tree. Careful excavation revealed a large iron yard brace (i.e., an iron fitting used on the spars of a sailing ship), as well as a nearby hand-wrought drift pin used to tie together ship timbers. Collectively, these nautical items and artifacts provided the first indisputable evidence of a late 18th or early 19th century Russian sailing ship, the Neva.
Other finds followed, including a stacked cache of Russian axes, hardware, cannon grapeshot, and sheets of copper, some showing stresses of being wrenched from a wooden hull. Axes also littered the nearby survivor’s camp where they could have been used with flint to spark fires, cut firewood, or re-handled to help build shelters. This major cache provided the first evidence that at least some of the broken ship was driven ashore and harvested. Even in its dying throes, the Neva offered crucial materials to her shaken crew.
Ironically this most diagnostic evidence of the Neva was not found in the kelp-choked ocean where magnetometer, side scan sonar, and diving efforts were so far unsuccessful, but onshore where its shattered cargo was dragged ashore more than 200 years ago. The location of the cache is a significant piece of the puzzle, allowing future researchers to narrow down where cannon, ballast, and other wreckage still remain hidden.
A lost sailor
In the closing days of 2016 archaeologists uncovered the most solemn reminder of the Neva’s tragedy, the grave of one of her lost crew or passengers. Buried below fire ash at the edge of the survivor’s camp emerged the subtle remains of a single coffin. Rows of mismatched iron nails embedded in the decayed coffin show it was built on-site, probably using whatever ship’s lumber had washed ashore. Crewmen took great care in the internment, placing it close to camp and even positioning their comrade in a traditional Russian Orthodox east to west orientation. In consultation with tribal and Forest Service representatives, and out of general respect, the burial itself was left in place and not exposed.
Archeologists believe the coffin could hold one of two survivors who died within the first days of the disaster, perhaps Tertii Stepanovich Bornovolokov, Alexander Baranov’s replacement as RAC chief manager. According to the scant historical record, his was one of only two bodies recovered “completely whole,” and he would have been considered of high enough status to warrant construction of a coffin.
An emerging story of survival
Although analysis is ongoing, a new picture is emerging of the Neva’s sinking and the privations of her shipwrecked crew. Rather than being paralyzed by their situation, archaeological finds suggest the survivors were active in their own rescue, sending out organized parties to collect useable wreckage, fishing, and hunting . Excavations confirm the crew had very little, but used everything they could salvage to maximize their odds. Sheets of Neva’s hull sheathing were ingeniously butchered, rolled, hammered and modified to create basic survival tools. Dozens of iron axes salvaged from the wreck, along with a handful of gunflints, gave survivors the chance to create fires and possible shelters. Even the broken leg of a navigators map divider, no longer useful after the Neva’s sinking, could easily have been repurposed as an awl, giving survivors a tool to create tents or heavy sailcloth clothing. After weeks onshore with little more than scattered wreckage, this remarkable ingenuity and skill at foraging allowed the group enough energy to launch overland search parties, a strategy which led to their ultimate rescue.
In a poignant gesture of forgiveness and healing, both Russian and Tlingit descendents, once bitter antagonists, jointly blessed the site at the completion of research, providing prayers for the doomed ship and those who perished. Chuck Miller, with permission from tribal elders, conducted a traditional Tlingit drum ceremony. Michael Baines (Tribal Chairman, Sitka Tribe of Alaska) participated in the ceremony, along with tribal elder Pat Alexander. Deacon Herman Madsen, assisted by Ana Dittmar, conducted the Russian Orthodox blessing. The Neva wreck site, a tragic place where so many died and struggled for survival, was no longer lost to history or forgotten.