The Story of the NEVA: Archaeologists piece together how crew survived 1813 shipwreck in Alaska
Join us on Wednesday, June 14 for dinner followed by a fabulous program by Dave McMahan regarding recent research related to the Russian-America Company ship NEVA.
Before its demise in 1813, the NEVA was famous as one of two vessels that completed the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe from 1803-1807. The ship later fought in the 1804 Battle of Sitka, a pivotal engagement in the Russian struggle for control over what was then the Alaska territory. After 1808, the ship was in the exclusive service of the Russian-American Company, which Tsar Paul I chartered to establish new settlements in Russian America, primarily Alaska, and carry out a program of colonization.
The NEVA met its demise after leaving the Siberian port of Okhotsk in late August of 1812 en route to Sitka. During a grueling three-month voyage, those on board endured water shortages and sickness. Fierce storms damaged the ship’s rigging. In mid-November the weakened sailors finally found shelter in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and then, after much debate, made a desperate attempt to reach Sitka.
In favorable weather, they almost reached their destination before wrecking off Kruzof Island in January 1813. The wreck killed 32; another 15 had already died at sea. Of the 28 who made it to shore, 26 survived for almost a month before their rescue.
A 2012 archaeological survey by the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Sitka Historical Society identified a site believed to be the 1813 camp of survivors from the wreck of the Russian-American Company ship NEVA. Support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation allowed for background research and marine remote sensing. In 2015 and 2016, with support from the National Science Foundation an international team of American, Russian, and Canadian researchers conducted terrestrial and marine archaeological excavations. The results of the field investigation, along with archival research in St. Petersburg and London, are adding details to our knowledge of the NEVA’s history and of survival in a harsh environment.
Dave McMahan is the primary investigator and project leader in the NEVA research. In 2013 he retired as Alaska’s State Archaeologist and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer where he had worked since 1983. He currently lives in the Nashville, Tennessee area but remains active with research and work in Alaska.