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It is important that we understand how we coped in the past with pandemics in order to learn what is important to us as a people and to cope with future disasters. The Spanish Flu or world influenza pandemic of 1918 didn’t devastate Alaska until 1919. See related posts here

There are some written records, but many histories have yet to be written. Fortunately, Raymond L Hudson has recently published a history of the Jesse Lee Home. This was an Alaska orphanage set up, like so many, to care for children orphaned by illnesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jesse Lee Home was originally established in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. See Where can one hear both verses of state song? .

In an editorial, the Anchorage Daily News noted,

The Jesse Lee Home occupies a special place in Alaska history: It is the birthplace of Alaska’s flag. Thirteen-year-old Benny Benson lived at Jesse Lee when he entered a schoolchildren’s contest to design a territorial flag in 1927. His design won, and the first place it flew as Alaska’s official flag was the Jesse Lee Home.

Beyond the Benson connection, the Jesse Lee Home has a special meaning to Alaska Natives. Early in the 20th century, epidemics ravaged many Native areas and left behind many orphans. The Jesse Lee Home, which moved from Unalaska to Seward in 1925, sheltered and raised many of the youngsters left behind.

The chapter is kindly reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. Raymond L. Hudson 2007 Family After All: Alaska’s Jesse Lee Home, Vol. I, Unalaska, 1889-1925. Walnut Creek, CA: Hardscratch Press. ISBN 978-0-9789979-0-8. (www.hardscratchpress.com)
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Chapter 30 The Pandemic of 1919

By the time World War I ended with the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, an influenza epidemic had crossed the United States and arrived on the west coast. In two years this pandemic would claim 50 million victims worldwide, including 675,000 Americans. Thousands of revelers in San Francisco wore protective face masks as they danced in the streets to celebrate the peace. Officials in Alaska were understandably worried. At Unalaska the dance halls and pool rooms were closed. Sailors were not allowed ashore.

The winter was stormy, but the general health of the people at Unalaska remained good. By spring, the threat seemed to have passed and life returned to normal. Dr. Newhall made a slightly ironic list of things to be thankful for: the local boys who had served in the war were unharmed; the flu had spared the village; snow was only five feet deep between the two Jesse Lee Home buildings; it was too stormy to dig clams, but plenty of clams were still waiting on the beach; the store was out of white sugar and table salt, but soft coal was only $25 a ton.

As May drew to a close, the weather cleared. The U.S.S. Saturn was in port to service the Navy radio station. Father Khotovitskii returned from visiting one of the outlying villages. Then on Friday, May 23, people began falling ill [1]. The speed with which the flu permeated the village was phenomenal. By Monday the influenza was epidemic, and the commanding officer of the Saturn wired Captain F.E. Dodge on the Coast Guard cutter Unalga anchored in Seredka Bay on Akun Island [2]. As Dodge took the Unalga toward Unalaska, a wire came from Dr. Linus H. French at the Kanakanak Hospital that the entire Bristol Bay region was being ravaged by influenza. On anchoring at Unalaska and inspecting the village, Dodge decided to remain at Unalaska. He wired Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, the governor of Alaska, and Dr. French about his decision.

On Wednesday morning, May 28, the Unalga tied up at the A.C. Co. dock in order to be better able to deliver assistance. Five people had died since the illness began. Dodge inspected the village, the Dutch Harbor settlement, and the naval radio station near Dutch Harbor. The magnitude of what he found was reflected in the repetition of his report:

…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 sick and helpless, all government school teachers sick and helpless, the people at the jail and A.C. Company house sick and helpless, all at U.S. Naval Radio Station sick and helpless, except the Chief Operator who is working night and day….[3]

“It appeared to be a case where it was necessary for the entire ship’s force to co-operate,” he wrote, “without a thought of their own personal health or comfort in order to combat the situation with assurance of success.” He called for volunteers. The ship’s surgeon, F.H. Johnson, oversaw all medical relief. He was assisted by the pharmacist’s mate, E.S. Chase. The officer in charge of the commissary prepared food. Overall relief work and the distribution of food fell to the executive officer, along with the job of getting a service hospital in shape in case members of the crew fell ill. While the ship’s carpenter N. Bruinilla built coffins, Boatswain S.B. Johnson and a detail of men dug graves. Three volunteers headed by Dental Surgeon E.W. Scott went to the naval radio station and to Dutch Harbor. The village itself was covered by three men under Lieutenant C.E. Anderson with headquarters at the A.C. Co. office. The Jesse Lee Home became the responsibility of Captain of Engineers T.G. Lewton and six men: ordinary seamen L. Straley and F.E. Honeywell, seamen 2nd class F.K. Briggs and M.V. Wilson, and firemen 3rd class S.O. Johnson and J.B. Sowell. Other men would be added to these lists.

Dr. Newhall was one of the first to fall ill. He was bedridden, and within a short time the entire staff followed. Only five children escaped. Simeon Oliver remembered that Benny Benson was one of these. “Why he didn’t come down with it, no one seemed to know,” Simeon said, “probably too ornery or something of this sort. He was a lonely boy. We’d hear him outside singing to himself. He never strayed far from our open windows. We could always hear him singing or talking to himself or tapping stones. There wasn’t even a dog around with which he could play. [4]”

The Home became even more crowded when Lucy Rosenberg and her children sought shelter. They were followed by Andrew, Paul and Sarah Morton. The doctor was relieved when Captain Lewton and his six men arrived. The women on the staff, on the other hand, were nervous about un-chaperoned sailors roaming the halls of the girls’ dorm and chatting with those well enough to talk. Too sick to protest, however, they stayed in their rooms confined to bed. Dr. Newhall was thankful.

It was a good thing they could not get down into the kitchen. Oh, that kitchen – grease, grease, grease – the floor was a veritable skating rink. Slid quite a ways on a fried slice of bacon and that at 75 cents per lb – The greasy dishpan with its never ending pile of dirty dishes. All kinds of dishes were used and it made no difference how they went into the dish pan. Company dishes, cut glass, silverware, pots and pans all the same, around the scummy pan they swished. Washcloths that belonged to the girls with crocheted edges were used for dish rags and they wiped on any old thing, roller towels, etc., and they didn’t get washed after every meal. The sink spout must have become disjointed the first day or so and all kinds of dirty water etc. was going on the floor under the sink. The sailors liked boiled beans the best but they were not always well done, and often were not salt[ed] enough. At last the convalescents got solid food. fried eggs reeking with grease, toast soaked with butter, potatoes peeled and fried until they were dark with grease, beef steak served cold sometimes and half an inch more or less of grease on it; bacon, Oh! such thick slices. The doctor, before the flu, thot he had indigestion and couldn’t eat greasy things, but guess he was cured after the grease diet. But the sailor boys were happy – they smoked and chatted and every and anon feasted on the good things sent up from the cutter. Out on the beach the seagulls and ravens held high carnival and daily banquets.

By May 29 the situation had worsened. Captain E.A. Coffin joined Lewton at the Home, “nursing, feeding and doctoring them as all are sick and helpless there,” according to Captain Dodge. By the end of the day, the total dead in the village had reached nine. Men from the ship went into homes to build fires, deliver food, nurse the sick, and carry out the dead. The next morning Anna Lukanin and her newborn child were found dead while her four other children stood shivering in the cold house. They had gone hungry for two days. The father or father-in-law died later that day. May 30 also saw the death of Alexandra Sokolnikov. Her husband, Vasilii, had worked at the whaling plant at Akutan where he had died a few days earlier. Dodge ordered a vacant house to be thoroughly cleaned and turned into a temporary home for orphans or children whose parents were too sick to care for them. Master at Arms Peter Bugaras and three other men were placed in immediate charge of 12 children. Eighty-five years later, Alexandra and Vasilii Sokolnikov’s son recalled being taken with his sister to “one of the warehouses used by the A.C. Company.” [5] The boy, Vasilii, would eventually be adopted by Afenogin Ermeloff of Nikolski and become known as Bill Ermeloff. By June 4 there were 26 children crowding what was called “an improvised orphanage.” For decades people remembered teams of sailors delivering food to homes. Most frequently, pails of soup were carried from house to house with long waits between deliveries. The boys in the Home referred to the soup as belly wash. It didn’t fill them up much, according to Newhall. “One most caved in before the next meal came,” he wrote. “One feller said he was so hungry and so thin that his ‘umbilical’ button had stuck to his back bone (but he didn’t say umbilical).”

… a sailor was bringing up a pail of soup from the ship and he dropped his Sunday shoes in it. Two sailors were carrying two heavy pails of soup to the houses in the village when a sick man looked out and saw them set down their pails and have a smoke and a chat while in the meantime two dogs were licking away at the soup in the pails. The sailors laughed and went along on their errand of mercy. O finicky folks – what they don’t know they needn’t worry about. However, that patient didn’t eat any of that soup.

One of our convalescents went over to the other house and they had fried beefsteak for dinner and it was in liberal pieces but greasy and tough. The poor fellow was weak in body and in the jaw but he chewed and he chawed looking at me with a most solemn mien until I had to laugh and asked him what was the matter. “Well,” he said, “I am trying to make out whether this is bull meat or belt leather.”

Dr. Johnson visited Margaret Lewis at the Home on May 29. She had given birth to a son a few days earlier and complications had developed. He performed surgery and administered an antistreptococi vaccine and a saline solution, “all of which did no good.” She died on the evening of May 31. She was 24 years old. Lotta Ketchum was the member of the staff who stayed on her feet the longest. She was able to care for the infant until she finally fell ill and handed the job over to one of the seamen. He was a tall, lanky man, as Dr. Newhall described him, who came into the doctor’s room and said, “Wall, I’ve got a new job – got to take care of that kid and feed ‘im.” Newhall looked at him and asked, “Are you going to bring it up on the breast or the bottle?” The sailor stood dazed for a moment and then burst out laughing. “Wall, by gosh, guess it will have to be the bottle – breasts are pretty dry.” On June 1 Leontii Sivtsov died. He was a deacon in the church and an accomplished linguist who had assisted Waldemar Jochelson in the collection of Aleut folk tales in 1909 and 1910. Nekifor Dyakanoff also died that day. He was the head of a prominent family and several of his children and grandchildren, including Kathryn Dyakanoff Seller, had lived at the Home. His home was on Hog Island in Unalaska Bay. Although warned to stay on the island, he came into the village and contracted the illness. [6]

The next day, Peter Kashevaroff died at noon. He was survived by Eliza and five children aged four to nine. His body, like so many others, was placed in a simple coffin and taken to the cemetery on a cart. Newhall wrote about “the rattle of the wheels on the beach stones” passing the Home, “telling of one more victim – that was all.” The dead were buried in rows. Eventually the Iliuliuk Club purchased a stone marker for Peter’s grave on which was engraved his service as president of the organization. He was not quite 35 when he died. Lilly Rosenberg Anderson, who had lived at the Home off and on and who had recently married, also died on June 2. She was Lucy Leavitt’s sister-in-law. With the death that same day of Mary Pokopeuff Levigne, the noted basketry teacher and a close friend of Dr. Newhall, the casualties had reached 31. Simeon Oliver looked out his dormitory window and saw coffins sitting outside houses waiting for someone inside to die. Day after day Captain Dodge sent radiograms telling of no improvement. The entire ship’s company was employed in relief work. More orphan children were placed in the improvised home. From May 28 to June 1, 350 rations had been distributed each day. On June 2 the number slightly decreased. On June 3 the Bear arrived in port with Captain Uberoth, commander of the Bering Sea fleet. The surgeons from the Bear and Unalga divided the work on shore, with the Bear’s surgeon taking the portion of town from the marshal’s office eastward. Governor Riggs wired that the Navy vessel Marblehead was being sent with Navy doctors, Public Health doctors, and nurses. Dodge wired back that while he needed help nursing the ill, the Marblehead could not offer sufficient assistance to the Bristol Bay region. The governor felt unsupported by the federal government. On the June 5, he wired Dodge, who had fallen ill himself the day before:

Can get no satisfaction from Washington, they passed the buck to me last epidemic and evidently doing same thing again. My funds very small but allot you additional five hundred. Appreciate your splendid work and will co-operate best of my limited ability. Do not spend too much money on coffins for dead, but conserve all available funds for care of living. Keep me constantly advised so that I can punch up Washington. Am asking ten thousand for your immediate use.

Twelve men from the Bear came ashore to help dig graves, carry coal, and deliver food under the direction of officers from the Unalga. Deputy U.S. Marshal Paul Buckley had also arrived on the Bear. He readily agreed to the transfer of the 12 oldest children from the temporary home to the jail to relieve crowding. The two schoolteachers, Agnes Danford and Miss Gard, were also taken to the jail after they contracted the flu. Reports of influenza reaching Akutan arrived on June 3. The village was quarantined and no ships were allowed to land. By June 6, 33 women and children in the village were ill. The men, working at the whaling station across the bay, were also stricken. On June 4, Feodore Moriss, the adopted son of Annie and Mark Moriss, died. He was 15. Annie herself died three days later. On June 6 Dr. Newhall was well enough to relieve the sailors, who then returned to the Unalga. They gave the kitchen a thorough scrubbing before they left. Throughout the village, people began to convalesce. The number of rations distributed was down from 350 to 90. People were still seriously ill, however. With the deaths of Zoe Borenin on the 11th and Nicolai Kudren on the 13th, the epidemic came to a close. According to Captain Dodge, there had been 46 deaths. Newhall said 44 had died, and this number is reflected in district court records.

The children in the “improvised orphan’s home” were returned to parents who were still alive. “Those whose parents were dead,” wrote Dodge, “were taken by other native families in the village, under the directions of the Rev. D. A. Hotovitsky [Khotovitskii].” On the 12th the building used for the children was cleaned and locked. Dodge submitted a bill to Agnes Danford, as the representative of the Bureau of Education. There had been 3,120 rations distributed costing .98953 cents each, for a total of $3,087.3336. In addition, he gave her an itemized bill for miscellaneous expenditures for $1,088.44.

On June 17 the Unalga sailed for Bristol Bay. Father Khotovitskii and Chief Alexei Yatchmeneff wrote to Captain Dodge on July 1 thanking him on behalf of the community for “the heroic work” he and his men had done. “We feel had it not been for the prompt and efficient work of the Unalga, when everyone willingly and readily exposed himself to succor the sick,” they wrote, “Unalaska’s population might have been reduced to a very small number if not entirely wiped out.” They offered prayers “for the welfare of everyone of the good ship Unalga, who so cheerfully risked their lives to save the people of Unalaska.”

The staff at the Home followed the next day with a letter expressing gratitude for “the aid and kindly ministrations given to the sick at the home.” The Home and the village had indeed been fortunate, wrote Dr. Newhall, “that the U.S.C.G. Unalga was near and that Captain F.E. Dodge came to our help so promptly, and so efficiently took charge of the situation.” The letter was signed by A.W. Newhall, Edith Gavitt, Emma E. Supernaw, Earl R. Lewis, and Lotta Ketcham.

On September 15 Dr. Newhall and Alexei Yatchmeneff filled out 44 death records for the district court.[7] The Unalga returned to Unalaska at the end of the season and prepared to sail south. Eliza Kashevaroff left aboard the shiip on October 15. She took her five children: Elinore, 9; Chester, 8; Victor, 6; Ethel, 5; and Mildred, 4. According to family tradition, Peter Kashevaroff’s dying request to his wife had been that his children receive an education in the States.[8] Also leaving were Lucy Rosenberg, Katie Rosenberg, and Sarah Morton.[9] Samuel Applegate and the agent of the Alaska Commercial Company had requested passage for all of them. The log of the vessel noted that they were leaving because “there is no means of support for them at Unalaska, their natural protectors having passed away during the epidemic of influenza.” Eliza Kashevaroff lived to be an elderly woman. For her 90th birthday she showed her younger relatives that she could still bend at the hip and touch her hands to the floor.[10]

Throughout the epidemic the weather had been unnaturally fine: sunny days and calm nights. Years afterward, whenever good weather persisted for more than a couple of days, the older residents of the village who had been alive in 1919 began to get nervous.

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Notes–

1 F.G. Dodge to M.E. Reynolds, Commodore Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard. June 30, 1919. NARA. RG 26, Box 1846.

2 Simeon Oliver, tape-recorded conversation with Henry Swanson, Philemon Tutiakoff and Ray Hudson, May 25, 1979.

3 Bill Ermeloff conversation with Ray Hudson, Sept. 1, 2005.

4 Walter Dyakanoff conversation with Ray Hudson, April 25, 1996.

5 Third Judicial District. Unalaska Record Book, pp. 71-114.

6 Elizabeth Haralson conversation with Ray Hudson, Jan. 17, 2006. She is a granddaughter and namesake of Eliza Kashevaroff.

7 Ship’s Log. U.S. Coast Guard cutter Unalga. Oct. 15, 1919. NARA. RG-26.

8 Elizabeth Haralson conversation with Ray Hudson, Jan. 17, 2006. Mildred Kashevaroff Johanensen died at the age of 91 on Nov. 5, 2006.

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Ray Hudson is an historian and artist. Previous works include– Moments rightly placed : an Aleutian memoir Language: English Publisher: Fairbanks : Epicenter Press 1998.

People of the Aleutian Islands Unalaska City School District (Alaska) 1986.


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