Glenn -- I really like your blog. I am looking for background on a woman named Viola Pettus who is known locally as having been the "nurse" at the influenza quarantine tent city just south of Marathon during the 1918 outbreak of "Spanish flu". Her husband Ben was a well-known cowboy. Viola may have been one of those early frontier nurses that made up for lack of formal training with guts and compassion. A friend who is a nurse/researcher is interested in determining if there is enough available material to piece together the story of her sacrifice in 1918.
Any leads will be appreciated including pictures, records, letters, descendents, photos etc Ben and Viola appear on headstones in the Marathon cemetery - close to the dividing line between the Anglos and "Mexican" sections. There were a number of black "seminole" families in the Big Bend, none more remarkable than the one Viola and Ben formed.

Tyrus Fain

Your friend has touched on a topic that very much needs to be done. The emerging threats of another influenza epidemic especially in the Big Bend is one that should be addressed. History always repeats itself. I suggest a start with some background reading on the flu epidemic in Texas. See the Handbook of Texas article on epidemic diseases at: ... sme1.html. I think it a good idea to begin with the bibliography for the article. The Handbook also has two articles on Seminoles that have helpful bibliographies: ... bms19.html ... bmb18.html
The best single book I have on Seminoles in my library is: The Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole by Grant Foreman, University Of Oklahoma Press, 1934.

Narrowing the research specifically to Viola Pettus will be difficult but I do not mean to say impossible. Its just one of those topics that will take a lot of digging and that is the only way to determine if there is enough available material to piece the story together. I think I would do some digging in Marathon. Are there any Pettus family members living that might have some info about the story? You might need to do some oral history interviews with them. To find them try running a newspaper ad. Next I think I would check with the Archives Of The Big Bend at Sul Ross in Alpine. They might well have a file on this. Also be sure to look though the newspaper index of the Alpine Avalanche at the archive and spend some time with their extensive oral history collection. See:

Another suggestion is to go through the El Paso Times newspaper index at the El Paso Public Library. Perhaps the Barker Center For American History at U. T. in Austin will have some holdings. See: And don't forget to look at U. S. Census records for Marathon. You might be surprised at the population decline due to the epidemic.

One final suggestion, when I take on a project like this I always put together a list of search terms. This way when I start to dig for material, I have an idea of what I am looking for. Here is a suggested list for the topic: Viola Pettus, Ben Pettus, Spanish Influenza, Texas Seminole Indians, Big Bend Seminole Indians, Brewster County Influenza emidemic, Marathon Influenza epidemic, Brewster County Influenza and so on. As your research progresses add to your list. Hope this is helpful and good luck!


Glenn Willeford 
Mr. Fain, as Glenn Justice reminds us, more needs to be done on the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 in the Big Bend region of Texas. At present, Dr. Paul Wright at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, may be the best resource for obtaining new information. Wright's research into birth and death records in the Big Bend region, taken largely from U. S. Manuscript Census data, reveals much.

As co-author of the recent (2006) book, Cemeteries and Funerary Practices in the Big Bend of Texas, 1850 to the Present, I admit that there is no "definitive work" on the subject, nor is there likely ever to be one; nonetheless, I believe mine and Dr. Gerald G. Raun's book comes a closer than anything to date.

While preparing to draft the text of Cemeteries I advertised in area newspapers for information as well as for people to come forward with information. A few did, but not so many as we would have liked; accordingly nothing was learned about Ben and Viola Pettus; other members of the Pettus family were not only mentioned but their deaths recorded, graves photographed and so forth. Additionally, I interviewed individuals in Marathon about the flu epidemic and other matters and the Ben Pettus's were never mentioned. I suspect those few months in the autumn of 1918 were such a horrid period in life that once it passed, most folk didn't wish to talk about it, or even to remember; after all, families were giving up their dead to passing wagoners for mass burial without funerary honors being rendered. Why? It was much safer to stay indoors. Under the circumstances it was not shameful to do so, either. Yet, in glancing back it may seem a sort of familial betrayal, i. e., something to be put behind.

Cemeteries and Funerary Practices in the Big Bend of Texas, 1850 to the Present does contain a story of self sacrifice in order to fulfill one's duty in caring for the sick. That is the story of Dr. Roy R. Longino, the city health officer and sole physician in Fort Stockton at the time (see pps. 62-3).

Has I known about the "influenza quarantine tent city" south of Marathon and Mrs. Viola Pettus's charitable nursing of the sick at great risk to herself it certainly would have been in the book. What a story! But nobody came forward with it. Que sera.

Glenn Willeford
Chihuahua City, Mexico

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