Orphans at Nushagak in 1919.

In the long sad history of contagious diseases in Alaska, at least since written records have been kept and until the invention of airplanes, all have come by sea. 

European contagions first arrived in the Americas with Columbus, and for the next four centuries, sailors and passengers regularly delivered diseases to a population of First Americans who had little immunity to them. The result was a seaborne genocidal disaster which killed millions, and from which indigenous American cultures have never fully recovered. 

Europeans and their ships did not arrive in Alaska until the mid-1700s, but the local inhabitants were no better at surviving the new viruses and bacteria than their southerly cousins. 

The first recorded Alaskan epidemic was a respiratory ailment brought to the Aleutians by a Russian ship in 1791 and subsequently spread to Kodiak Island. In 1802 a fever came to Atka on the Russian ship Alexander Nevsky. Influenza ravaged Kodiak in 1804 when the Boston ship O’Cain arrived from California with a crew of returning Alutiiq sea otter hunters. Well into the 20th century, epidemics continued to sweep Alaska with depressing frequency — influenza, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis and various unclassified fevers and coughs — all carried on ocean-crossing ships.

An influenza outbreak in 1819 is particularly well documented. It first killed about 50 people in Sitka after its arrival from Java on an American merchant ship. In November it sailed from Sitka to Kodiak on the Russian American Company vessel Finlandia. 

Within a few days of the Finlandia’s arrival, nearly everyone in Kodiak was afflicted, from babies to elders, and a few days after that, 48 people were dead, one-third of the local population. The symptoms, speed and lethality of the disease have led modern epidemiologists to believe it was a strain of the influenza virus which has afflicted humans for millennia, and of which Covid-19 is only the latest variety.  

Seymon Yanovsky, the 31-year-old Russian American Company manager for Alaska, was in Kodiak with his wife and infant son at the time. He wrote later that the illness began with “a fever and a heavy cold, a cough, shortness of breath, choking, and three days later death followed!” 

Yanovsky described the scene in a “kashim,” a large wooden communal structure, where more than a hundred Alutiiq people suffered through the disease: 

“Some were already dying, their bodies growing cold, next to those who were still alive; others were already dead: groans and screams tore at my heart. I saw mothers already dead on whose cold breasts hungry children crawled, crying and trying to find food for themselves, but in vain.”

At the height of the epidemic there were not enough able-bodied people to bury the dead, and corpses lay above ground until the survivors rose from their sickbeds to do the digging. According to Yanovsky, “It was good the weather was frosty because there was no smell.”

Yanovsky nursed the sick with chamomile tea and warm food, accompanied by the Russian Orthodox monk Father Herman. The future saint was in his mid-60s at the time but remained healthy, and according to Yanovsky, “ceaselessly, tirelessly, and at great personal risk, visited the sick, not sparing himself in his role as priest- counseling those suffering to be patient, pray, repent, and prepare themselves for death.” 

Yanovsky and his family got the flu and prepared their own selves for death, but after a few days recovered and returned to Sitka. Father Herman went back to Spruce Island and built an orphanage there for the children whose parents had not survived.  

While the influenza epidemic of 1819 is forgotten in Sitka and Kodiak, its return in 1918 and 1919 remains a shattering cultural memory in western Alaska. 

The virus arrived in Nome in the fall of 1918 on the steamship Victoria from Seattle. Before it burned through the available human kindling in mid-winter, it killed hundreds of people in villages on the Seward Peninsula. The following spring it came to Bristol Bay.

No one knows what ship brought the virus — historians argue over a boat from Unalaska with an infected priest or a cannery supply ship from Seattle. Regardless of its origins, by July the flu had killed an estimated 40% of the adults in Bristol Bay, orphaned hundreds of children and destroyed the social fabric of dozens of communities.   

With 1919 still very present in their minds, the people of Dillingham recently asked the governor to shut down this summer’s Bristol Bay salmon fishery to prevent the arrival of COVID-19 carrying fishermen and processing workers. Given the current low profile of the virus in the state however, not to mention the economic weight of the fishery, the state has decided instead to proceed with the fishery using protocols and mandates to maintain a COVID-free salmon season. 

Viruses defy prediction however, and whether those edicts will prevent an outbreak is this summer’s multi-million-dollar question. A few cases in Egegik in the next few weeks could change the current calculus of risk and reward, of mortality versus money. For now, just days away from the state’s first salmon opening of the year, in Cordova, the only certainty is that humans have yet to outrun viruses and the power they wield on individual lives and global history remains undiminished. 

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