Author seeking personal stories about flu pandemic in Butte

Through the fall and winter of 1918-1919, a deadly influenza pandemic raged around the world, killing between 20 million and 50 million people, including approximately 675,000 in the United States, in less than six months. Montana was not spared, but suffered the fourth highest mortality rate in the nation. One percent of the state’s population died during the pandemic.

Butte, for a myriad of social, cultural, environmental, and even economic reasons, had one of the highest mortality rates of all American cities. Over one-third of all Montana’s pandemic deaths were in Butte, a ratio out of proportion with the population breakdown of the state, as only 10 percent of Montanans lived in the city.

I began exploring this fascinating tragedy in graduate school, have since had the opportunity to speak in Butte about my discoveries on two separate occasions, and am currently in the process of writing the story of Butte’s pandemic experience into a book. What I’ve discovered over my time reading, writing, and studying history is that we can only learn so much from the bare facts and statistics. All the numbers, reports, death certificates, immigration records, and other documents I’ve collected on this journey only tell part of the story. I’m missing the human experience and emotion so vital to fully understanding any event and how its effects ripple through the decades.

This is where I’m asking the good people of Butte to step in and help me. I’m searching for anyone who may have heard stories from friends or relatives about living in Butte during the months of the pandemic. I would love to speak with you about any stories you may have heard. It doesn’t matter whether your contact suffered from influenza or knew someone that did or did not – I’m just trying to learn all that I can about what it was like to be in Butte during those months.

A year from now marks the height of the pandemic in Butte – more than 300 people died of influenza in Butte in November of 1918. If you can, please help me to tell their stories and keep their memories alive. If you have a story you are willing to share or would like to learn more about this project, please contact me at 406-750-8610 or, preferably, by email at janelle.m.olberding@gmail.com.

-- Janelle M. Olberding, MA, Glendive

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