The black death didn’t get to Alaska until November. When it did, it cut down almost everyone in its path.
The territorial governor imposed a quarantine and restricted travel into the Interior, stationing U.S. Marshals at all ports, trailheads and river mouths to interdict travel between communities. He issued a special directive urging Alaska Natives to stay at home and avoid public gatherings. Theaters closed, churches cancelled services, schools were let out, but because of the inescapably communal nature of traditional life Natives were infected and died disproportionately. In Brevig Mission, only eight of eighty people survived. In some villages there were no survivors at all. When the influenza pandemic passed late the following spring, those left alive were too weak to hunt for food, and even more died of starvation.
In Niniltna in March 1919, Chief Lev Kookesh and his wife Alexandra were too ill to get up and feed the fire in their wood stove. They froze to death in their bed. Four miles up the road at the Kanuyaq Mine, mine manager Josiah Greenwood lost his wife and both sons, and one in four of his work force.
Some of the uninfected turned to predation and thievery. Harold Halvorsen was beaten to death in a fight over his last bag of flour. Bertha Anelon was assaulted in her own bedroom and died of her injuries two days later, alone in the bed in which she had been attacked. The offices of the Kanuyaq Mine were broken into half a dozen times, the cash box stolen, the glass case housing the Cross of Gold nugget shattered and the Cross gone, the company files rifled and set on fire. Toilets and refrigerators were ripped out of mine workers’ homes as residents lay in their beds with no strength to resist. Food, clothes, photographs, personal papers, photographs, jewelry, all vanished, most never to be recovered by their owners.
Empty homes were stripped and abandoned. Cemeteries overran their boundaries. After seeing their last living family member into ground, many survivors left for Fairbanks or Anchorage or even Outside. Village populations halved by the epidemic were halved again by emigration.
Eventually, inevitably, those who remained rallied. In Niniltna, the memorial potlatch for Chief Lev and his wife was seen by many as a start down the road of recovery from an eight-month long nightmare of disease and death, a time to mourn the dead, a time for the living to nourish their souls and rebuild their homes and towns. They knew that moving forward was necessary for survival, even if they also understood that life would never be the same for any of them ever again.
Organizing the potlatch fell to Chief Lev’s only child, Elizaveta, age seventeen. Her life had nearly been forfeit, too, except that someone had come to their house, a man, a young placer miner, miraculously uninfected, who told her he had been checking house to house for anyone left alive. When he found her, she was laying in her bed, suspecting her parents were dead in the next room but too weak to get up and find out. Now on her feet and like the rest of the survivors thin and pale and grieving, she was determined to do her best by her tribe, by her parents, and by her chief. Those of the girls from down at the Northern Light still living helped her wash and dress the bodies in their finest clothes. The young placer miner, named Herbert Elmer “Mac” McCullough, kindled a coal fire in the cemetery and used the heat to dig their graves in the still frozen ground.
Some remaining survivors weren’t too sick to grumble, starting with the scandal of women no better than they should be laying out two tribal elders. Elizaveta had always been a wild child, they told each other, although much of that could be laid at Lev’s door. He was the one who’d taught her to hunt and fish and trap in the first place, over the objections of his mother and her sisters and the rest of the elders, members of a conservative and traditional tribe who thought a woman’s place was in the home, sewing skins and making babies. He’d even allowed Elizaveta to spend the previous summer working his gold claim in the Quilak foothills, and with Quinto Dementieff there, too. Chaperoned by her father, it was true, but still.
Fun fact: My favorite of all the Kate Shugak novels. I got to tell a hundred years of Alaska history through the life of Old Sam Dementieff, who might be my favorite character (especially after that scene in Killing Grounds. You know the one I mean.)
It’s so long because I tried to get Chopper Jim out of town and out of the narrative, but then he went and had a story line of his own, which just had to be included, especially when he brought home the solution to the scavenger hunt Old Sam sent Kate on from his grave.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.