Skip to main content

The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Prince George: Learning Resource

A primary source analysis teaching resource about the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic in the Prince George area

Contact us

Northern BC Archives  & Special Collections's picture
Northern BC Archives & Special Collections
Contact:
Email: archives@unbc.ca

Hours of Service:
Monday to Friday: 8:30 AM-4:30 PM
Closed Weekends & Statutory Holidays

Northern BC Archives & Special Collections is open for virtual research requests during COVID. Email us at archives@unbc.ca with your queries or to set up a virtual research assistance appointment.

Location: UNBC Prince George
Geoffrey R. Weller Library
4th Floor (Room 5-423)

Copyright Notice

All publication excerpts available on this page fall under the Copyright Board of Canada's ruling on "insubstantial copying". These excerpts are provided here for educational purposes only. For more information beyond the excerpts, please consult the full work cited.

Indigenous Perspectives of the 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic

Many Indigenous communities in Northern and Central British Columbia were heavily impacted by the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic.

Provided here are a variety of primary and secondary sources that can be used to compare first-hand and second-hand Indigenous experiences with outside perspectives of Indigenous experiences during the Influenza 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic.

Reporting about Indigenous People in the PG Citizen during the 1918 Epidemic

Front Page News

Assemblies Forbidden in City; Twenty-Two Cases of Influenza

Up to last evening twenty-two cases of Spanish influenza had been reported to the city health authorities. Several of these cases have come from outside points and are all receiving medical attention. The Connaught hotel has been turned into a temporary hospital and about fifteen patients are domiciled there. A nurses has been engaged by the city and an orderly to assist her went on duty today.

Schools Closed.

As a precautionary measure against the spread of Spanish influenza which has spread so rapidly throughout the United States and Canada during the past few weeks, the Prince George health authorities on Wednesday ordered the closing of the schools, theatres, poolrooms and public meeting places until such time as the danger is considered past. This action was taken at the request of the local medical men and has since been legalized by an order-in-council at Victoria.

Lumber Camps Affected.

From the lumber camps and mills east of the city comes word of a number of supposed Spanish influenza cases.

Three Indians from the reserves west of here were brought in by Constable Manson yesterday for medical attention. They are suffering from the "flu" and the condition of one is said to be serious. No other really serious cases are reported.

Police Chief Dolan and Asst. Fire Chief Graham are among afflicted. Mr. Alex Nash, who was among the first to be stricken, is reported recovering.

A majority of the G.T.P station staff are down with the "flu," including the agent, Mr. Feren. All are reported progressing favorably.

 

Front Page News

Little Improvement Shown in Local Influenza Situation

Opinion is about evenly divided as to whether the influenza epidemic in Prince George is abating or on the increase. Hospital officials are inclined to the opinion that the outbreak remains about stationary in point of numbers affected, while the death rate for the past two days has been slightly increased. There are a number of serious cases still in hospital and private homes, while a great number have recovered and are now attending to their daily duties.

There are now 72 cases of influenza receiving treatment in the three temporary hospitals. Of these perhaps six or seven are in somewhat serious condition. Of the temporary hospitals the Connaught hotel has 25 patients, the Union Rooms 23, and the Millar School 24. There are perhaps 25 additional cases being treated in private homes.

Up to 9 a.m. today, the total number of deaths since the outbreak of the disease is 30. The majority of these were residents of outside points, particularly the lumber camps east of the city. In practically every fatal case from the surrounding district the patient was in an advanced stage of influenza before being sent here.

Indians Are Stricken

Indian Officer W.F. Manson, who arrived in the city from Vanderhoof yesterday, states that eight deaths have occurred among the Indians of Stony Creek village and that practically every native resident of the village is down with the disease. Father Coccola and the officials are laboring day and night in caring for the sick. The deaths have been almost entirely among those of frail constitution.

 

Front Page News

Influenza Epidemic Rapidly Subsiding

The influenza epidemic may be said to have passed its worst stage in Prince George and vicinity, according to reports from medical men and hospital authorities. While a large number of patients are still in hospital, practically all are convalescent, and most of them, if present progress continues, will be discharged this week. A few new cases continue to arrive from the lumber camps, but there are of a comparatively milder type than the earlier arrivals.

From all parts of the district the report comes that the epidemic is moderating and the affected ones rapidly recovering.

Indians Succumb

The death rate has been particularly heavy among the Indians, several deaths in the local tribe having occurred during the past few days. Among the victims are Louis, chief of the Fort George band, and Joseph Qua, sub-chief, and his son and daughter. Louis has been in poor health for some years and fell an easy victim. The death of the Qua family was particularly sad. The father, son and daughter had left the Indian village to escape the possible contracting of the disease and were camping up the Fraser a few miles from the village. Nothing having been heard of them for some days, a search was instituted and their dead bodies were discovered in the tent.

Page 3 News

MANY INDIANS DIE OF SPANISH INFLUENZA

Vanderhoof, Nov. 13 - Father Coccola now in town from his medical mission among the Indians at Stony Creek reserve, states that 42 deaths had occurred in the native village, and all the Indians were afflicted with the disease. He also stated that he had heard from his associate priests in other towns, and was told 45 deaths had occurred in Anyox, 67 in Prince Rupert, and 46 in Prince George.

Front Page News

J.D. Charleson, of Vanderhoof, is in the city today. He states that the influenza plague has proved particularly deadly among the Indians of that section, over fifty of the Stony Creek tribe and more than forty of the Stuart Lake Indians having fallen victims. As a result of so many deaths among the natives fur dealers believe this winter's catch in the local section will be one of the smallest on record.

Page 3 News

MANY DEATHS AMONG STUART LAKE INDIANS

Vanderhoof, Dec. 2 - There have been no less than seventy deaths among the Indians of the Stuart Lake district, and it is conservatively estimated there will be another twenty-five. The chief and his wife died last week. Whole families have been wiped out. Many who were out trapping have been picked up in the bush dead. Search parties are now out looking for missing natives. The epidemic is still raging and apparently has no mercy for the poor Indian.

Page 6 News

Mortality among the Indians of British Columbia from influenza is set at 714, according to Inspector Ditchburn of the southwestern inspectorate, out of agencies with an Indian population of 21, 567, so far reported. The are this about 3500 Indians in agencies not yet reported.

[These statistics suggest that 3.3% of the population died during the influenza epidemic]

Front Page News

Deputy Inspector Parsons, of the provincial police, has returned from a visit to police posts westward as far as Hazelton. He states that the mortality among the Indians in certain sections, due to influenza, has been heavy. On the Fort St. James and Stony Creek reserves there were 117 deaths. Among some of the Indian bands in the Hazelton district practically 25 per cent of the members had succumbed to the plague.

Front Page News

NEARLY ONE-TENTH OF LOCAL INDIANS INFLUENZA VICTIMS

One hundred and fifty-four Indians, out of a total of 1400 in this district have to date fallen victims to the influenza plague, according to the statement of Mr. W. J. McAllan, district Indian agent. Many of those who have recovered from the epidemic are in a weak state of health and unless extremely careful of themselves until strength is regained will be liable to further serious complications.

During the epidemic that has raged among the natives Mr. McAllan and the veteran missionary, Father Coccola, have been indefatigable in their efforts to relieve the suffering Indians. Father Coccola is himself a physician of recognized ability, and to the untiring efforts of him and the department officials may be ascribed the recovery of so many of those who were stricken.

Mr. McAllan is paying the local Indians the interest on the trust funds held by the Dominion government. This fund was established from the proceeds of the sale of Reserve No. 1, now the Prince George townsite, to the Grand Trunk Development company.

Page 5 News

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED CASES OF INFLUENZA IN NORTHERN BC

The Citizen is indebted to the provincial police for the following information relating to the late influenza epidemic as it was felt in this district:

The first manifestation of this epidemic was noticed in Prince George on October 15th, 1918. Prior to this its presence had been established at Lucerne, near the eastern provincial boundary. Thereafter outbreaks were reported from centres often widely apart, but invariably in proximity to railway depots, pointing to dissemination by transients and railway employees.

Acting on instructions from government agents, the provincial police alleviated the sufferings of a great many in isolated sections. The officers were frequently called upon to serve both as doctor and nurse, and were active day and night, in many instances contracting the disease they were called upon to fight.

On October 16th, under provincial auspices, the Connaught Hotel, Prince George, was converted into an emergency hospital. Accommodation thus provided being insufficient, further quarters were opened on October 23rd in the Union Rooms.

At their inception these hospitals were staffed by voluntary helps, but the strain on this assistance becoming great, owing to illness in the homes of many of the volunteers, thereafter salaried workers were employed.

From information obtained from various sources there were approximately 1800 known cases in the district between Lucerne on the east and Kitselas on the west. Of these 220 succumbed to pneumoniac complications. It is noteworthy that those suffering from pulmonary complications were usually men physically robust.

Mortality among Indians was exceedingly heavy and may be attributed to lack of care consequent upon their nomadic tendencies, coupled with a native stoicism when finally prostrated.

Page 5 News

Stony Creek Indians

The epidemic's course ran with exceptional severity on the Stony Reserve near Vanderhoof, and but for the splendid work of Rev. Father Coccola, many more would have died. Affectionately known throughout the north, Father Coccola has spent the greater part of a long life in this section of the province, and his success in this instance was due to the implicit trust placed in him by the Indians.

Page 5 News

CULTIVATED GARDEN WHILE LYING ON HIS BACK

Fort St. John, Feb. 2. - Chila is dead. To the great world this means nothing, but the Peace River voyageur will remember with a passing regret the story of the lone tepee on the hillside by the Hudson's Bay Company post, where for the past seventeen years the crippled Indian lay, an example of cheerful adversity to the world. Attacked by rheumatism seventeen years ago, following exposure on a hunting trip, this once famous hunter has had since that time for his world a little path of about fifty yards over which he propelled himself with his elbows to a small garden, which he cultivated while lying on his back.

The recent "flu" epidemic also claimed for a victim Montagneuse, the big chief of the Beaver Indians. Several sub-chiefs and several of the best hunters of the tribe have also gone to swell the ranks of the good Indians. The passing of Montagneuse marks practically the end of a regime faithful to the traditions of the Hudson's Bay Company in this section.

The Letters of Margaret Butcher

PLEASE RETURN TO
MISS BUTCHER
3 ST. CATHERINE'S TER[RACE]
HOVE, SUSSEX

November 14th 1918


Well dears, I do not think I have ever longed from the arrival of the Mail more than for the one that is now due! Oct. 10th, when the last came, seems so far away on account of the troublous times we have been through and as our folks have been so sick & have died at such a rate we cannot but fear for our personal friends and look anxiously for news of them

I through we had a hard time with the whooping cough but it was a nothing in comparison with what we have now come through. I was so proud of the spick-and-span cleanliness of the Home when we had finished disinfecting. It was so good to have all the children together once again--they all sat together at supper Oct. 14th the first time since June 22 when the first batch went for holidays. Even though there was still a [good] deal of coughing we knew infection was over & were anxious for a little quiet routine before the Christmas rush. We began routine but it did not last longer than a week. Rumours of the terrors of Spanish Influenza had reached us from time to time: Seattle, Vancouver, Ocean Falls, Prince Rupert--ever creeping nearer--would the Indians who were away, keep away & so save us the scourge? No, an Indian must died in his own place & on Wed Oct 23rd two launches came in, one bearing two corpses, the other [bringing in] several sick people from [Prince] Rupert. We did not know whether they were really suffering from Spanish Flu or from some other ailment. School assembled on Thurs as usual and about 6:30 p.m. Chief Herbert McMillan came up & advised school be closed. I agreed at once & decided to keep my kiddies gated, so allowed no one "down" [to the Village] on Saturday, neither took them to Church on Sun. So we really were careful but without avail for Mon morn at 7 a.m. one girl started nursing the 30 who were in bed. We shifted beds & bedding until they were all on one floor. They were too close for sickness or for health but we could not possibly nurse the top floor [&] only two of us. Those children were very sick and what with vomiting, dysentery, nose-bleeding & senior girls' troubles, we had a horrible time. I never saw such nose-bleeding. We could not stop it & when it transpired that the only girl whose nose did not bleed, suffered hallucinations & was out of bed and trailing bedding or clothes crying she had killed herself or the house or her darling, or else asking me to cut her in pieces or she [was] hunting for her lungs or other parts of her body that had fallen out, I sure put up with the bleeding as a beneficent evil rather than have several crazy ones. After bleeding came congestion in varying degrees & horrible expectoration until it seemed impossible that children who a few days previously had been in good health could throw up such quantities of vile mucous. It was the first time Miss Heather had been sick away from Home & I was sorry for the scant attention she received but what could one do with so many? Food had to be cooked & fired kept burning & there were only the two of us. Mary King did splendidly but she was kept out of the Dormitories & she is only 14 yrs old and been in school for 2 yrs.

I put mustard plasters on the children by turns for it was impossible to do them all & the many other necessaries as well. Some days the poor things did not get their faces washed, other days their beds [were] not made & no one's hair combed until she was able to do it herself or another was well enough to do it for her. I told you about Arnott & how sick he had been--he was doing nicely when the Sickness took him. He ran up to 105.5º [fever] on Tues night & Wed morn, I was taking temperatures & turned round to him, he looked dead, but calling Miss Hortop, we dosed him with stimulant, got hot bottles & blankets & he revived. That was Oct 30th, from that time it was a constant struggle, he would fluctuate so much. Nov 11th, he was in one of his better times so we called his brother, made a hammock of blankets & sent him home. He would have been sent before but his Father died one day, his Mother gave birth to a child two days later & it was a sick household. We were glad they had him for the few hours before he died.

Letter continues for 5 more pages...

Stoney Creek Woman

(Page 26) My very first memory is of the 1918 flu and of my young mother being very sick.I was five years old. Like the other families on Stoney Creek Indian Reserve, we were living in a log cabin. I remember that people came in and out of our home, and that all of them talked about the 1918 flu that was sickening many Natives on the reserve, but what nineteen-eighteen meant or what kind of a terrible thing a flu might be, I did not know.I remember that my eighteen-year-old mother, usually so busy with hides and fish, was very sick. To see her lying quietly on the homemade bed in the corner scared me. One of the people who came to our home was the priest,Father Coccola. He talked to the mother of Agnes George, who was nursing my mother, and told her to make chicken soup.My mother wouldn't touch the chicken soup. All she wanted was a cup of warm water. As if she was speaking now,I can hear her say, "Mary, put a cup of water on the stove. Iam very thirsty." That cup of water on the back of the stove and my mother asking for it—that is my first memory.When a child is five years old, there is much that is con-fused and beyond understanding.

(Page 32-33) I may not have known what the 1918 flu was, but I knew that it made me very sick. Sick as I was, I was aware that many things, some good and some very sad, were happening on thereserve.Agnes George's mother stayed in our cabin until my mother was over the worst of her sickness. My mother was expecting a baby, and one day, when I was still in bed, this elderly woman came to me and told me that I had a new baby brother and that his name was Mark. Soon after she said this, Agnes George's mother said, "Well, I'd better get back to my own home. Everyone is sick there too." A few days later, we heard that she was dead. Oh, the number of people who died on the reserve in those months was awful.Our mission bell rings when someone dies. It seemed to me that, day and night, as the flu sickened more and more people,the bell never stopped ringing. I remember wishing that the ringing and the sickness and the deaths would end. There was a doctor in Vanderhoof, Doctor Stone, but during this bad time, he hardly came to the reserve at all. He had to make his rounds with a horse and buggy and he travelled for miles in all directions out of Vanderhoof during the epidemic. Father Coccola, who lived on the reserve at that time,knew quite a bit about medicine, and as long as the flu lasted,he moved from cabin to cabin in the village, helping to care for the sick and dying.The people of the village said that it seemed to be a matter of luck whether you lived or died. Some of the weakest survived and some of the strongest found their way to the village cemetery. That cemetery—one of the things which filled me with horror during this time was the mass burial. When the epidemic was at its worst, a number of people died within two or three days of each other, and those who were left were too sick to lay out the corpses and make coffins. A large hole was dug in the cemetery, and seven bodies were carefully wrapped and buried side by side.Many years later, some of my children were working with me at the cemetery. There were old boards scattered around,crosses which had collapsed over the years. I told the young people to gather up the old wood and put it in a pile for burning outside the graveyard fence. Then I noticed that the place where the seven people had been buried so many years ago was now a big hole and that the ground around the spot was very uneven.I said to my children, "We should get a backhoe and make the ground level." And I told them about the mass burial.They looked at me and one of them said, "Oh, that's gross!" Finally the epidemic was over. The bell stopped ringing,and once again my mother and my stepfather were busy withfish and hides and berries. Life was good again.

 

The Northern BC Archives hold the records of Bridget Moran, which include the taped interviews she did with Mary John in other to write Stoney Creek WomanContact the archives to listen to Mary John's recollection of the 1918 flu. The following items include Mary John's description of the 1918 flu (these items are not available online):

  • Item 2008.3.1.211.1 - Mary John [Tape] 1 & 2: timestamp 78’00” Bridget asks her what her early memories would have been of Stoney Creek; Mary recalls tending to her mother during the flu epidemic. Recalls people being buried in blankets; too many people and no time to build coffins. Recalls Father Cocola and Lejac again.
  • Item 2008.3.1.211.5 - Mary John [Tape] 9 & 10: timestamp 22’00” Mary speaks again about Father Coccola who could be ‘a very strict man’ but who took care of the people when they were sick and dying.

The Carrier, My People

EPIDEMICS (p. 19-21)

There were some epidemics that wiped out quite a few of the native people. One of which was the small-pox epidemic when the whites first came into the country. I will not go into details of how this happened. I am sure some people know the reason. It came as far as Tatuk Lake, which was the home of many natives of the Stoney Creek tribe. There is a big graveyard at Tatuk Lake of the people who died of the disease. The Stuart Lake Carriers escaped this dread disease, but they did not escape the flu epidemic of 1918, which was world-wide. It took seventy-four lives at Fort St. James. These deaths included people from around the lake who were at the Fort for All Saints' Day. Some of the people who could not be taken into the local homes were camped outside at the Mission.

The first fatality of the flu was a young man from Nadleh (Fort Fraser) who had accompanied back to Nak'aẕdli (Fort St. James) Donald Tod, a Hudson Bay employee or servant, when the latter went to Fort Fraser with two pack-horses for supplies. As was the custom, the church bell tolled for the first few deaths, but the priest, Father Joseph Allard, stopped it when more and frequent deaths began to occur each passing day.

The late W.D. Fraser was then in charge of the H.B.C. Babine Lake Post, he told me that as soon as he heard of the epidemic, he stopped the people there from contacting people of other villages. There was not one case of flu there.

When the flu broke out in Prince George, Michel Sam, Gaspar Thomas and Jean Felix Antoine were working in the saw-mill at Aleza Lake.

When they came down with the flu they were transferred to the Prince George Hospital. After recovering somewhat, they were discharged. They tool the train to Vanderhoof. After buying some food there, they started walking on the road to Fort St. James. They were still weak, in fact, Jean Felix was so weak he could not pack a pound weight on his back. The other two men packed all the bedding and food, they were picked up by Justin McIntyre, a Hudson's Bay clerk. "Mac" as he was called, was driving a team of horses and wagon on his way to the Fort carrying mail.

On their arrival home, they found nearly all the people sick with the flu. Later, when they felt better and strengthened they got to work making coffins and digging graves. Driving a team of horses and wagon, laden with coffins each day to the cemetery at the Mission.

In some cases four coffins were put in a common grave. In one case William and Angeline Prince were put in a common grave, one coffin on top of the other. Another person who helped was Pete Erickson who was a carpenter by trade. Felix also distributed soup among the Rancherie people. This soup was donated by the H.B. Co.. The new log house of Benoit and Helena A'Huile at the Mission had been turned into a morgue. This house was vacant because Benoit and his family were on their trapline near Beaver Lake. Upon leaving for the trapline in September, Helena left their housekey with my [Lizette Hall nee Prince] mother to keep for them till their planned return at Christmas. But Helena her mother Sabina Julian and other members of her family died on their trapline and are buried at Beaver Lake. From the first of November till the latter half of the month flu and subsequent deaths continued.

Nobody knews why some people escaped this epidemic even though they were exposed. My mother was one of the people who did not get sick. She told me she did not even get a headache. She looked after her family of six at home. I lost one brother to this flu.

The Residential School at the Mission did not escape. Three thirteen year-old girls died. They were Sophie Prince, Josphine Antoine and Amelia Benoit. For some reason or another, the boys had shorter sick days. He also packed the water from the lake. To this day I don't know why we were not allowed to have drinking water. I was in the High Dormitory with five other girls and I remember how thirsty we all were, what with the high temperatures we had. When the water in the rubber hot water bottles cooled, we drank the water. I remember feeling around in the dark on the basin-and water bench one night, I found an ice-cold pailful of water, it had pieces of ice in it. I called to the other girls informing them of my find. They all got out of bed as fast as they possibly could. How good that water tasted as we gulped it down. Father Joseph must have brought up the water while we slept. A day after this, my cousin Nancy and I were told to get dressed and go to the sewing-room. After being in bed two weeks, I felt top-heavy. But we were quite happy to be allowed to get up.

On arriving in the sewing-room, we found Nancy's sister Vitaline (Victorine Sam) also there with Sister Superior.

The sun was shining brightly on that November morning and the fire crackled in the big barrel-turned stove. Sister left the room and when she returned she informed us that the Armistice was signed at eleven o'clock. From that day on, all the children improved. Towards the end of the month school started again.

I remember Christmas of 1918. During Midnight Mass I could feel the grief of the surviving relatives of the ones that were taken the previous month. I remember also Father Coccola emerging from the Sacristy carrying a black robe to drape over the shoulders of Celestine AhTie, she had festive clothes on, she did not lose any family member during the recent epidemic.

Discussion Questions

What is significant about the accounts by Mary John and Lizette Hall of the flu epidemic?


What is significant about Margaret Butcher’s account of the flu epidemic?


How are these accounts similar? How are they different?


How do Mary, Margaret and Lizette’s accounts compare with local newspaper accounts written at the time?


Do these sources provide evidence of settler and First Nations relations during respective time periods?

Secondary Sources

Kelm analyzes “a series of what she calls ‘flu stories’ that were documented through various media in British Columbia during the epidemic and in subsequent decades. “The official accounts of fatalities recorded in death certificates, the dramatic and occasionally boosterist articles published in the daily press, the oral histories conducted with elderly residents of Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood during the 1970s, and finally, oral and written narrative produced by First Nations people to detail their experience with influenza – these various sources attest to the different ways in which the disease affected diverse groups of British Columbians.”

“Modernity Kelm argues, was marshalled in 1918-19 to explain both the spread of the pandemic, through ‘modern’ lines of communication and ‘modern’ worksites, and the means taken to deal with it – science and medicine. Yet not all flu stories conformed to this narrative: in those told by First Nations people or by Strathcona residents, for instance, modernity was often absent altogether or incorporated into new hybrid forms. The universal influenza storyline was thus tempered by the peculiarities of local circumstance. Moreover, certain British Columbians – Aboriginals, people of Chinese, Japanese, or South Asian descent, religious minorities such as Mennonites and Doukhobors – were viewed by fellow citizens of Anglo-Saxon background as distinctly unmodern, and thus as potential ‘reservoirs’ of disease” (Jones and Fahrni, 2012, 15).

Kelm notes that First Nations communities had death rates at seven times the provincial average during the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. (Jones and Fahrni, 2012, 168)

Kelm notes that the local PG newspaper reported that the Dakelh village of Stoney Creek (Sai’k’uz) was experiencing nearly 100% morbidity. (Prince George Citizen, November 1, 1918)

See Also:

Additional research by Kelm on the impact of the flu epidemic on settler and Indigenous relations in 20th century BC. Mary Ellen Kelm, “British Columbia First Nations and Influenza pandemic of 1918-19,” BC Studies no. 122 (Summer 1999): 23. http://prxy.lib.unbc.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/196892254?accountid=14601.