Spanish Influenza in Alaska




The deadly Spanish Influenza first struck the United States in the summer of 1918, but didn't reach Alaska until late that fall. When Unalaska, one of Alaska's main coastal villages, found itself totally unprepared for the ensuing medical crisis, a plea for help went out and the United States Coast Guard Cutter UNALGA responded; it took the ship almost 5 days to then, many were already dead.


Upon inspection, Captain F.E.Dodge assessed Unalaska's situation and wrote: "Native population all down and helpless, unable to cook or care for themselves in any way. All teachers and inmates of the Jesse Lee Home are sick and helpless, all government school teachers are sick and helpless, the people at the jail and A.C.Co. house are sick and helpless, all at the U.S.Naval Radio Station Co. house are sick and helpless..."

The crew of the UNALGA immediately went to work: help came from the ships surgeon and the ships pharmacy. The commissary prepared food, the ships carpenters built coffins and others dug graves. Men from the ship went into homes and built fires, delivered buckets of soup, nursed the sick and carried out the dead. The UNALGA crew continued this life support, night and day for 2 weeks.

The influenza also decimated many other Alaska Native villages.
The first wave of the pandemic (in Alaska) raged from October 1918 until January 1919 and was so deadly, that when it hit Brevig Mission Village on the Seward Peninsula, 72 of its 80 residents were dead within 5 days. Almost a dozen other Native villages were abandoned after the majority of their people died and survivors were sent to Kenai, Tyonek or Eklutna.

After the third and final wave swept through Alaska (April to June 1919), the superintendent of the Jesse Lee Children's Home in Unalaska wrote:

"The years 1918 and 1919 will long be remembered as the time when the "flu" came to Alaska on a boat from the States and in less than 2 days, our village was laid low. The doctor was among the first victims, and at the Jesse Lee Home, their family of 75 were laid low, all except 2 boys and 1 girl. Out of a population of 300 in the village proper, 45 died in less than 10 days, but in the orphanage, 1 teacher and 1 girl passed away."

"In the Bristol Bay region, whole villages were devastated and in one place, every person died while the ferocious dogs, having finished their ghoulish work, ran wild. A relief vessel came to that  place and the sailors had to shoot the dogs before they could enter the village, a desolate place indeed and only half gnawed bones lying about on the ground told the story."

"In another settlement, whole families were found dead in the houses. In one home, a mother was found dead upon the bed, while upon her breast was a little baby that had died from starvation. A woman went in to one house and found the mother lying on the bed, life was extinct and close beside her, a little baby still living but emaciated, weak and trying to get some nourishment from its mother. Dead bodies were pulled out of houses, rolled in blankets and disposed of."

"In the Eskimo village across Snake River, about all the adults died and more than 100 little children were left orphans. In order to protect the dead bodies from dogs, the bodies were piled up in small rooms until no more could be put in."

"It was the same everywhere, the pestilence spread from place to place and at last drew near to the village of Kingegan*. The flu had appeared in a village some 60 miles away from Kingegan and many of those people had died. It was cold weather, bitterly cold with much snow upon the ground. The mail carrier came with his sled and dogs, left his mail load and then made ready for the journey to Kingegan."

"The mail sacks were placed upon the sled and the dogs restlessly awaited the order to go. Ki-tuk and his companion Tek-tuk were familiar with winter storms. They did not care about the wind that blew so hard or the blizzard that might rage and cover up the path. They both knew no fear and could trust their huskies to carry them through. Ki-tuk and his companion laughed at the storm, but before long, Ki-tuk began to feel sick. His head began to ache and he felt dizzy. All of his bones were aching and he was burning with heat from within, even though it was cold. All of his strength was fast going and he could not sit up to guide the dog sled anymore, so he laid down on the mail sacks in his sled. At the next stopping place, Ki-tuk was dead."

"Tek-tuk was now driving the dogs faster and faster, anxious to reach the next village where a short stay would be made. His head was dizzy and his bones were aching. Chills were going up and down his backbone and he was burning up with fever and could hardly sit up to guide the sled.  Once Tek-tuk got to the next village, he stepped off of the sled, staggered to the house, entered it and soon died."

"An Eskimo was found who would take the mail on to Kingegan. Since Ki-tuk was from Kingegan, his frozen body was laid on the sled full of mail sacks and the journey was made in due time. The people of Kingegan were all sick with the flu. Soon many were dead and among them was Wey-ak-k-new, the mother of Ad-loo-at. While her son had been an earnest Christian for many years, she had never turned from her old superstitions; she believed in evil spirits and had faith in the power of the witch doctor.  She died without knowledge of God's love and saving grace."

"All of Kingegan was ill with the flu and none were left to care for the sick. Ad-loo-at was at Shishmareff, teaching school and helping in mission work. He had left his wife and children well and happy back at Kingegan. Food had been laid in for them, wood gathered, chopped and stored away for winters use. Then came a day when he said good-bye and took the trail for his winters work at Shishmareff."

"One day, a dog sled appeared in Shishmareff and a young man went hastily to the mission house where Ad-loo-at lived. The man told him that everybody was sick at Kingegan and plenty people died. Your wife and all your children are very sick and there is no one to care for them. Friends told Ad-loo-at to stay in Shishmareff so he would not get sick, but he went back to Kingegan to help his family."

"Ad-loo-at found his village deserted, all was still as death, but his family was spared, yet very ill. He worked to save them, and little by little they were getting better. A baby was born, but passed away shortly. Ad-loo-at prayed to God for his loved ones and believed that all would come out for the best. He paid the price when the chills, aching bones, fever, and weakness came upon him."

"The superintendent of schools at Nome heard of the illness in Kingegan and sent Mrs. E.W.Tashner, a Christian nurse from the Mission Hospital to help them. She went to Ad-loo-at's home and cared for his family. She bathed his fevered brow, spoke words of cheer and comfort, however, he died. Ad-loo-at had done his best, he gave his life for the ones he loved."

*Kingegan is the Inuit name for Wales.