While doing some investigation into the history of epidemics, I came across this fact in an article about Native American women veterans, many of whom served as nurses in the US Military.

  Four Native American Catholic Sisters from Fort Berthold, South Dakota worked as nurses for the War Department during the Spanish American War (1898). Originally assigned to the military hospital at Jacksonville, Florida, the nurses were soon transferred to Havana, Cuba. One of the nurses, Sister Anthony died of disease in Cuba and was buried with military honors.

Even though I had worked in Sioux country, I hadn’t heard the story, so I dug into the story a bit deeper, and found this photo:

from NativeAmerican Veteran website.
And this site has their names:

The four sisters are, left to right, Sister Josephine Two Bears, Sister Ella Clarke, Sister Bridget Pleets, and sister Anthony Bordeaux. Sister Bordeaux died in Cuba and was given a military funeral. Sister Bridget Pleets treasured to the end of her life the apron on which dying soldiers had written their names and addresses so that she could write to their relatives.

The order was founded by the controversial Father Francis Craft… who was busy feuding over various reasons with the hierarchy of the Catholic church.

Seems like not much has changed in the last hundred years, sigh.

But anyway, when the war started, Father Craft managed to get some of the sisters signed up as nurses, and went with them as their chaplain.

If you know anything about the Spanish American war, the main problem was that Americans were dying left and right of various infectious diseases that they didn’t have any immunity for.  One “answer” for this was to send American black soldiers to fight in Cuba. (Yes, this was a racist assumption, but one with a grain of truth in it: Some Blacks in the deep south where Malaria and yellow fever still lurked did have immunity from prior exposure, and black troops with sickle cell trait would have some immunity to malaria).

So one trivial fact was that some of the soldiers that went up San Juan hill with Teddy Roosevelt were “Buffalo soldiers”.

But why would the US Army send Native American nurses into a pesthole like Cuba?

Answer: Because they were used to working with infectious diseases and in hospitals with less than pristine conditions.

So the sisters were sent to Cuba because of their expertise with “infectious disease”…and promptly ran into racism. Not with the soldiers, who loved them, but from some in the military who disliked Native Americans, and from the European hierarchy who were aghast at “sisters” from an “unapproved” order (and Native Americans at that) were not completely kosher.

That’s why they were finally reassigned, according to Thomas Foley’s book on the controversial Father Craft.

This controversy between Father Foley and the Europeans who ran the church  probably explAins why the order fell apart after Sister Bordeaux died. Ultimately all the sisters ended up as laywomen.

So  what happened to the surviving sisters? According to this article by Mercedes Graf:

Anna Pleets married Joe Dubray, and it appears that she worked as a midwife in later years. After her death in 1948, she was given a military funeral and was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Fort Yates, North Dakota.77 Ella Clark later married Joe Hodgkiss and spent her last years in the Old Soldiers Home in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Josephine Two Bears stayed in Cuba to run an orphanage until 1901. After returning to the United States, she became the wife of Joachim Hairychin but died during childbirth in 1909.78

If you are interested in an article about the history of nurses in the Spanish American war, check out this article, also by Mercedes Graf, HERE.

One more sad note comes from Bravehost website: 

Mother Anthony Bordeaux died while in Cuba and was given a full military funeral only after Father Craft insisted.  Unfortunately when the bodies of the fallen soldiers were removed to be placed at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, Mother Anthony’s body was never retrieved. Mother Anthony Bordeaux was buried at Camp Egbert, Pinar del Rio in Cuba.  Father Craft wrote to the state department “She was much beloved by the soldiers whom she had nursed back to health at the sacrifice of her own life, and American soldiers mingled their tears and prayers with those of Cubans and Spaniards, who loved her for her care and their orphans and sick.” 

(source: ed. Jerome Lamb, Jerry Ruff and Fr. William Sherman, Scattered Steeples, (Fargo, North Dakota: Burch, Londergan and Lynch, 1988), 22.)


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

a shorter version of this was crossposted on HeyDoc Xanga blog.


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