Friday, May 8, 2009

How the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic Changed My Family Tree

We’ve all heard a lot about flu pandemics recently. The fear that the bird flu or the H1N1 virus (swine flu) could be the next deadly pandemic is very real and frightening.

One of the worst pandemics of all time was the Spanish Flu of 1918. It is estimated that one fifth of the world's population was infected, and around 50 million people died (source). This terrible flu outbreak affected the lives of many families, including my grandfather’s.

My grandfather lived with his family on a farm in rural Tennessee. He was nine years old when the flu pandemic of 1918 struck their community. His mother died from flu complications, leaving his father to raise him and his four siblings alone. His uncle (his mother’s brother) also passed away after contracting the flu. His uncle left behind a wife and a two-year-old son.

I can only imagine how difficult it would be to grieve for a spouse while trying to raise a family and run a farm as a single parent in those days. They did not enjoy the modern conveniences that do, such as electricity and indoor plumbing. This horrific flu outbreak left these two families in a very difficult position.

Within months of losing their spouses, my great-grandfather married his recently widowed sister-in-law! They were not blood relatives, but how strange it must have been for the kids to have their father marry their aunt! I wonder if it was a practical marriage, or if they always had a thing for each other... Something must have been right, because together they had eight more children!

I think this is a rather intriguing branch on my family tree. Two families found a way to survive a tragic loss and carry on with life together.


  1. Wow, that is an interesting family tree story.

    I was reading a series of books by Tracie Peterson called the "Alaskan Quest" and in one of the books it deals with the 1918 flu. The books are fiction, but they depict the utter devastation of the native Alaskan people due to the flu, and the forced marriages between people who'd lost their spouses. The reasoning of the officials for the forced marriages was to make family units for children who'd lost either one or both parents.

  2. That's an amazing story. Though it may have been done for practical purposes the marriage worked out well. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  3. This is fascinating! As soon as you mentioned that the uncle had died, I wondered immediately if the two might have gotten married. It could almost have been seen as a necessity, with all those kids to raise. Combining all the family resources may have been the only way.

    Such interesting, albeit tragic, history!