Graves of 1918 flu victims identified at Pilgrim Hot Springs

By Megan Gannon

Through archaeological and archival research, the locations of nearly 100 individual burials have been identified at Pilgrim Hot Springs. The unmarked graves are thought to contain victims of the Spanish flu pandemic that devastated the region’s Alaska Native population between 1918 and 1919.

When the flu hit more than a century ago, the Catholic mission in Mary’s Igloo was in the process of relocating to Pilgrim Hot Springs. Since many adults in Mary’s Igloo and the Nome region died, the Catholic mission became an orphanage and boarding school for the children who lost their parents or caretakers. Many of the dead were transported to the hot springs to be buried in the unfrozen ground.

Though historic documents indicated that two large communal burial areas should be at site, the exact location of the graves was never certain, said Kawerak’s Amanda Toerdal, the general manager of Pilgrim Hot Springs.

“It was never confirmed if they were actually in the cemetery area, or if they were somewhere else on the property,” Toerdal said.

Pilgrim Hot Springs is now owned by Unaatuq LLC, a consortium of seven regional organizations. Kawerak is one of the partners managing the site. Toerdal said that the board of Unaatuq had been interested in a better understanding of the graves, especially as more research was being done elsewhere in North America around unmarked graves at boarding schools. The organization was able to get funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska for an archaeological survey.

Archaeologists don’t always have to dig into the ground to get an idea of what’s below the surface. They have non-invasive tools like ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, to investigate sites as well. GPR surveys often involve pushing a device that resembles a lawn mower over the ground. Radio waves that the device transmits bounce off buried objects, which helps researchers map underground features like unmarked graves. 

Thomas M. Urban of Cornell University/Geotech Global conducted the GPR survey over a few days last July. He avoided more recent burials from the last 30 years.

“This was done as a part of a broader collaboration between Cornell and the National Park Service, in which we are conducting a range of investigations at many locations in Alaska's National Parks, but also trying to work on projects with Alaska Native communities,” Urban said.

An analysis of the survey results found 89 spots that seemed to be consistent with individual human burials. Then in December, Toerdal was at the Jesuit Archives and Research Center in St. Louis, Missouri, which contains documents about Pilgrim and all of the Jesuits who worked there. She was searching for a complete diagram of the cemetery.

“I was searching for this diagram because we had a partial one, but we've never seen the full one,” she said. “After doing a lot of digging and finding correspondence and then talking with the workers at the Jesuit Archives and Research Center, we discovered that the diagram was actually in Alaska still and it was at Fairbanks.”

That diagram led the researchers to change their estimate of the total number of burials from 89 to 93.

“The discovery of the historic diagram doesn't change the survey results, of course, but instead adds a great deal of context to understanding those results by allowing us to approximate the locations of documented burials,” Urban said. 

The diagram contains 25 to 30 names of people who might be buried outside of those two large graves. However, the researchers have not yet found a list of who was laid to rest in the two communal burials.

“The only thing we have is a document that shows the layout of the cemetery, and it shows the two large graves separated out by 41 Catholic victims and then 20 non-Catholic victims,” Toerdal said.

A volunteer is helping Kawerak to transcribe the daily journals that were kept at Pilgrim Hot Springs, though Toerdal said the text is aged and sometimes hard to interpret.

“We can hope we can find a few clues or maybe a few names from that,” she said. “I have this feeling that there’s a record somewhere of the names, or at least where people came from. I hope we find that information. But it seems when you read through some of the accounts of the Spanish flu, it was just so hectic. They were just scrambling to try to get people well and care for them. So, if we don't find it, it's possible they didn't keep records of that.”

Kawerak does not want to release that diagram or the survey report to the public just yet.

The organization is currently seeking candidates for a cultural advisory committee that will make decisions about how to handle such sensitive information and educate the public about the site. The group, which will meet twice per year, will also help plan a monument for the cemetery and interpretive signage that honors the people buried on the property in unmarked graves.

“We’re hoping the committee is going to be made up of people who have a direct or indirect tie to Pilgrim,” Toerdal said. “So maybe they have family members who were orphans and lived at the mission back in the early ’20s ’30s and ’40s, or maybe they have a connection from just growing up and going there a lot when they were kids, too. Really what we’re looking for is people from the region who want to help contribute.”



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