Historians estimate the Spanish flu killed 50 to 100 million people around the world, roughly 3 to 5 percent of the planet’s population. Per capita, more people died in Alaska, than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of Samoa.
The flu hit Alaska in 1918, but it wasn’t until late 1918 and early 1919 that the pandemic came to Bristol Bay, where it ravaged communities, killing off some villages in their entirety.
“This truly was as close to extinction as people experienced,” Katie Ringsmuth, history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and owner of Tundra Vision, a public history consulting business in Alaska, said. “What’s shocking to me is that very few people are talking about this as the anniversary arrives… this was a demographic game-changer. Before there were more native people than neo-Americans. Total annihilation is what this flu represented.”
Ringsmuth, who has been focusing on the history of the Naknek cannery and community has collected documents and records of how the flu affected this small fishing community in Bristol Bay. These documents were collected from the San Francisco-based Alaska Packers Association, who was the largest salmon packer in the state at the time.
Tim Troll, a former resident of Dillingham, used to run the museum there. Troll began to research more about how the flu affected Dillingham and Bristol Bay and was able to hear stories, firsthand, about the canneries role in the pandemic. He describes the Alaska Packers Association as the “Conoco Phillips of the time.”
Ringsmuth describes one story contained in the documents compiled by the Alaska Packers Association:
“The Superintendent of the cannery reports a boat is drifting down the naknek, so he sends out his cannery foreman to go retrieve the boat. And onboard were several people, probably a family, all the adults were dead with the exception of the children. These were the some of the kids they brought to the orphanage,” Ringsmuth said.
There are other stories like this in the documents left by the cannery doctors and nurses. Many children were left without parents, as the Spanish flu most often took the lives of people healthy adults, sparing children and the elderly.
“You tend to think it was the old people, the young the weak, but it didn’t. It killed the 30-year-old’s, the strongest part of the community,” Ringsmuth said.
No one knows how Spanish influenza reached Bristol Bay. Some believe it was brought by ships or by ministers of the Russian Orthodox church.
“This was a worldwide epidemic, and Alaska is always thought of being isolated and out of the way, but not enough to keep this sort of thing out,” Troll said.
At the time, the territorial government of Alaska was overwhelmed with the demand in medical care, and the federal government had exhausted services fighting the pandemic in the Lower 48, and providing for the war effort in World War I.
Bristol Bay’s canneries took the place of government entities and, Rinsgsmuth said, took everyone in and provided medical care to, not only their employees, but to everyone in the villages where they were at. [The canneries] had their doctors and their nurses go into the villages and tend to the sick and bury the dead so they wouldn’t be contagious.
“These canneries had the infrastructure to provide medical care, where the federal and territorial government had absolutely no recourse to deal with this,” Ringsmuth said.
After the flu subsided, the territorial government tried to reimburse the canneries for the services they provided.
“[Alaska Packers Association] went ‘no, no, no,’” Ringsmuth said. “They ended up writing a book about it, which turned into kind of telling the world how awesome they were. They did do something pretty incredible that defies what a lot of people assume, is that they would be uncaring and they only think of money, but the reality is, is that the [Alaska Packers Association] had the hospitals and the infrastructure and they saved a lot of people.”
The canneries also created orphanages for all of the children left behind in the wake of the flu.
“The children left were saved by the canneries. Bristol Bay was repopulated by these kids that were saved,” Troll said.
Ringsmuth saw the Alaska Native adaption after the loss brought with the Spanish flu as a form of strength.
“Instead of laying down and letting the wave of history wash over them, they got up and they adjusted to the systems that were presented to them. I think the Alaska Native people were a lot stronger than our narrative gives them credit for.” Ringsmuth said,” “Not only is it a system of adaptation, but they use that system to empower themselves and lead to nothing else than the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, and I see that as a culmination of what happened here.”
The canneries provided medical attention for the infected and burials for those who perished with the flu. Due to the high fatality rate, mass graves were made and can be found near infected villages all over Alaska.
“They were overwhelmed, they were digging mass graves, nobody was making coffins or anything like that,” Troll said.
It was mass graves like these that led to the breakthrough report completed in the late 90s that examined the origin and evolution of the viruses genes, suggesting it was mammalian in origin and may have been adapting in humans before 1918.
Ann Reid, micro-biologist and one of the authors of the report, used lung tissue that was taken from the body of a flu victim buried in one of these mass graves, under the permafrost, in Brevig Mission, Alaska.
Reid says that when her partner Johan Hultin was researching burial sites that many of the sites had not remained frozen or had crumbled into the sea. Brevig Mission was the only site that seemed to be intact. She notes that when Hultin first exhumed the victims in 1953, most of the bodies appeared to have been continuously frozen. When he reopened the grave in 1998, there was only one body still in good condition.
“It would seem that the permafrost in Brevig Mission had not remained permanently frozen during the intervening 40 years,” Reid said. “As climate change has affected temperatures in the Arctic more dramatically than anywhere else on Earth, the same is proving true of any other remaining once-permafrost graveyards along the Alaska coast.”
Reid says that the chances are good that if they were doing this project now, they would not have found any still frozen remains.
An anthrax outbreak in Siberia last year killed thousands of reindeer and a couple people in a small village. The anthrax came from infected reindeer that were buried years prior in the permafrost. With the thawing of permafrost in Arctic regions, the reindeer resurfaced and infected the nearby village. This outbreak has raised concerns for people living near the mass graves of the victims of the Spanish flu buried in Alaska’s permafrost.
For villages living in close proximity to these mass graves, Reid says it is extremely unlikely that the virus would be infectious if the bodies were located and exhumed today.
But the viability, or the ability for a virus to cause a disease, is variable, says Reid.
“Some viruses, like smallpox, are large, double-stranded DNA viruses that are relatively stable; that is, they can withstand freezing and thawing and retain their ability to infect cells. Exhuming smallpox victims from permafrost should, therefore, be done with extreme care, or just not done,” Reid said. “Other viruses, and influenza falls into this category, are fragile; influenza is a single-stranded RNA virus and cannot withstand freeze-thaw cycles, sunlight, high humidity etc. Its genetic material is easily damaged and broken into fragments that cannot be reproduced by the host cell.”
As for the outbreak in Siberia, anthrax is a bacterium that have spores that Reid says are extremely resilient.
“Disturbing the bodies of animals that died of [anthrax], or even the surrounding soil, can indeed lead to new infections,” Reid said.