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1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic


In late August 1918, a naval ship left Boston and spread the flu to Philadelphia, where another ship was departing for Washington state by way of the Panama Canal. On Sept. 17, it docked at the Puget Sound Naval Station near Seattle and delivered the epidemic to the Pacific Northwest. As the flu spread to Seattle, longshoremen loaded steamships bound for Alaska. Doctors examined boarding passengers and crew members. Those with flu symptoms were turned away and the steamers headed north.

Although the Spanish flu had reached most communities in the United States by late September, 1918 the disease did not hit Alaska until late in the fall. This delay allowed public officials to create an influenza policy before the pandemic hit. The territorial governor, Thomas Riggs Jr., imposed a maritime quarantine in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease. US Marshals were stationed at all ports, trail heads and the mouths of the region’s rivers to ensure that travelers did not bring the disease into any of the territory’s widely dispersed communities. Schools, churches, theaters and pool halls were also closed within these communities.

When the ships docked in Juneau and other towns in Southeast Alaska, only slight coughing was heard, the kind that could be mistaken for a common cold. In mid-October, as Juneau doctors confirmed Alaska's first influenza cases, other steamers continued their rounds. Travelers left Cordova, Anchorage and other coastal settlements feeling fine, only to later infect Fairbanks and other inland towns.

When one ship arrived on October 20, Nome’s doctor examined about three dozen passengers and crewmen, then placed them under quarantine at Holy Cross Hospital. After five days, one person had fallen sick, but the doctor dismissed it as no more than an attack of tonsillitis. He lifted the quarantine. Four days later, a hospital worker died. Two days passed before town leaders quarantined all of Nome. People were ordered not to leave the city limits, but by then it made little difference.

The same day the SS Victoria had arrived, crewmen had unloaded mail bundles. The mail was fumigated, but the crew had been in contact with the mail carriers as they packed their dogsleds. The carriers rode out of Nome that same day, unwittingly delivering the flu to villages across western Alaska. Nobody in Nome knew people were dying in the villages until it was too late.

A week into the epidemic, Nome's chief doctor and Walter Shields, superintendent of the region's Eskimo population for the U.S. Bureau of Education, were both sick. When Shields died a week later, Ebenezer Evans, a 37-year-old teacher in Nome, was charged with containing the epidemic. He wrote in a report:

As one walked the streets of Nome, it seemed a city of the dead. A panic had struck the Natives, and their feverish conditions suggested the need of colder air. . . . They would leave their beds of sickness and go into the cold air, which, inducing pneumonia, carried them away rapidly. . . . From ten to twenty Natives were dying each day on average in Nome, and the dead wagon was in use constantly. . . . Many were frozen to death during the night, their fires having gone out.

Local leaders and doctors across Alaska ordered the closure of churches, schools and theatres. Traveling was prohibited between villages. Native potlatches were banned. Armed guards took up positions outside some communities. Some were ordered to shoot anybody who defied the ban.

On November 12 the collier Brutus, a coal-carrying ship, is scheduled to bring doctors and nurses to Juneau to care for flu cases among the Tlingit people.

Seventy-two of the eighty residents of Teller, Alaska died from November 15 to November 20th, 1918.

On November 16 longshoremen refuse to work at Snug Harbor for fear of catching the Spanish flu.

Thirty-one people die of flu on the SS Victoria on November 25th during her voyage south from Nome.

Back in Nome, Ebenezer Evans, now sick himself, had not heard from the villages across the Seward Peninsula. He ordered miners and their dog teams to inspect the backcountry. The temperature had sunk to 50-below, but little snow had fallen, leaving vast stretches of trail rocky and barren. As they travelled, they passed frozen bodies huddled together and packs of dogs fighting over human limbs. Dazed children wandered in search of their families. At a village north of Nome, a man froze with his arms around a stove. He was buried, still crouching, in a square box.

One relief team moved ahead of the flu and reached Shishmaref, 60 miles northeast of Wales, in time to warn villagers. The village posted armed guards eight miles south of town with orders not to let anyone pass. No one in Shishmaref got the flu.

When a team traveled up the coast to the villages of Teller and Brevig Mission, they found that the epidemic had struck at about the same time it had hit Nome. Evans wrote, "The flu killed almost everybody at a small settlement just north of Teller, a few adults and children being saved. They had arrived too late."

In early November, a mailman and a boy rode a dog team up the frozen coast. When they got to a small settlement six miles south of Wales, they were too sick to push on. The boy's father met them to bring his son home. The boy probably suffered as most 1918 flu victims did: feverish, perhaps wrapped in reindeer skins, and coughing up blood.

Arthur Nagozruk, the Inupiat teacher who had led his village to success until fall 1918, had told the father not to come to the village if his son was still sick. Perhaps the father was overcome with grief or did not realize that he himself was infected, but later that evening he rode into Wales with his boy, who was no longer ill, but dead.

In the little town of Brevig Mission, the virus struck quickly and brutally. It killed 90 percent of the town’s Inuit population in five days, leaving scores of corpses that few survivors were willing to touch. The Alaskan territorial government hired gold miners from Nome to travel to flu-ravaged towns and bury the dead. The miners arrived in Brevig Mission shortly after the medical calamity, and shot steam into the permafrost on a hillside, melting an area 6 feet deep, 12 feet wide, and 25 feet long for the mass grave.

In some immunologically isolated Alaska villages, half the population is lost to the disease. Yandeistukeh, a deep-water port on the Chilkat River, loses its last two inhabitants, Sayeet and his wife. Tanani.

In the Haines area, about 95 percent of its 150 inhabitants are wiped out.

In Juneau, citizens were instructed to “keep as much to yourself as possible.”

Fairbanks established quarantine stations, also guarded by marshals. Citizens were checked periodically for flu and given armbands reading “OK Fairbanks Health Department.” An experimental vaccine was imported from Seattle and distributed throughout the area in the hopes that it would prevent the spread of the disease. It did not. In Eskimo villages, shamans resorted to more traditional practices: the planting of “medicine trees” was widely believed to protect people against influenza.

Despite these precautions, influenza spread rapidly throughout the region in the late fall. Half of Nome’s white population fell ill. Some of them were: Walter Shields (B.I.A.); Anderson (life saving station); Captain Erickson (flyer); Mrs. Harry Clark, Neva Brown (Billie Brown's daughter); Fred Larson, John Milne (Humane Officer); Fred Segar (lives near Hastings Creek); Gus Nordstrom; Fin Rosvold and wife (jeweler, worked for S & H); Sam Boich (a Serbian called "Sport"); Ida Mascha (worked for Jim Swartzei); John Lutschinger; Chris Anderson; George Prosser; Mrs. Clarence Riggs; Mat Lawson, George Watson; Mrs. Seedler; Frank Mielke (barber); Pascoff (soldier); Maheras (soldier); Oscar Hendrickson (soldier); Headley (soldier); Andy Thompson (soldier); Ed Bridesen; and Nick Scovich. The Superintendent of Education, Walter Shields, was one of the first to die in the city, but other deaths quickly followed. Nome’s Eskimos who lived in their own village also suffered tremendously: more than half of the village died from influenza.

Because subsistence living was common throughout the territory, influenza killed Alaskans both directly and indirectly. When a family became ill with influenza, no one was left to feed the fires. Many people simply froze to death in their own homes. Suffering from influenza, many Eskimos and Native Americans found themselves unable to harvest moose or feed their traps and, in the wake of the pandemic, many people died of starvation. In some areas, the situation was especially acute as Eskimos did the unthinkable and ate their sled dogs. In other villages, hungry sled dogs turned on the dead and dying and ate them to survive.

A clash between western medicine and traditional Eskimos practices further complicated the situation. When western doctors attempted to move Eskimos to makeshift hospitals, many Eskimos reacted with alarm, viewing these as death houses. Patients often responded to their removal to a hospital by committing suicide. The situation worsened when the governor issued a special directive to all Alaskan Natives on November 7th. The directive urged Eskimos to stay at home and avoid public gatherings. The communal nature of traditional Alaskan life made this directive unacceptable to many Eskimos. Many people continued to gather in public and the disease spread quickly throughout many Native Alaskan communities.

In some areas, influenza decimated whole villages. A schoolteacher reported that in her immediate area “three [villages were] wiped out entirely, others average 85% deaths...Total number of deaths reported 750, probably 25% [of] this number froze to death before help arrived.”

Rescuers from Nome finally reached Wales three weeks after the flu struck the village. They found orphaned babies suckling their dead mothers and a shivering girl keeping tins of milk warm between her legs to feed her siblings. The rest of the survivors were holed up in the schoolhouse, living on reindeer broth. Evans documented this in 1919:

On entering Native igloos, in some cases, bodies were found in an advanced state of decomposition, where the adults had died and the children or women had attempted to keep the fires going. In many cases were found living children between their dead parents, huddling close to the bodies for warmth; and it was found in Wales that live dogs, taken into the house for comfort, had managed to reach the bodies of the Natives and had eaten them, only a mass of bones and blood evidence of their having been people.

Nagozruk kept records of who died and who survived the flu. The disease carried off most of the Wales village council, two Eskimo teachers, most of the whaling crews, and the owner of the largest reindeer herd. Seventeen people lost spouses. Three families were entirely wiped out. Nagozruk himself lost his wife and two sons. Five babies born around the time of the epidemic died. The flu orphaned more than 40 children.

About 120 people survived. Wales was no longer, and never would be again, one of the largest Eskimo villages.

The flu killed too many people to bury on the mountain. Rescuers dynamited two holes in the sand dunes and stacked 172 bodies one atop another. They dumped limbs and other body parts from an untold number of victims into the pits. There were no funerals. The rescuers rounded up some 45 dogs that had chewed on bodies or were going hungry. They killed them and buried them in the dunes, too.

The Bureau of Education discussed relocating the Wales orphans to other Eskimo villages or to faraway orphanages. Families in the villages of Kotzebue, Noorvik and Kivalina pledged to adopt the children. In the spring of 1919, the government wrote a tally of how many children each village would accept, but the orphans never left Wales. Instead, it appears that families were frantically reorganized.

Henry Greist, a Presbyterian medical missionary from Indiana, came to Wales a year and a half after the epidemic. In an unpublished manuscript (the one I read in my anthropology course), he described what happened to the orphans, based on a story he heard from the acting government superintendent of northwest Alaska. Greist didn't name the official, but it was probably Ebenezer Evans, who visited Wales in the spring of 1919.

According to Greist, the superintendent came to Wales a couple of months after the epidemic and called a meeting in the town's one-room schoolhouse:

Informing the widowers, widows, and others of marriageable age that since the disaster had left so many children without parents, he, representing the government, would have to take the homeless children and place them in an orphanage far away at which point they would be irretrievably lost not only to the village but to the surviving loved ones as well.

There was, however, one alternative which if chosen, had to be implemented immediately. It entailed the complete reorganizing of the decimated households. All widowers ‘here and now' were to choose from among the widows new wives, and marriageable youths were to select spouses as well. The acting superintendent, utilizing the authority of his office, would then marry all at the same time.

Without further discussion, widowers and young unmarried men were told to take a position on one side of the large room, and the widows and young unmarried girls on the other. Each man was then asked to select a wife from the facing line. If they did so, the couple would then stand aside and give their names to the secretary who would write them on the marriage certificate. If any hesitated, a spouse was selected for that person. After the licenses were duly filled out, a mass ceremony was held in which the substitute district superintendent formally pronounced each couple ‘man and wife' . . .

Unhappiness hung over the village for years.

Harold Napoleon, a longtime Alaska Native leader, grew up in the village of Hooper Bay, where the 1918 influenza and other epidemics killed dozens of people. He believes Alaska's villages never got over the epidemic.

The 1918 flu and other diseases killed the leaders and the best hunters of many villages, and destroyed Alaska Natives' beliefs, paving the way for missionaries and teachers to impress their ways on local populations.

Influenza slowly declined in Alaska during the late spring of 1919.




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