Although influenza had reached most communities in the United States by late September, 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 these communities.
In Juneau, citizens were instructed to “keep as much to yourself as possible.” 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 spreadof 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. 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, noone 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 survive.
|Eskimos contracted and died from influenza in disproportionately high numbers. [Credit: The Library of Congress]|
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 communities.
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.” w
Influenza slowly declined in Alaska during the late spring of 1919.