“Invasion”: The 1918–1920 Pandemic on the Reservation

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records

It was October 23, 1918, and South Dakota politician Charles H. Burke was pained. The school year at nearby Pierre Indian School had started only 23 days earlier to disastrous effect. The H1N1 influenza A virus that had already ravaged the world for ten months arrived when a student with no sick family at home on the Standing Rock Reservation fell ill on October 4, quickly followed by a teacher. By October 10 the small school hospital was overwhelmed and dorms were being repurposed into a makeshift field hospital, filled with 33 ill and six dead. Two days later the school nurse fell ill and the death toll rose to 15. Burke, a friend of Indian Affairs Commissioner Cato Sells and Sells’ successor as commissioner in 1921, expressed his concerns to Sells in a letter. Burke asked Sells to send his most reliable inspector to the school, and wrote, “the horse has probably been stolen now, but the door better be locked, before there is another epidemic.” Possibly fearing that the school superintendent C. J. Crandall, a long-tenured administrator at schools across the west, would hear of his complaint, Burke requested that after taking notes Sells destroy the letter.

Undated photograph of Pierre Indian School from the National Archives at Kansas City (NAID 35295459).

A special supervisor arrived a few weeks later to find local women tending to the sick; the school nurse had recovered yet deserted to Camp Shelby in Mississippi to work for the Red Cross. The children were getting better, but poor sanitation and the layout of school buildings had done them no favors. Nor had lax record keeping of students’ health or the fact that the school didn’t recognize the threat in the early days and continued to admit children. The inspector reported all of this back to Sells, while also assuring him that he “carefully guarded the name of your informant.” Interestingly, only the report’s sections on easily remedied issues such as the AWOL nurse and failure to quarantine had pencil notations by them. Anything that would require new funding, such as building sanitation improvements, was left blank.

Letter from Charles H. Burke to Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) Commissioner Cato Sells, reluctantly reporting the conditions at the Pierre Indian School after the outbreak of influenza there. (NAID 300324, File 53689-1918-731-Pierre).

Today, as we battle through another global pandemic—a respiratory virus that knows no boundaries or ethnicity, and one that is again ravaging tribal nations—it is fascinating how we can turn back 100 years in history and see the exact same fears, reactions, and outcomes, in a way that is more personally relatable than most historical events. Using microfilmed copies of files from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) series Central Classified Files, 1907–1939” (National Archives ID 300324), here are snapshots of the 1918 pandemic’s effect on reservations across the country.

The Central Classified Files are the main twentieth-century correspondence collections for the BIA headquarters and are located at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Rather than organize the correspondence chronologically as had been previously done, the BIA in 1907 established a new system in which records pertaining to a certain subject were filed together. Letters, memoranda, petitions, contracts, affidavits, permits, wills, clippings, photographs, diagrams—a host of records spanning several years can often be found in files regarding a reservation and topic. It is in these files that one can see snapshots of what Assistant Commissioner E. B. Meritt, in writing to the White Earth Agency, called “the invasion.”

Many local superintendents instituted quarantines to prevent the spread of influenza, often even before state governments. Here is a letter from the Pima Agency health officer asking the superintendent to quarantine the reservation in Arizona. He did so the very next day. (NAID 300324, File 83604-1918-731 Pima).
For some tribes who had members serving in WWI, the pandemic was more deadly than the war. Here is an entry for the Standing Rock Reservation from the series “Card Files Relating to Indians in World War I, 1920” (NAID 134574647).

Pierre Indian School, South Dakota

The story in Pierre didn’t end with the inspector’s November 1918 visit. The following summer Congressman Gandy of South Dakota reached out to Commissioner Sells; a young reverend, Rudolf Hertz, had written him a list of issues he saw at the Pierre Indian School, including the failure to contain the influenza outbreak that had occurred the previous October. Sells replied to Gandy politely, defending the Indian Service, but turned right back around and demanded a full report about the allegations from Pierre Indian School Superintendent Crandall. After a point by point rebuttal, Crandall unveiled a novel defense. Reverend Rudolf Hertz had a thick German accent. He was of German ancestry, with a mother still living in Prussia. He had a brother in the German Army, who possibly died in battle. Thus, Hertz was a spy. Crandall took pains to note the idea wasn’t entirely his—it had been “intimated to me that he might be doing special work for the German government under the guise of religion”—but he was, Crandall summarized, “a spy at heart, if not by profession.”

Page two of four from the letter Reverend Rudolf Hertz sent to Congressman Gandy, here listing the issues he saw at the Pierre Indian School. He would ask elsewhere in the letter that his name not be mentioned, as he was a monthly visitor to the school, but as we see later in the file, Superintendent Crandall was informed. (NAID 300324, File 53689-1918-731 Pierre).
Excerpt from the letter sent by Superintendent Crandall to Commissioner Sells, where Crandall accuses Hertz of being a German spy. Reverend Rudolf Hertz, it should be noted, spent much of his career ministering to Native Americans in South Dakota and in 1981 was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. (NAID 300324, File 53689-1918-731 Pierre).

White Earth Agency, Minnesota

Nearly 370 miles to the east of the Pierre Indian School, the White Earth Agency tried to “lock the barn,” as Burke colloquially put it, but again, “once the horse was stolen” there was little they could do. The virus arrived on September 29 when a young girl returned from South Dakota via Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where an outbreak had already been reported. On October 1 the girl’s cousin at the White Earth Boarding School fell ill, and while an immediate quarantine went into effect, the flu still spread like wildfire. The hospital and school dorms were overflowing with patients, both children and staff. The agency physician further ordered the use of masks and other protections, but nearly 50% of the students were stricken that first month. The virus returned that winter, this time reservation wide, and again affected staff and Natives alike. When 40 families around the Pine Point Day School became sick, the superintendent ordered the school shuttered. The agency’s Beaulieu Day School then closed when teacher Harry Powell fell ill and succumbed. Dr. Roadman, who had arrived from the Mille Lacs Reservation to help, reported to the agency superintendent on one family in particular; of the 12 members, only the grandfather was not sick. Despite Roadman’s best efforts, a 15-month-old named Obah-daush passed away.

Telegram from the White Earth Agency to the OIA headquarters in January 1919, alerting them to the second outbreak of influenza and noting staff shortages. (NAID 300324, File 1403-1919-731 White Earth).

Southern Ute Agency, Colorado

In January 1919 the school on the Southern Ute Reservation in rural southwestern Colorado reopened to only 20 students. In a process that is very familiar to those of us with children attending in-person schools today, health checks were implemented at the door before students were allowed to enter. The school had been closed the previous two months because of the pandemic and though no students had died, 36 other tribal members had—a high number for a tribe of only 369. Typical of the discourse today as well, one memo contradicted that death count, arguing that only 33 deaths should have been attributed to influenza.

The file 6370-1919-700 for the 1918 pandemic at the Southern Ute Agency does not specify which school officials were discussing; in 1919 there were two on the Southern Ute Reservation, the Allen Day School and the on-reservation boarding school, seen here circa 1915. (Survey HABS CO-176-A, control number co0840, Library of Congress).

Salt River Agency, Arizona

The 1918 pandemic laid bare a massive inadequacy at many reservations: a lack of medical professionals. A common refrain in reports across the west was that local agencies, for a variety of reasons, had no physicians, nurses, or field matrons, whose role had evolved into being a pseudo-nurse on many reservations. Such was the case at the Salt River Agency where the pandemic “struck the Salt River Reservation, as other reservations, a very hard blow” and they were without an agency physician. The Public Health Service sent a local missionary doctor to help with the mounting influenza cases, and he, along with his new assistant, converted the day school into a hospital on November 13. His assistant? Sarah McDaniel, the wife of the chief clerk; she had prior nursing and hospital management experience before marrying and moving west. She was put on the government roll on November 19 and paid $51.67 a month. According to multiple interviews by Inspector E. M. Sweet the following February, McDaniel worked day and night administering to the sick, including the agency superintendent, until December 17 when she too fell ill and remained bedridden until January 6. Sweet gushed to the commissioner about McDaniel’s service and advised in the strongest terms that she be appointed field matron.

Often in this era when inspector reports are found in the file, there is a cover sheet like this that summarizes the report findings and recommendations. Here we see that a major point of Sweet’s report was his recommendation that Ms. McDaniels be named field matron. (NAID 300324, File 20123-1919-700 Salt River).

San Carlos Agency, Arizona

Blankets. Just blankets. Much how a simple mask helps in preventing viral transmission, the most basic needs often make a huge difference. And so it was that the inspector in charge of the San Carlos Agency, John Terrell, wrote that with winter coming and people bedridden with influenza in poorly insulated homes, blankets were needed urgently. Headquarters approved the release of 1,600 surplus red, grey and white, and blue blankets from the shuttered Carlisle school at the bureau warehouse in St. Louis.

Telegram from Supervisor in Charge John Terrell to the OIA headquarters requesting emergency blankets. (NAID 300324, File 90746-1918-713 San Carlos).

The San Carlos Reservation was in a rough spot during the fall of 1918. The agency lost both field matrons when the first cases of influenza arrived. The agency physician was next to fall, along with several of the agency stockmen. With no hospital, the sick were kept at home and officials traveled to them. By November 3, at least 125 had perished. The last standing stockman turned to building coffins, up to six in one day, before he too contracted the flu. They then turned to burying the dead in no coffins, hoping that would stem the tide. The November chill took its toll on the agency’s old vehicles, the 61-year-old Terrell himself having to work on them so often in the cold wind that he bemoaned his chapped hands and troubles typing his report to the commissioner. Racism reared its ugly head when a Dr. Vickers, a colleague of the agency physician, arrived from Globe, Arizona. There just for an afternoon, he only looked in on white patients, who overall were doing fine. When Terrell suggested he look in on the tribal members who truly needed help, Vickers quipped that “he would not visit the sick indians in their teepees for $10,000.” Getting special mention in his letter to the commissioner, Terrell added that Vickers “was really in my way.”

In this closeup of an unscaled 1935 map produced by the Office of Indian Affairs and found in the National Archives Cartographic Branch, we see the San Carlos Reservation in eastern Arizona that Terrell and his staff traversed while administering to the sick. The Salt River Reservation can also be noted to the west. (NAID 100306991).

Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota

The fourth and final wave of the 1918 pandemic hit the United States in the spring of 1920. While the common histories tack it to major cities, it reared its deadly head in South Dakota yet again. On March 8, 1920, Dr. L. L. Culp, special physician, arrived at the Oglala Boarding School from Tomah, Wisconsin, to find that out of 250 children, 75 were sick. Five more fell ill his first day there. Culp took over from the exhausted school physician and went to work. By the 29th, there had been no more cases, and as the world closed the book on the deadly pandemic that took the lives of tens of millions, the influenza nightmare also ended for tribal nations.


I don’t have a pithy conclusion to this essay as I write at my dining room table, working from home with my facility shuttered, my son attending school virtually in the other room. Just that as we move into a new year, with new hopes and the new promise in vaccines, everyone stays safe and sane. As these records from 100 years ago show, the heroism and dedication of medical professionals is truly timeless, and I want to thank those on the front lines today. We will get through this.


The stories and quotes cited above come from the Central Classified Files (CCF), 1907–1939” (National Archives ID 300324) in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the specific files are noted in the captions accompanying the images.

More information on this rich collection can be found on the National Archives webpage dedicated to the CCF.

Additional photographs and the map used are found with the National Archives unit noted and available digitally via our online Catalog. The photograph of the Southern Ute Boarding School is held by the Library of Congress and is available digitally via their website.

3 thoughts on ““Invasion”: The 1918–1920 Pandemic on the Reservation

  1. The photo of the Pierre Indian School is not undated. It is from 1893, as documented in Archives.gov. I work at the Pierre Indian Learning Center– the successor to the BIA school, and have been researching some of these events. The Superintendents report (on archived microfilm) from June of 1919 seems exceptionally terse and defensive– and your article here seems to show why– he was being harshly criticized. Thank you for this article!

  2. Thank you for the reply Keith – chalk my date mistake to not diving deep enough into the Catalog entry. If you wish, I can certainly email you the full scanned file I used as source material for the Pierre section which isn’t available in our online Catalog – just contact us at denver.archives@nara.gov

    1. Here is a link to the same photo. Dated 1893. 🙂
      https://catalog.archives.gov/id/35295459
      I would love the scanned file– email sent.
      I have been researching just where exactly that massive building sat on our campus. It turns out my own office in a 30 year old building sits inside the footprint of the original school & dorm building. The transformation of the campus over time has been incredible — So many amazing buildings have come and gone. We are currently slated to begin the design phase of the 3rd major school building on site. This would likely relegate the 1932 school building to the wrecking ball in 3 or 4 years. History does repeat itself.

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