Flu nearly wiped out Bristol Bay communities

For the last year newspaper headlines have suggested the H1N1 flu may blossom into a worldwide epidemic.

We Alaskans have been here before.

Ninety years ago, headlines in the Seward Gateway in the spring of 1919 boldly announced: Flu Hits Westward -- Many Die. The "Flu" was an especially deadly strain of H1N1 known as the Spanish Flu that claimed millions worldwide. "Westward" was Bristol Bay.

Word about the flu came to Bristol Bay by special messenger who traveled by dog team down from the Yukon River in December of 1918. The messenger was dispatched by the territorial governor to warn Dr. L.H. French at the government hospital at Kanakanak, near Dillingham.

Dr. French ordered a general quarantine. All travel into and out of the villages was restricted. Health officers were appointed in each village to enforce the quarantine. School and church services were suspended. By mid January of 1919 the doctor wrote he was confident that isolation and the measures taken would be effective. There was no sign of the influenza as April came.

Village residents pressed to have the restrictions lifted so they could travel to attend Russian Orthodox Easter services in the larger towns. It is not clear whether Dr. French lifted the restrictions or they were ignored. A travelling Russian priest is believed to have carried the flu with him. News of the influenza's outbreak in Bristol Bay did not reach the outside world until the cannery ships arrived in May.

A federal fisheries warden was on one of those ships. Here is part of what he described:


The Government hospital was crowded with victims, and the whole hospital staff was sick with the disease. The dead were lying unburied in their barabaras, and in many instances half-starved children were found in homes with the badly decomposed bodies of their elders about them. Strange to say, these children died only in rare instances. It was the young people and adults that felt the full force of this plague, there appearing to be a complete breakdown of their physical resistance whenever struck by the "flu" infection.

For the first three weeks after my arrival ... I put in my time principally in burying the dead. With a little assistance, the US Deputy Marshal and I interred almost the entire adult population of the Eskimo village of Kanakanak, and also organized the burying party that interred the dead of Dillingham. Many of the bodies were far gone in decomposition; ravenous dogs had been feeding upon them, and the conditions were too harrowing to narrate in this report in detail.

The government did send aid in the form of supplies and additional doctors and nurses. The warden noted, however, this effort was an embarrassing failure as most of the doctors and nurses dispatched to help were too preoccupied with collecting souvenirs or too disgusted to help the Natives.

In contrast, he observed that the heroic efforts of two hospital nurses Mary Conley and Rhoda Ray virtually saved the local Native population:

These two nurses ... have been working practically night and day for weeks on end -- doing all the janitor's work, the cooking for the entire hospital, all the nursing and caring for a number of children and babies whose parents were either dead or dying -- getting up, in fact, at six a.m. and continuing steadily on duty until 11 p.m., and getting up thereafter during the night to attend to babies and sick persons urgently demanding attention.

Also accorded praise, the warden noted, were the canneries, which showed "a more noble strain" than the government. Canneries provided critical medical services, food and care for the sick and lodging for the growing number of orphans.

As the 1919 fishing season came to a close, orphans housed at canneries throughout Bristol Bay were sent to Dr. French at the Kanakanak hospital. The small hospital was expanded over the next few years to raise and educate the orphans of the flu. These orphans became the source of new life for Bristol Bay. Many families in the region today descend from the young survivors of Bristol Bay's most devastating year.

Tim Troll enjoys researching the history of Southwest Alaska.


Tim Troll

Tim Troll is Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the wildlife habitat, culture and history of the Bristol Bay region.