1900 Galveston Hurricane, 3/8: The Institutional Response

By October 21, 2008

Preparation, information gathering, and relief efforts figure prominently in present-day discussions of Mormons and natural disasters. Just last conference President Eyring spoke of those who praise the church for ?know[ing] how to organize to get things done? but don?t always recognize that ?the miracle lies not in organization alone, but in the people?s hearts? [1]. Elders who experienced some part of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane recorded evidence of concerned hearts; their dairies also provide glimpses of a nascent organization.

As of Wednesday, September 12, Elder Folkman had made it to Houston and Elder Brooks had learned of the disaster. President Duffin, traveling on mission business in Missouri (en route from Arkansas to Oklahoma), was last to learn:

At Monett [Missouri] this morning [Wednesday] I received the first papers informing me of the terrible destruction by wind and wave at Galveston, Texas, and surrounding country?. Four of our Elders are in the city and I am anxious to hear from them. They are Elders Peter A. Norton, Samuel A. Shaw, Hever [sic] N. Folkman, and [name blank] Johnson.

He wrote the headquarters Elders in St. John, Kansas, ?instructing them to wire Prest. Snow,? the President of the Church, in Salt Lake City, ?of safety of the Elders in Galveston as soon as they were assured of that fact.? He reminded them again the next morning from his hotel in Moline, Kansas (still en route to Oklahoma). Meanwhile, in Houston that Thursday, the Galveston Elders wrote to the Deseret Evening News. Sometime earlier that week Elder Shaw, one of the four, had written to his wife in North Ogden, Utah. On Friday the Elders continued trying

to get a ticked out of Houston but could not get one. Started for the depot and met Elder Jensen and Shipp who were looking for us. Went back up town, got a room for the night. Sat and talked with them untill 10 o?clock then retired. They were going back to the office in the morning. We were going to start for Austin Co., where we will labor untill conference.

Elder Jensen was conference president with Elders Shipp and Forsha as counselors. As mentioned yesterday, the counselors had been near the Louisiana border visiting Elders Brooks and Decker when the storm hit. In the interim, the presidency reassembled, learned of the disaster, and sent Elders Jensen and Shipp to find the Galveston Elders. Rail disruptions, flooding, and thousands of displaced people probably meant that by time they found the Galveston Elders they had a story to tell. At any rate, conference presidents designated areas and companionships, so besides verifying their safety, President Jensen updated the Galveston Elders? assignments.

That same Friday, Elder Brooks was still concerned: ?There were four of the Elders laboring in Galveston. We were very anxious to hear how they were. Could get no chance to send for our mail. It was fifteen miles to the office so I decided to go myself.? He knew each of the four Elders from conference meetings and ?splits? with two of them. Despite his malaria he left the next morning on horseback: ?It was quite an undertaking for me to ride about thirty miles but I was anxious to hear, but what was worse when I got to the office there was no word so I wasn?t any better off than before I went. …Got very tired before getting [back].? Less than a week after the storm Elder Brooks expected news, revealing an institutionalized sense of coordinated action and reporting. He does not say whether he expected the letter from the Elders themselves, the conference presidency, or mission headquarters.

President Duffin received news the next Tuesday, September 18: ?Word from the Elders who have been laboring in Galveston?state the night of the terrible storm the houses in which they were staying were not destroyed, while destruction went on all around them. We feel deeply grateful to our Father in Heaven, for his watchful care over his servants.? The Deseret Evening News announced their safety the same day [2]. Elder Shaw?s letter traveled more quickly: the Ogden Standard Examiner announced his safety on Saturday the 15th; the Salt Lake Herald did the same on the 16th [3]. It is not clear whether President Duffin received the news from Texas or Utah.

Elders Brooks and Decker remained in the dark a bit longer but, like many missionaries under reverses, when life gave them lemons, they went alligator hunting [4]. Finally, three weeks after landfall, Elder Brooks reported on September 27 ?a letter from the office stating the Elders were safe that were in Galveston.? Telegraph and mail service were mostly restored before then and had not been seriously interrupted between Kansas and Beaumont anyway, so it?s not clear why Elder Brooks had to wait twelve and nine days longer than the conference and mission leaderships, respectively.

In terms of relief, I find no suggestion of conference-, mission-, or church-level effort to provide materiel, money, or manpower. The Deseret Evening News ran many articles reporting the nationwide call for aid and describing how various local, state, and national institutions responded. The News did report local efforts to raise money, collected money itself, and publicized local arrangements for free shipping of relief supplies [5]. Given the News?s relationship with the Church, this facilitation might be considered ?formal? church relief efforts, but it?s not the Relief Society sending trainloads of flour to San Francisco in 1906, or the church airlifting supplies to Honduras after Mitch, or Area Presidencies sending thousands of work crews after Andrew or Katrina or Rita or Ike or whatever.

I also find no Mormon efforts to locate, report on, or aid non-missionaries. The Elders knew of one member in Galveston, a Sister Nunn, whom they found while tracting earlier that summer [6]. Why the Elders did not note her safety or concern for it is a mystery to me. Why there are no other mentions of member relief efforts is more explainable. Foremost, we don?t have all the diaries. Elder Brooks saw the edge of the storm where damage was minimal and was staying within a cluster of mostly-related members, so he probably did know how many members fared but thought of it as family or neighborly rather than church communication. Diaries from the conference presidency or from Elders closer to the storm might describe member needs. Further, there was no institutional church?no branches, quorums, Sunday schools, or Relief Societies?in the area other than missionaries. Lastly, President Duffin in Kansas probably did not know that the storm was hundreds of miles wide and would travel hundreds of miles inland and he had few resources anyway, so verifying the safety of the Galveston missionaries was a plausible limit for his official concern.

In summary, the diaries describe an institutional effort to gather and communicate information about missionaries. The conference presidency coordinated with traveling Elders; the mission president directed communications among Salt Lake, the Mission, and the conference; traveling Elders also communicated directly with home, which learned some things before the Mission President. Elder Brooks left his assigned county for information about his friends, but otherwise awaited the established channels. However, the missionary-based institutional response had not yet extended to the general membership.


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

[1] Henry B. Eyring, ?Our Hearts Knit as One,? General Conference, October 2008, Sunday morning session.

[2] ?Elders at Galveston Safe,? Deseret Evening News, 1900 Sep 18, p. 4. Paragraphing changed.

[3] The Shaw letter was understood to refer to only two missionaries, not four. ?The Galveston Flood. An Incident of Interest to Many Ogden and Weber County People.? Ogden Standard Examiner, 1900 September 15, p. 5. ?The horrible and indescribable devastation of the Galveston storm and flood and the enormous number of lives lost have caused people to wonder if the list will ever stop growing. Among those who were in Galveston at the time were Samuel Shaw and his partner missionary, who were working in the part of the city which suffered the worst. A letter from Mr. Shaw to his wife at North Ogden tells of his escape from death at the mercy of the waves, and that at one time the water as five feet deep in the rooms occupied by him and his friend. There is thought to be another North Ogden boy there and he, it is hoped, is saved also.? The other ?North Ogden boy? was Elder Folkman, from Plains City. ?Missionaries Saved. Samuel Shaw of North Ogden and a Companion Escape Galveston Flood,? Salt Lake Herald, 1900 September 16, p. 7.

[4] ?In the afternoon we fixed up a hook and went out to catch an alligator but failed. We seen some but there was so much water we could not get one. Seen a great many little alligators.? With flooding the alligator gains both mobility and distance from land-based predators (like humans). Thus, one can see more but catch fewer. Also: there are more efficient ways to catch alligators than ?casting? a hook.

[5] ?Utah Digital Newspapers? returns more than a hundred hits for ?Galveston? between 1900 September 09 and December 01. Not all of them are about the storm but the overwhelming majority are. I assume that if the institutional church made any formal relief effort the News would have reported it.

[6] There are two entries. June 22, 1900. Friday. ?In our tracting we found an old lady who had joined the church a good many years ago. It was 44 years since she had seen an elder. She is a widow and 79 years old. Pres. John Taylor is the last Mormon she ever see untill she met us. We had a long talk with her. She seems to be very firm in the faith. Mrs. Nun is her name.? June 28, 1900. ?After tracting, we went and visited Sister Nunn. Talked with her upon the Gosple. Got a conversation out of her grandson. Spent about three hours their then went back home.? Neither ?Nun? nor ?Nunn? shows up on the death list for the storm nor do any Nunns appear in the 1900 census for Galveston (which was conducted during the summer, so the fact that Elder Folkman finds Sister Nunn but the census taker does not is problematic). A possibility is that the name was mis-transcribed; there is an M. Munn in Galveston of the right age and station; more details forthcoming as warranted. The Deseret Evening News reported, erroneously, the death in the storm of a Mrs. William Gordon, born in Provo and late of Salt Lake City, but did not specify her religion; the retraction followed two days later on Mrs. Gordon?s protest. ?Drowned at Galveston,? 1900 Sep 12, p. 8. ?Local Briefs,? 1900 Sep 14, p. 8.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. It’s always a good sign when people protest the announcements of their deaths!

    This is a wonderful series, Edje, giving us a chance to see different aspects of the same dramatic event. More!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 21, 2008 @ 1:44 am

  2. This really is great, Edge. As a side note, I find alligator quite tasty.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 21, 2008 @ 9:31 am

  3. I never knew the mission HQ was in St. John, KS. It would be interesting to know why the disision was made to locate in such an out-of-the-way little burg.

    I guess the white bible these days does not allow for ‘gator hunting on p-day.

    Comment by Mark Brown — October 21, 2008 @ 9:57 am

  4. St. John was originally a Bickertonite settlement. I don’t know whether that makes it even odder that the mission headquarters were there, or whether by this time so many former Bickertonites had come back to the fold that it explains why the mission headquarters were there.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 21, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  5. Thanks, Ardis. I wonder how Mrs. Williams phrased the letter. Did she go with “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”? [Next question: if the paper in question were the BYU Daily Universe, how would the letter to the editor be different?]

    Comment by Edje — October 21, 2008 @ 11:06 am

  6. Thanks, J. Alligator for me is a meh meat: it tastes fine, but not so good to justify the hassle of finding it when cow is readily available.

    Both Elder Brooks and Elder Folkman report alligator hunting, sometimes with a hook, sometimes with a firearm.

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

  7. Mark (3) and Ardis (4): I’ve asked myself about St. John before but never looked into it. Thanks for the Bickertonite information, Ardis. IIRC (and it’s a big “if”), St. John was the headquarters of the Indian Territories Mission before Texas was added to the ITM and the ITM subsequently changed to the Southwest Territories Mission. In just a few years the headquarters were moved to Independence, MO. (There might have been a stint in Kansas City in between).

    Comment by Edje — October 21, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  8. Some of my husband’s ancestors were Bickertonites. They joined that church in Monongehela, Pennsylvania, and then moved with the church to St John, Kansas, where they joined the Mormon church and eventually moved to Utah. Sad to say that I don’t know much more than that about them. This would have been in the 1870s-1890s time period.

    Comment by Researcher — October 21, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  9. In terms of relief, I find no suggestion of conference-, mission-, or church-level effort to provide materiel, money, or manpower.

    I am wondering about the history of church-level relief aid for those outside the church. Why did the church send money and goods to San Francisco in 1906 but not react in a similar manner six years earlier?

    Comment by Justin — October 21, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

  10. I don’t know if this is the answer, but I wonder if it played a part: There were many church members in San Francisco, some of whom immediately contacted the church in Salt Lake. The mission president reported on the location and condition of members and their houses and their needs. (I’ve got some of his reports which I need to dig out of my files and post — they’re great.) I wonder if the combination of immediate knowledge of need, plus awareness of significant numbers of members in need, might not have sparked the San Francisco response.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 21, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  11. Why 1906 but not 1900 is an interesting question. I think Ardis’s suggestion about member density and communication is plausible and possibly controlling.

    I conjecture also that the church’s debt might have played a role. Another possibility is that the criticisms associated with the Smoot hearings that the church was isolationist and un-American might have increased leaders’ awareness of opportunities to reach out.

    Comment by Edje — October 21, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

  12. After reading my grandfather’s journal, and the letter he and his companions sent to the Deseret News, I’m not sure he was feeling very charitable towards the citizens of Galveston after a long, hot, summer of rejection, illness, and persecution. There are some indications that they thought that Galveston deserved what it got.

    On the other hand, the destruction and loss of life in Galveston was unlike anything we have seen before or since from a single storm. There were thousands killed by the storm, and most homes, buildings, wharves, bridges, and public works were destroyed or heavily damaged. Current precedent would indicate a massive response by the church. Water was in critically short supply, and for weeks they were still recovering bodies from the rubble. No one deserved this tragedy.

    By the time that the true extent of the tragedy was understood in the mountain west, the biggest need would have been for cash, something the church at that time may not have had much of or was probably not willing to part with. Cash could be used for buying building materials or paying construction workers in the reconstruction process. My grandfather revisited Galveston the next spring and was amazed at how much the debris had been removed and the city rebuilt.

    Comment by kevinf — October 21, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  13. It strikes me that San Francisco was seen as the nearest big town by late 19th century Mormons and there were close ties there. Pres. Woodruff died there in 1898. San Francisco was a straight shot west on the railroad. Helping in San Francisco was something that was within the realm of the possible, Galveston was probably not.

    Comment by Stmiller — October 23, 2008 @ 3:20 pm


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