1900 Galveston Hurricane, 2/8: Landfall

By October 20, 2008

Like many Elders in the American South, and like many of the people they visited, Elder Brooks and companion, Elder Decker, were both suffering from malaria in September 1900. Although they had some success in their counties near the Louisiana border, flooding and disease took a heavy toll on their enthusiasm and their bodies. In fact, Elder Decker requested release from the mission on September 03. On Thursday, September 06, Elders Forsha and Shipp, of the Conference Presidency, arrived to visit, probably to evaluate and encourage Elder Decker. The visitors had planned to leave that Saturday, September 8, 1900, but in the morning ?it looked very much like rain? and then ?[i]t blew and rained all the rest of the day and night so the Elders didn?t get off.? Soon after breakfast Elder Brooks took a ?very hard [chill]? and Elder Decker was ?still sick.? The next day, Sunday, the visiting Elders were able to leave, though ?[t]here was more water on the ground than there had been for some time? [1].

Elder Folkman, in Galveston, was also having a hard summer. Part of the difficulty was that the missionaries were not used to cities. Most of the mission was rural, which meant people were usually close to home, willing (more or less) to take boarders for the night, and in contact with a network of friends and kin willing to gather to hear traveling preachers. The Elders distributed tracts, taught people in their homes, and held meetings?very much like itinerant preachers of other faiths. Though they never baptized very many in the South Texas Conference, the Elders and their contacts shared common assumptions about what missionaries were and how they worked?and, at any rate, the rejections were usually separated by lots of walking. In the city, the social networks, housing arrangements, and cultural expectations were different and tended to make ?country style? proselyting very frustrating, if not impossible. President Duffin expected the Elders to show faith and preach purseless and scripless like the other Elders in the conference, even though city-folks expected visitors to stay in hotels. The Galvestonians, at least in Elder Folkman?s lens, seemed to have wished the missionaries would leave them alone. I think I can summarize his city proselyting experience and his opinion of Galveston with two lines from his journal that first week in the city: ?We find street preaching is not what it is cracked up to be? and ?They are very wicked in this city? [2].

After three and a half months the four Galveston Elders had no converts and no seeming prospects. Then came the storm. I quote Elder Folkman?s account at length:

1900 Sep 08 Sat: Could not work on account of storm. Could not go out of the room and at night the water from the bay came up all over town. We had to get out of the room and move upstairs. It was 4 feet of water in the room and the wind so strong that it was blowing houses down all over town. The people all moved out but us Elders and the Lord spared us while the city was half distroyed.

1900 Sep 09 Sun: Still on the turf after one of the most terrific storms that ever pased over the country. The sight that met my gaze this morning was terriable. Over half of the city distroyed and the other very badly damaged. The water and wind together played havack. The report is that the loss of life will be in the thousands. They are hauling them in by the wagon load, food and water scarce as the water works system was distroyed and a good many cisterns filled.

1900 Sep 10 Mon: Went ?round to see the sights. It is terrible to behold. They are hauling in dead bodies by the wagon loads. They have had to resort to sinking them in the sea to dispose of them. They are in such a condition that they can not keep them, so they take them by the ship loads and take them out in the sea and sink them, rich and poor, white and black. I see many bodies lying amoungst the timbers and where they had lodged. We tried to get a boat to take us to Houston but they wanted $5.00 a head for 25 miles and we diseded to wait another day and see if we can?t go cheeper. We can?t walk out for both bridges are washed away so we have to do the next best.

Elder Folkman and fellows managed to get to Houston the next day and then spent a few days trying to get out of Houston and back to work. Elder Brooks wrote on Wednesday that ?Paron Williamson went to Beaumont the day before and brought the news back that Galveston had been washed away Saturday night Sept 8. A great many lives lost.? On September 08 President Duffin met with Elders in Arkansas at a conference meeting. The next day he recorded speaking ?on the subject of the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph,? noting that it gave him ?great pleasure to present to the world evidences of the divine mission of this great prophet of the Lord.? President Duffin did not find out about Galveston until Wednesday morning.

For links to other posts in this series, please see here.

[1] Hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise, which for a SW/NW shore like the upper-Texas coast, creates a surge to the east or north of the eye. The inflow retards the ocean-bound rivers, bayous, and marshes, which, along with the rain, can create extensive fresh-water flooding.

[2] Folkman Diary, 1900 Jun 04, 08.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. edje,

    This is terrific, I’m really looking forward to reading this series. How cool that kevinf’s grandfather was serving on Galveston as a missionary and that his record is available to us! Also, Heber Nephi is such a wonderful name.

    I visited Galveston four or five years ago with no prior knowledge of the storm of 1900, and I was very surprised by the enormous old graveyard which stretches for blocks, and which is located directly behind all the nice waterfront hotels and restaurants. When people explained to me what is was, it was very sobering. It really focuses your mind to imagine a storm surge of fifteen feet of water while standing on an island that is only a few feet above sea level.

    Comment by Mark Brown — October 20, 2008 @ 7:20 am

  2. Mark: Elder Folkman’s journal is rather fun to read. I’m glad he had the good sense to keep it and that his family both preserved and has been willing to share it.

    Comment by Edje — October 20, 2008 @ 10:32 am

  3. Edje,

    Great start. For anyone who wants to get more detail about the Galveston storm, I would recommend the book “Isaac’s Storm”, and the terrific collection of resources at the Galveston and Texas History Center Rosenberg Library for pictures of the storms aftermath, survivors letters, and the like.

    Thanks, Edge, for building a lot of extra context around the story we’ve had in our family for years. I remembered the flood story from the journals, but didn’t link it with the storm until about 10 years ago.

    Comment by kevinf — October 20, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  4. Fascinating stuff, edje. I had some ancestors that live for a time in Galveston, but I think they missed the storm (and they weren’t Mormons either). I’ll send your links to my Dad who has done a lot of work on that line.

    Comment by David G. — October 20, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

  5. I was similarly unaware of the hurricane and its devastating impact until I picked up Isaac’s Storm a few years ago.

    Comment by Justin — October 20, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

  6. Thanks for mentioning that book, kevinf and Justin. I had heard a radio show about it but never remembered the name of the book or bothered to look it up. It was an amazing and tragic incident in American history and I am looking forward to reading the whole series about it here on JI.

    Comment by Researcher — October 21, 2008 @ 11:13 am

  7. Thanks, Kevin, David, Justin, and Researcher.

    I enjoyed Isaac’s Storm. It’s a great read (even if the story is emotionally intense and kind of a downer). I think Larsen overplays his critique of Cline’s (the eponymous Isaac) failings by a few degrees, however.

    Comment by Edje — October 21, 2008 @ 11:24 am


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