IN 1804, INDIGENOUS TLINGIT PEOPLE living near the Alaskan town of Sitka went to war with the Russians. Russian fur traders, actually, and their battle would have far reaching consequences, not just for the Tlingit, but also for the future of Alaska, by setting the stage for it to become part of the United States. The battleground where this took place is now part of the Sitka National Historic Park, but the precise location of the Tlingit fort had been debated, until now. Thomas Urban of Cornell University spotted it in a map he made using ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic induction, two technologies that sense subtle changes in the soil.
The battle wasn’t just fought with guns; much of it was hand-to-hand. Miller tells a story of a Tlingit hero named K’alyáan, who floated down the Indian River holding onto a log and popped up in the middle of the Russian and Aleut forces. He killed many of them, the story goes, using a blacksmith’s hammer. Like many Tlingit warriors, he wore a battle helmet, in his case shaped like the head of a raven, and armor made of leather and wooden slats.