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Here’s How a Crew Survived an 1813 Shipwreck

The Neva’s remaining crew managed to live an entire month in an Alaskan winter with just the wreckage of their ship

(Glyn Davies/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

In the early 19th century, a Russian-American Company ship called the Neva gained worldwide fame for its role in the first-ever Russian circumnavigation of the globe. But in January 1813, the ship gained notoriety for something else — its wreck. Now, Stephanie Pappas reports for LiveScience, scientists think they’ve unearthed a camp that’s full of clues about just how the shipwrecked crew survived.

Pappas writes that survivors managed to make it to shore and live for almost a month in the middle of winter before they were rescued on the island of Sitka in Prince William Sound. The story of their dramatic wreck and survival lived on in the oral histories of Sitka’s indigenous Tlingit people, reports Pappa, despite a dearth of official reports or written information about the wreck.

"Russian Sloop-of-War Neva" by Drawn by Capt Lisiansky, engraved by I. Clark. (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, an international team of researchers was able to find the site of the survivors’ camp with Tlingit assistance. The National Science Foundation, which funded the site’s excavation, says in a release that a team discovered “everyday tools” used by the 28 survivors. (Two died in the month before the remaining crew was rescued.) 

Gun flints, Russian axes, musket balls and even improvised fish hooks were found at the dig, painting a picture of the life lived by the desperate survivors as they attempted to live through a brutal winter. The team thinks the crew managed to get through the freezing temperatures by foraging and even using firearms to light fires so they didn’t freeze. "They modified wreckage in desperation, but with ingenuity," the NSF release says. 

The Neva’s 1813 Alaska wreck wasn’t the only disaster to befall a ship with its name. In 1835, another Neva (coincidentally built in 1813) crashed off of King Island, Tasmania. 224 people, many of them convicts, died in the wreck. 

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