Spanish flu killed North Dakotans in 1918

Submitted Photo James Randall, far right, with his father, Clinton Randall, and brother Larry Randall.

History tends to repeat itself.

As the world battles the new coronavirus pandemic, people are remembering the Spanish flu pandemic of more than 100 years ago.

By some estimates, some 500 million – a quarter of the world’s population at the time – was infected and 17 million to 100 million people may have died. In the United States, 675,000 people died. People betwen the ages of 20 and 40 were more apt to die of the illness, which was up to 25 times more deadly than other strains of flu, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Across the country, schools were closed, public events were canceled, people were discouraged from gathering in groups of more than 10 people and people were urged to practice stringent hygiene measures.

North Dakota, although a rural state, was also affected, according to the historical society. The death rate here was lower than in the larger cities, but there was also less medical care available. Most towns did not have a hospital and very few had more than one doctor. People were cared for in their own homes. Medical care and sanitation was primitive by modern standards.

In a private memoir written by my grandfather, James Randall, in 1979, he describes how the Spanish flu affected western North Dakota in 1918, when he was 14 years old:

“Papa (Clinton Randall) was sheriff and was still running horses in the Badlands in grazing areas without fences,” James Randall wrote. “He got word that some of them were getting out into farming areas. He had to get them gathered up and put back where they could be herded by the man who was supposed to be looking after them. The flu epidemic of 1918 had just started and he couldn’t take time off. He came home and said he couldn’t find a man who knew that country and that he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t ask me to go, but he didn’t object when I eagerly volunteered to do so.

“I left on a Wednesday and got the horses gathered up and back where they belonged so that I was able to return home Sunday night. A friend of my age who was the son of the rancher watching our horses and I rode together and slept together for these five days and four nights. A little over a week later he was dead from the flu. The flu got so bad that school was closed for three weeks right after I got back. I did get the flu but was only sick for a few days. We were all in bed at once, with Mama refusing to stay down and feeding and nursing us until we were all on our feet again.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)