There are many examples of natural disasters around the world and throughout history that have taken lives – sometimes whole families. Epidemics, in the days before vaccines and effective medical treatments could run rampant through communities. Floods have destroyed property and occasionally resulted in deaths of those caught up in rapidly rising waters and the swirling currents of raging rivers. Major storms, certainly the cause of some large-scale floods, have sometimes killed people.
I have done a number of studies of natural phenomena and their effects on communities and people in the past, and have a library of examples of rapidly-developing events and long-term environmental changes that had serious repercussions on people’s lives and livelihoods.
Events that stand out include hurricanes that arrive with tremendous destructive force, often catching people unprepared. One such storm that is remembered in reports at the time and many publications afterward was the tempest that struck Galveston, Texas, USA on 8 September 1900.
It was a Category 4 storm, with winds up to 145 miles per hour (233 km/h). Over 6,000 people were killed in collapsed buildings and a 15-foot storm surge that swept over the island. The severity of the elements was not predicted or expected and completely overwhelmed the entire island of Galveston and the city perched on its shore. It was the deadliest hurricane in US history.
Panarama of destruction from the 1900 Galveston hurricane (downloaded from https://www.1900storm.com/)
As in all similar events, there are thousands of stories that go along with the casualties. Family historians who had relatives in these areas will have particular interests in detailing how the physical conditions affect members of their families and the communities in which they lived.
The orphanage of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word is shown in this circa 1896 photo where it sat in the sand dunes along the gulf coast in Galveston, Texas. Both buildings were destroyed and 90 children and 10 nuns were killed when a hurricane slammed into the island 8 September 1900 (downloaded from http://www.chron.com/neighborhood/bayarea/slideshow/The-1900-Storm-in-Galveston-69849/photo-5159418.php)
One very sad tale arising from the event had to do with the complete destruction of the Sisters of Charity St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum. Among those lost were 10 sisters and 90 children. Only three children survived the onslaught of wind and water: William Murney, Frank Madera and Albert Campbell. All three clung to the branches of a tree for over a day until they were able to climb down on to dry land and find their way to town. Only William Murney and Albert Campbell appear on the US 1900 census of 27 June for Galveston, so Frank must have come to the location only a short time before disaster struck.
Sisters and children at the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum about 1900 (downloaded from https://www.1900storm.com/orphanage.html)
William Murney lost a younger brother at the orphanage who he had tried in vain to save. Their parents had died within a few days of one another in July 1894. Two sisters, not in residence at the orphanage also survived. One sister, Josephine, had been adopted by a Galveston family prior to 1900. Information about William and his family can be found on Find A Grave.
Frank Madera has been born in Austria and came to America in 1898 with his mother and sister. Following the death of his mother two months after their arrival, the children were placed in the orphanage. The sister was living in Houston when the hurricane attacked. His story can be found on Find A Grave.
Albert Campbell and his sister, Magdalena, lived with an older sister, after their parents died. They were sent to the orphanage on a temporary basis when the sister and her husband moved to Kansas. The storm caught them before they could rejoin their family members. More information about Albert and his family can also be found on Find A Grave.
The three boys apparently sporadically kept in touch over the years but never met as a group again. All three eventually married and had children. Frank died in 1953; Albert died in 1955; and William died in 1971. Some descendants came to Galveston in 1994 when a memorial for the hurricane’s orphanage victims was dedicated. A very interesting summary of their lives during and after the event can be found on the pages of the Galveston Daily News for 16 October 1994.
There also will be dozens of stories about the families of those staff and children at the orphanage who did not survive. Families of individuals lost, at the orphanage and across Galveston Island during the hurricane must have felt enormous grief. Perhaps those accounts might be unearthed and summarized by genealogists one day. A full list of most of those killed can be found at the Galveston and Texas History Center Rosenberg Library.
Information about the storm and its aftermath can be read on Wikipedia 1900 Galveston hurricane. Many publications are also listed on the website. One need only search for Galveston Hurricane 1900 to find many other references.
Naturally-occurring events such as this are all part of the fabric of family history.
Another major natural disaster – the 111th anniversary of which is today (April 18th) – was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which possibly killed 3,000 people and left another 300,000 homeless. I’ll look at how that one affected families in a future blog post.
Wayne Shepheard is a retired geologist and active genealogist. He volunteers with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. Wayne has also served as an editor of two such publications. He provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.