“Conspicuous Service, at the Risk of Their Lives”: An American Consul Praises LDS Missionaries, 1906
A New York newspaper reported to its readers on 10 March 1906:
Tahiti and the Tuamotu Islands, as already announced by cable, were visited by the most destructive cyclone in their history on February 7 and 8. The wind blew at the rate of 120 miles an hour for nearly sixteen hours, spreading destruction throughout the archipelago. The disturbance was accompanied by a tidal wave, which swept over Papeete, the capital, the streets of which were inundated to a depth of many feet, so that the residents had to swim from their homes. Many of the smaller islands were completely covered, and the inhabitants had to take refuge in the tops of cocoanut trees.
The news of that destructive hurricane had been carried throughout the world by official reports and by private letters, like this one written on February 17, 1906, by William F. Doty, the American Consul on Tahiti, to his Princeton (Class of 1896) classmates:
As I address you, from this remote South Pacific Island, I am somewhat in the mood of a Tahitian overawed by the marvels of the “storm god.”
Less than ten days ago, a most destructive cyclone raged on this beautiful island of Tahiti, and throughout French Oceanica. The sea inundated the City of Papeete, lifting its waves ten or fifteen feet over the quay. … It was my misfortune to be in the district of Atriwaona inspecting a large sugar plantation, when the storm broke. Fearful that the Consulate at Papeete might be destroyed and the lives of my mother and sister and my brother’s son might be in jeopardy, and perceiving that it was impossible to take a carriage, or even a horse, over the debris of fallen trees and houses, I started on foot in the morning and walked about thirty miles in nine hours. Nearly all the bridges were down, and the swollen streams were exceedingly difficult to pass through. … At length reaching Papeete, I found the Consulate destroyed, albeit the lives of my kindred had been spared.
What Consul Doty did not tell his classmates – although he freely shared that information with others – was that the lives of his kindred had been spared because when the women saw the waves washing onto the grounds of the consulate, they ran to the only other place in Papeete where they knew there were Americans – the Latter-day Saint mission, located 400 yards from the shore and a mere 12 feet above sea level.
Living in the fragile and as-yet-uncompleted buildings of the Tahitian Mission that dreadful night were the missionaries pictured here:
Front, left to right: Sister Sarah C. and Mission President Edward S. Hall, and Elder Joseph T. and Sister Annie W. Wilkinson. Back, left to right: Elders Lawrence A. Miner, L. Parley Huffaker, George M. Peck, George A. Pierson, George S. Tibbits, James S. Noall and Adelbert L. Clawson.
While the sisters welcomed the refugees from the American Consulate and helped them settle down for the night, the elders went out into the darkness to get a better feel for what was happening. Wrote Elder Miner to his parents a few days later,
We all dressed and went down town. The market place was flooded and the people were carrying their goods towards the mountains,. The streets were lined with little boats and canoes. The people who had carriages had them backed up to their front doors, so that in case the sea came they could get in their rigs and seek the high places.
We came back to the house and asked the Lord to protect Brother Bunker and his companion in the Tuamotu Islands. We knew what it meant for these islands: the highest is not ten feet above the sea. We went to bed again but could not sleep. At 2:30 a.m., the bell in the Catholic church started to ring, and we heard a great deal of noise in the streets. The natives came and told us that that part of Papeete known as Fareute was destroyed.
When daylight came, although the storm still raged, the elders decided to make another foray into the streets. Their guests had fled from the consulate in such a hurry that they had nothing with them but the clothes they wore. The elders questioned the women about the location of various items within the consulate, including the women’s trunks and the official government records, then they braved the storm.
Finding a buggy, but no horse, the elders dragged the buggy as close to the consulate as they could. They timed the waves coming in, which virtually covered the building. Time after time, in the gaps between the waves, the elders dashed into the house, filling their arms with books, clothes, and whatever else they could seize, then raced the waves out of the house. When their buggy was filled, the young men dragged it back to the mission home and unloaded it, then returned, again and again, to the consulate. “In this way,” wrote Elder Miner, “we got all the trunks and a good many of the records.” Then –
While we were at the Consulate, I think it was about half past eight, one of the largest waves came in, and we all had a close shave. The house fell flat. I was in the street, and was struck by a board walk and nailed to a tree. But by the help of President Hall and Elder Noall I got out just in time to catch hold of a buggy with Elder Noall and be carried up the street a half a block. President Hall caught hold of a tree and thus saved himself.
Really, I don’t know how the others got out of it. We did not go back again.
When Consul Doty succeeded in reaching Papeete, he found his residence gone and his family missing, but soon tracked them down at the mission home. He joined the women there as guests of the missionaries until he could secure other temporary quarters.
A week after the storm, despite the chaos and destruction with which he was still dealing, Doty took time to write two letters. One was addressed to his superiors at the U.S. State Department. The other was this one:
Consular services U.S.A., Tahiti, S[ociety]. I[slands].
Feb. 15, 1906.
President Joseph F. Smith, of First Presidency Latter-day Saints
Salt Lake City.
Dear Sir –
It gives me great pleasure to inform you that during the cyclone and high water at Papeete, Tahiti, Feb. 8, the Mormon Elders rendered conspicuous service at the American consulate, at the risk of their lives, to rescue the archives. The Elders were Messrs. Hall, Peck, Clawson, Pierson, Tibbetts, Miner, Wilkinson, Noall and Huffaker. Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Wilkinson also were kind and hospitable to myself and my relatives during three days, while we were their guests.
The Elders have produced a splendid example of loyalty to the interests of their country abroad. I have reported their bravery and successful service to the department of state.
I congratulate you upon such noble representatives in this insular community. I am glad to say that the mission house is nearly completed; it is a splendid structure.
With high regards, I am, Respectfully yours,
WILLIAM F. DOTY,
Doty had to have been aware of the national feeling toward Mormons in 1906 during the Smoot hearings, yet he did not hesitate to notify his superiors in Washington of the actions of the Mormon missionaries. That may seem like a small thing, but I think he deserves credit for his honesty and even his political bravery, just as the elders deserve credit for their physical bravery during that terrible storm a century ago.