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North Dakota

Panoramic view of Fargo, North Dakota. [Credit: The Library of Congress]
Panoramic view of Fargo, North Dakota. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

In late September, as influenza swept across the country, newspapers in North Dakota asserted that “if the people of North Dakota exercise ordinary care they need not fear the ravages of this disease." On September 27th, the Fargo Forum proudly boasted that the "Spanish Influenza Hasn't Hit Fargo."

Within a week, the situation had changed. Fargo reported a hundred cases of influenza on October 4th. One day later, on October 5th, Jamestown reported 1,000 cases.

Trains carrying patients suffering from influenza were forbidden to stop at stations such as this one in Bismarck. c1910-1930. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

Trains carrying patients suffering from influenza were forbidden to stop at stations such as this one in Bismarck. c1910-1930. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

Following advice from the State Board of Health, Mandan authorities acted early, closing all theaters, churches, schools, and other places of public gatherings during the first week of October. In Bismarck, public health officials took a different approach, insisting that conditions there did not necessitate a quarantine of any type. But by the second week of October, they were forced to change their mind, and, as cases mounted in Bismarck, public schools, churches and theatres were closed and public meetings of every kind were banned.

By October 10th, the situation had worsened across the state and the Bismarck paper was reporting pleas from Jamestown for volunteers to fight the epidemic there. On the 19th of October, state officials, fearing that the disease was spreading too rapidly, issued orders forbidding trains to transport patients suffering from influenza.

The disease struck the young hardest and the local papers often focused on their stories. A typical story was reported in The Bismarck Tribune, on October 26th. Two young men from Bismarck contracted and died of influenza. One of these was Christian G. Lucas, the eldest son of the mayor of the city, who died at the age of 21. He was described as a young man of great promise who wanted to do his part in the war effort and was, in fact, in a strange stroke of fate, to get his induction orders from the naval aviation corps the same day he entered the hospital suffering from influenza.

Matt Barlett owned a homestead with his sister, Allison, near Minot. Allison died in the epidemic and Matt was taken to a hospital. While in the hospital, Barlett asked relatives in Wisconsin to care of the ranch and stock. Two volunteered, Charlie and George Barlett, but both became ill as soon they arrived in the state. Charlie started for home, but was taken off the train at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he died. George was nursed by a neighbor and recovered. Matt also recovered, but ended up giving up his ranch.

As the situation worsened, concerns that the flu might continue well into November became common. Although they ultimately decided not to do so, health authorities did discuss the possibility of postponing the general election.

The virulent nature of the disease and the inability of doctors to treat it led many in North Dakota to speculate on the causes of the disease. In Towner, the local newspaper featured an article which theorized that soldiers, who had dug miles and miles of trenches across central Europe during the recent war, had unwittingly unearthed tainted remains of plague victims. The bodies of these victims were mistakenly described as the cause of the current pandemic.

The epidemic began to wane during late November. It continued to be pervasive throughout the state during the winter and spring of 1919. By the late spring of 1919, the disease had behun to disappear from the state.

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