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Grand Forks Area Smallpox Epidemic

The Grand Forks area saw a smallpox epidemic in the fall of 1878 that killed the city’s first physician. Few newspaper accounts exist about the outbreak, but one family’s history links the epidemic to a neighbor who knocked on the family’s door and collapsed unconscious onto their kitchen floor, bleeding from smallpox. Of the six people at home, three were sickened and died -- the father and two small daughters just days apart. 

Their bodies were placed in wooden coffins, sprinkled with lye and buried in the family’s pasture, but were later exhumed and reburied in a cemetery. The mother was pregnant. She was infected, but survived and suffered impaired vision. She gave birth to a son.

The epidemic affected the small town of Grand Forks and nearby Americus Township south of town. Dr. George Hacston of Grand Forks died from the disease that November. He was 37 years old. His body was immediately buried and his clothes taken a half-mile out of town and burned. His house was fumigated with sulfur and chlorine gas and also whitewashed. The people who tended to this work also burned their clothes.

Two to four dozen people fell ill, including a newborn. The Grand Forks County Board of Commissioners and the commander of Fort Pembina established a quarantine on the area.

Local officials apparently tried to keep the epidemic a secret. The St. Paul Pioneer Press learned of the outbreak from people coming from the Grand Forks area, calling them refugees. They told of several smallpox deaths, and at least eight people died. One Americus Township resident later recounted, “We were almost completely isolated or rather locked out … because of the terrible fear that had gotten into the people.”

A doctor had come to tend to Dr. Hacston in the week before his death. He also vaccinated hundreds of people for smallpox, but he took ill and could not continue. A third physician from St. Paul responded. The county commission gave him full authority to do whatever to aid the sick and to prevent the outbreak’s spread. He visited sick families and changed his clothes before and after every visit. He went from house to house, vaccinating hundreds of people and fumigating the homes of those infected. On this date in 1878, the epidemic was waning and the doctor was preparing to return to St. Paul. He recommended that patients recovering from the illness burn their clothes and whitewash their homes. 

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Lunseth, J.H. (1992). The smallpox epidemic and its effects on the Tweten and Hofto families: 1878-1879.
Star Tribune. 1878, November 30. Page 1
Minnesota State Board of Health. (1878). Sixth annual report of the state board of health of Minnesota. Johnson, Smith, & Harrison: Minneapolis, MN
Grand Forks Centennial Corporation. (1974). They came to stay: Grand Forks, North Dakota centennial 1874-1974. Jet Printing Inc.: Grand Forks, ND

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