SITKA, Alaska, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- In January 1813, just miles from its destination, the Russian-American Company frigate Neva foundered and sank.
More than a third of the ship's crew were able to make it to the shores of Alaska's Kruzof Island, but with limited supplies. Most lived to tell the story.
The wreck killed 32 men, 15 crew members had already died at sea. But 26 men made it to safety. Of those 26, only two of the men perished in the month spent waiting for rescuers -- in the harsh cold of winter.
Now, researchers are beginning to piece together how those 24 men survived the arctic elements.
"The items left behind by survivors provide a unique snapshot-in-time for January 1813, and might help us to understand the adaptations that allowed them to await rescue in a frigid, unfamiliar environment for almost a month," Dave McMahan, a researcher with the Sitka Historical Society, said in a press release.
The sailors were part of Russia's colonial ambitions in the Americas. The Neva and its crew had played an important role in defeating the natives of southeast Alaska, the Tlingit people. The defeat allowed the Russian-American Company to establish the trading city of Sitka -- Neva's destination on that fateful January day.
With the help of Tlingit natives, a National Science Foundation-funded team of excavators located the remains of the survivors' camp. Their digging has uncovered metal scraps, copper spikes, musket balls, a Russian ax and more. A fishing hook fashioned out of cooper was also found. The sailors likely struck gun flints against steel scraps to start fires, researchers say.
"Collectively, the artifacts reflect improvisation in a survival situation, and do not include ceramics, glass and other materials that would be associated with a settlement," McMahan said.
The team of researchers, from the United States, Canada and Russia, will continue to analyze the artifacts. But McMahan has also encouraged anyone with oral history of the Neva wreck to reach out to the Sitka Historical Society.
"One goal of the research is to replace some of the myths and 'lore of the sea' with scientific findings," he said.