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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.