1900 Galveston Hurricane, 7/8: Wild Conjectures about Consequences

By October 23, 2008

Last weekend I joined Mormons and neighbors in Sabine Pass, Texas, removing debris. I did the same after Rita three years ago but back then a Mormon family lived there. Not anymore, and I’d be surprised if one moved in any time soon. On the other hand, reconstruction brought new members to the local ward—as it seemingly brought the Coquats to Galveston in 1900. Drawing clean lines between the storm and future events or circumstances is difficult, but I think we can reasonably identify some consequences of the 1900 Galveston storm, particularly its influence on where people live, that are still with us. 

Starting farthest afield: in the storm’s aftermath Galveston developed a new form of city government, the City Commission or Galveston Plan, which was once quite prevalent (including several Utah cities as of 1912); its descendant, the Council-Manager government, continues to be so [1]. I hereby wave my hands and pronounce that much subsequent Mormon interaction with local government, especially regarding solicitation, vagrancy, and building permit laws, must therefore be touched by the 1900 Galveston storm, though I decline to conjecture how.

More practically, the storm resolved the contest between Houston and Galveston. Before the storm, Galveston was the regional hub with Houston the growing alternate but with no clear claim to future dominance. The storm did not determine whether there would be Mormons in Texas but it did, along with the discovery of oil in 1901, exert a significant influence on where they live. Without the storm (and with the usual disclaimers about counterfactuality), we might imagine a temple in or closer to Galveston instead of Houston.

Proselyting patterns changed after the storm, though I cannot establish causality. At landfall thirteen Elders labored in the South Texas Conference [2]. Three months later there were seven. The following May it became four assigned to “labor at present amoung the saints.” The next year South Texas merged with the Austin Conference. The documents attribute the changes to the fact that the “canvassing of our conference is nearly completed” [3]. With a pile of disclaimers, I think we might plausibly detect some psychological factors in the size and focus of the South Texas Conference post-hurricane. In my own experience I observe—anecdotally, unsystematically, subjectively—that hurricanes can be terrifying and overwhelming and that dealing with the emotions can take weeks, months, and years, especially when the catastrophe touches almost everyone in the social and familial network. If most people, including the missionaries, in the South Texas Conference were experiencing feelings anything like ours, I think it not a huge leap to say that the contraction in proselyting derived partly from the emotional fallout of a large-scale stress.

Such conjecture is problematic on several levels. First, I have no documentary evidence to support it. Second, I’m not even sure what the documents would look like. Jumping back to the present, I have asserted that post-trauma symptoms have affected me and others, but other than some overwrought poetry and this post, I don’t know that any of us have written down our observations or that the feelings reliably correlate with any change in behavior. Third, there is no a priori reason to believe that present-day and nineteenth-century reactions are the same. Weeks-long mandatory evacuations, the sudden deprivation of electricity with its attendant loss of communication, entertainment, and air conditioning, twenty-four-hour news media with weeks of hype and anticipation preceding the actual storm, and gasoline rationing all point toward a different trauma in 2008 than in 1900. Finally, a host of other factors such as malaria, smallpox, random fluctuations in the missionary population, increased proselyting efforts elsewhere, and rising anti-Mormon propaganda with the B.H. Roberts trial all suggest reasons why the conference might contract.

While I’m conjecturing madly into the ether, I think we might also draw a dotted-line from Galveston to Mormon colonization efforts in the Southwestern States Mission in the early 1900s. Those elements of the Southern Mormon population and the Mormon leadership receptive to “vengeful God” rhetoric and, in particular, their perception of Southern cities, could have found in Galveston a concrete motivator to create and join local colonies or enclaves. The logic is this: go ye out from Babylon to give the Lord a clear shot. Of course, I haven’t demonstrated the connection, merely observed that it seems like a plausible train of thought and/or emotion. Along those lines, however, note that Elder Cowley, author of the cited rhetoric, was a friend of Mission President Duffin and was involved in the colonization decisions.

I don’t think I can tie all these guesses together or come up with a concluding thought more definite than this: a hurricane’s effects ripple on long after CNN pulls its reporters.

_________________

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

[1] See, for example, Frank B. Stephens, “The New Form of Government for Cities,” The Young Woman’s Journal 22, no. 6 (1911 Jun 06): 293-298.

[2] The South Texas Conference at the time was bounded, roughly, by Bryan, the coast, and the Louisiana border. The boundaries changed in 1902.

[3] Folkman, Brooks, Duffin, and the conference meeting report each describe the changes in personnel at the 1900 November meeting. The “labor…amoung the saints” is from Folkman, 1901 May 27. “Canvassing…nearly completed” is from Journal History of the Church, 25 Nov 1900, p. 2-3. Duffin phrases it (1900 Nov 21): “As nearly all of the profitable counties in this conference had been canvassed….”


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