The 1918 flu pandemic devastated the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. When the flu struck that fall, Sioux County’s Board of Health closed all public meetings and gatherings. The outbreak was expected to last two weeks, but Fort Yates schools remained closed for several weeks and the Fort Yates Agency closed. The agency superintendent discontinued enrollments at the Indian boarding schools and farm school, and ordered all tribal members who were camped to disperse.
A physician with the Bureau of Indian Affairs urged people to wear face masks made from thick gauze or cheesecloth when in public places. He telegraphed the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to obtain a bacterial vaccine thought to prevent the flu, but that vaccine proved useless, since influenza is caused by a virus, not bacteria.
Hospitalizations soared, filling the hospital in Fort Yates. A total of 42 people were treated for flu and pneumonia in five weeks that fall, with as many as 20 people hospitalized at one time. One woman died on her way to the hospital. The Indian day school in Porcupine, North Dakota, was converted into a temporary hospital.
One newspaper account reported 12 people dead in two weeks. Many of the dead were young people and parents to small children.
Six doctors served Standing Rock. Two of them from McIntosh, South Dakota died from the flu that fall. A McLaughlin doctor also fell ill, leaving the reservation with only three physicians – in Bullhead, Cannonball and Fort Yates.
Two Selfridge women came to help care for the sick and dying. One family opened their home to the sick, and every space was filled. One Selfridge mother whose husband and oldest child were ill prayed that God take her newborn “if one must go.”
The Sioux County Pioneer newspaper reported: “The deaths have caused sorrow and grief in many homes in every community and it is the duty of those who have been spared to help by deeds and sympathy the bereaved.”
The epidemic waned after a few months, and on this date in 1919, Fort Yates students were beginning their spring break, despite their school year having been curtailed the previous fall.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
MS68.01.25.14 - Report on Standing Rock Indian Agency, Fort Yates, North Dakota – October 21, 1918
Sioux County Pioneer. 1918, October 10. Page 1
Sioux County Pioneer. 1918, October 17. Page 1
Sioux County Pioneer. 1918, October 24. Pages 1, 9
Sioux County Pioneer. 1918, October 31. Pages 1, 10
Sioux County Pioneer. 1918, November 7. Page 5
Sioux County Pioneer. 1918, November 21. Pages 5, 8
Sioux County Pioneer. 1918, November 28. Page 5
Sioux County Pioneer. 1918, December 19. Page 1
Sioux County Pioneer. 1919, January 9. Page 5
Sioux County Pioneer. 1919, January 23. Page 4
Sioux County Pioneer. 1919, April 10. Page 5
Anniversary Book Committee (1918). Selfridge, North Dakota Golden Jubilee 1911-1961.