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Secret Smallpox Explodes


What began as a case of smallpox in a family near Olga, North Dakota, became an “alarming” epidemic that spread to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in 1900. Cavalier County’s health officer first learned of the outbreak in late April after tending to a teenager who had an advanced case. And after a two-day trip through the Pembina River country, the health officer uncovered a secret: For a month, Olga-area residents had “kept all knowledge” of the smallpox cases from outsiders, “fearing the inconvenience that a quarantine would cause.” 


The health officer quarantined 15 families and closed schools. Post offices routed mail around Olga. The Cavalier County Board of Commissioners paid more than $1,200 that summer for medical services, disinfections, quarantine guards and other expenses related to the outbreak.

Even after the health officer’s actions, twenty-eight additional smallpox cases erupted in Olga. Contact tracing helped identify people for vaccination. On this date in 1900, the health officer lifted quarantines on three locations, including the Olga Hotel. In early June, he lifted the remaining quarantines, but the worst was yet to come.


Several people who were in Olga during the epidemic went to other towns, and carried the virus with them. A young woman returned to Larimore and was taken to a pest house to quarantine after she fell ill. A young man returning to Belcourt on the Turtle Mountain Reservation was also quarantined. The government school at Belcourt was closed. Weeks later, the reservation saw an outbreak of smallpox, which authorities linked to Olga.


The residents of the reservation scattered far and wide due to the outbreak. Some went to Fort Berthold in western North Dakota, but officials tracked them down to examine them. A school building was turned into a quarantine hospital. Authorities planned vaccinations and required children attending school be immunized. Guests at a wedding near the Turtle Mountains were all quarantined after the groom fell ill. Smallpox victims’ homes were destroyed. Congress appropriated $25,000 to fight the epidemic, which lasted into 1901. It’s unknown how many people died.


Smallpox scares struck in North Dakota as late as 1954, when local health authorities held a vaccination clinic after a young man in New England became ill with smallpox.


Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


Courier Democrat. 1900, May 3. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1900, May 4. Page 2
Courier Democrat. 1900, May 10. Pages 5, 8
Courier Democrat. 1900, May 17. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1900, May 21. Page 1
Courier Democrat. 1900, May 24. Pages 1, 8
The Bowbells Tribune. 1900, May 25. Page 1
Courier Democrat. 1900, June 7. Page 8
Courier Democrat. 1900, June 14. Page 5
The Bismarck Tribune. 1900, June 18. Page 1
Courier Democrat. 1900, June 21. Page 5
Courier Democrat. 1900, June 28. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1900, July 14. Page 1
Courier Democrat. 1900, July 19. Page 8
The Bismarck Tribune. 1900, August 10, Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1900, August 24. Page 1
The Bottineau Courant. 1900, September 1. Page 7
The Bismarck Tribune. 1900, September 3. Page 1
The Bowbells Tribune. 1900, September 7. Page 2
The Cooperstown Courier. 1900, September 27. Page 3
The Washburn Leader. 1900, October 6. Page 2
The Bismarck Tribune. 1900, November 16. Page 1
The Washburn Leader. 1901, January 12. Page 2
The Washburn Leader. 1901, January 19. Page 8
The Minneapolis Journal. 1901, January 22. Page 3
Griggs Courier. 1901, March 21. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1954, April 8. Page 1

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