This October marked the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 pandemic of influenza, which swept the globe as World War I drew to a close. Worldwide, at least 2 billion people would contract the virus and 20 million people would succumb as the epidemic ran its course. For indigenous groups with little or no previous contact with western disease, the death toll would far exceed the averages documented for urban areas in the United States. Alaska, though remote, would see the death of many Alaska Native residents, with some local populations being devastated in a matter of weeks.
Along the shores of Norton Sound and on the Seward Peninsula, the fall of 1918 had been long but unusually cold, with snow coming late and in meager amounts. The late Willie Senungetuk said, “They knew something’s not right that fall. They were warned.” With winter closing in, the last ship of the season docked at Nome on Oct. 20, 1918. Aboard the Victoria were passengers from Seattle and mail which was to be distributed to the surrounding villages and gold camps via dogteam (Nome Nugget, Oct. 21, 1918). Mail was dispersed 12 hours following the ship’s arrival after it had been thoroughly fumigated to outlying communities. Taken up the coast by mail carriers, hunters, and residents travelling between villages, the flu virus spread quickly and with deadly efficiency. Villages and small camps were all infected, except for those that had sufficient warning to establish and maintain quarantines. Elders interviewed in the 1980’s, who had survived the flu, remembered how the sickness spread in their own communities. Mr. Senungetuk recounted how the sickness took its toll on his family: “I remember my grandfather died first … and my mother, my father were too weak to drag him out … and they want to move to the next door … hut … that house was cold … then they didn’t last.”
Quarantines were established at some communities. Shishmaref posted armed guards on the trails leading into the village, thereby halting the spread of the epidemic from travelling up the coast. At Mary’s Igloo, the quarantine was breached. The leaders then imposed a quarantine on half of the village, while the half that had contact with the epidemic’s carriers lost many to the sickness.
Spreading rapidly across the region, there was little time to send aid or relief to the outlying communities. When teams were finally dispatched from Nome, little could be done except bury the victims and gather the orphans. Pilgrim Hot Springs had just become the focus of the Jesuit missionaries in the region in 1917. Because of the epidemic, and the large number of orphans, Father Fortune quickly established the springs as an orphanage to accommodate the children whose families had perished.
As the epidemic raged, Father Fortune wrote:
“I struck Nome at the beginning of the epidemic called the Spanish influenza. The Natives were simply mowed down… On the 27th we met Mr. Reese (at Mary’s Igloo) and made up our minds to take as many families as possible to the Springs (Nov. 28, 1918)… Thirteen new patients come to our impoverished hospital. Atajok receives the last rites of the Church. Her condition is precarious; she is not expected to live long. Mosquito Kiktorakulek is improving. Stanislaus Anayok is very weak. Koyaglaluk died in his parent’s igloo near our landing (November 29, 2018)… Sunday in Advent. Death continues its ravages. Tullik passes away at about 7 pm. Ublureok receives the last Sacraments. He is not expected to live long. His mother will die soon of old age rather than of sickness. Mr. Cary passes the day cooking not only for today but for nearly the whole week (Dec. 1 , 2018).”
The death toll in the interior community of Mary’s Igloo, and along the Agiapuk and American Rivers, was significant. The orphanage established at Pilgrim would operate into the late 1930’s.
The following is a listing of the number of people that were documented to have died during this epidemic:
• Nome (Sandspit Village): 175
• Penny River to Cape Wooley: 74
• Teller/Brevig/Point Spencer/Jackson Point: 72
• Wales: 200
• St. Michael: 150
• American R./Agiapuk R./ Mary’s Igloo: 98
• Cape Nome/Solomon/Rocky Point/Golovin: 118
The numbers are stark but this is not the total mortality for the region. At some locations, no numbers were recorded and smaller sites, such as herders’ camps, are not included in these tallies.
By the end of January 1919, just three months after the arrival of the epidemic on the shores of the Seward Peninsula, somewhere between 30% and 40% of the area’s total population had died. The Spanish influenza was selective in that it seems to have killed mostly healthy adults in the prime of their lives and adolescents, as well as the elderly, leaving young children to be adopted—if they had any remaining community or family members—or to be placed in the care of the orphanages. The horrendous impact of the epidemic on our communities is almost unimaginable.
On this 100th anniversary of the 1918 Flu Epidemic, BSNC honors and remembers those who managed, with resilience and strength, to persevere and maintain our communities and traditions to this day through this incredibly difficult time.