Dr. Daniel Littlefield, director of Sequoyah National Research Center, and Erin Fehr, assistant director and archivist, partnered with the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission to create a website commemorating the approximately 12,000 American Indians who served in the military during World War I.
“I realized no one has written about any of the others,” Fehr said. “I am bound and determined to find these women. So far, I have found 13. I am only one away from their number of 14, but I do believe there are more based on historical accounts. There are some women who I have evidence to believe they served as nurses, but I haven’t confirmed it.”
The 13 identified American Indian nurses who served in the Army Nurse Corps include Agnes Anderson, Charlotte “Edith” Anderson, Effie Barnett, Marie Broker, Ruth Cleveland Douglass, Cora Elm, Margaret Frazier, Ruth Hills, Louise Lafournaise, Constance Madden, Regina McIntyre, Lula Owl, and Susie St. Martin. The women have fascinating stories to share.
Edith Anderson, who was born near Brantford, Ontario, moved to the U.S. because she was unable to pursue higher education due to Canada’s Indian Act without risking losing her legal Indian status. She trained at New Rochelle School of Nursing in New York, becoming the first Canadian Indigenous nurse in 1914.
She served in Vittel, France, in 1918 and 1919 and spent the rest of her life working to improve indigenous healthcare. When she passed away in 1996, Anderson received a military funeral as the last surviving Six Nations veteran of World War I on the reserve. Fehr has been in contact with the grandson of Edith Anderson.
“What I like about what I do is that these women are related to people who are alive today, and I enjoy making those connections,” Fehr said. “There are times when people like John, Edith’s grandson, are very aware of their ancestor’s legacy, but there are others who are not, and they are excited to learn about it.”
One of the nurses has a local connection to Arkansas. After volunteering as a World War I nurse in January 1918, Douglass was stationed for eight months at Camp Pike, Arkansas, which is now Camp Robinson, before heading to France.
One of the nurses, Owl, had intended to go overseas, but she was unable to pass the seaworthy exam due to extreme seasickness. Instead, she served the duration of the war at Camp Lewis in Washington. She was given the rank of second lieutenant and secretly married Jack Gloyne, an enlisted man in 1918, even though it was forbidden. They had four children. She spent her lifetime devoted to healthcare and died April 17, 1985. In 2015, she was inducted into the North Carolina Nurse’s Hall of Fame. She was also bestowed the title Beloved Woman by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“There were a lot of men from her tribe that served, but she was the highest ranking military member of the tribe,” Fehr said.
Many of the nurses served overseas for almost two years and found the work of tending to wounded soldiers to be difficult.
“There were several that wrote about their experiences, and they talked about how it was just hard, just the sheer amount of suffering that they saw,” Fehr said. “They saw so many men that died that they weren’t able to help. They were also dealing with the flu epidemic at that time. Disease killed more people during World War I than war. There were so many of the men that died of bronchial pneumonia or influenza. The nurses were dealing with that on top of injuries from war. It was a very tough thing to do.”
Fehr found the women using resources that many people commonly use during genealogical research. She searched military records on Fold3.com, census records from familysearch.org, and digitized records from boarding schools.
The American Indian women who served in the Army Nurse Corps often attended boarding schools like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Haskell Institute, and the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School. Fehr believes the small number of American Indian nurses came from a number of factors.
“I know that nurses had to be single,” Fehr said. “Back in that time period, a lot of women got married young and were not thinking about looking for work outside the home. Some of the boarding schools didn’t have training programs where the girls were given the opportunity. At Carlisle, they worked with Philadelphia Hospital, and those students trained at Philadelphia Hospital. I think a lot of it is just timing for why there weren’t as many American Indian nurses. I don’t think any of the women that I found were not a part of a boarding school atmosphere. Not all of the Indian children were sent to boarding schools, and that plays a role too.”
In addition to the nurses who served in the military, Fehr has also found historical records of American Indian women who volunteered as nurses with the American Red Cross.
“I have discovered that some of the American Indian nurses only volunteered with the American Red Cross instead of being trained nurses that went overseas,” she said. “There is a gray area where I found that three women actually worked for the federal government in D.C. during the war, and they would volunteer at Camp Humphreys in Virginia. With one of them, I have a lengthy letter and she talks about how she saw a man die, and it was the first person she had ever seen die. It’s really interesting to see the volunteer aspect as well.”
Sequoyah is partnering with the George S. Robb Centre for the Study of the Great War at Park University to create a duplicate of the website created for the centennial commission. The Library of Congress archived the website in December 2019, and no changes can be made. However, Fehr and other researchers have continued to find new information about the American Indians who served in World War I and want to include this information in the database.
Fehr remains uncertain if the actual number of American Indian women who served as nurses in the military is 14. She is still investigating seven cases of women who may have served as nurses in the American Red Cross or the Army Nurse Corps. This is a mission that Fehr intends to continue.
“The research is continuing,” Fehr said. “I feel like this is one of those aspects of World War I that not many people are aware of. Most of these women lived long lives, got married and had children, and have descendants that may or may not know about their time in the war. I think that deserves to be remembered.”
Fehr presented her research, “Searching for the Fourteen: American Indian Nurses in the Great War,” in May at the symposium, Lesser-Known Stories of the Great War: Women, Minorities, Civilians, and the Untold, held at the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Illinois.
To find out more about these nurses, visit this website.