The Galveston Historical Foundation, also known as the Galveston Historical Society and the Texas Historical Society, was organized on August 3, 1871, with approximately twenty-five charter members, and dedicated to the preservation of the community's written history. Probably the first historical society in Texas, it flourished for ten years, but as members died or moved away, interest waned. D. G. Herbert put the accumulated archives in storage prior to his death, and in 1885 they were put up for sale for storage charges. To save the collection Philip Crosby Tucker and Andrew Benner elected themselves president and secretary-treasurer of the organization, and Tucker personally paid storage charges on what he considered the most important papers. Benner put the collection in order in the library of Ball High School. Benner died in 1888, and his minutes and notes were lost. Tucker appointed his son, Philip C. Tucker, Jr., secretary pro tempore, and father and son comprised the society from 1888 to 1894. The society was reorganized on August 4, 1894, and was incorporated and chartered as the Texas Historical Society on October 29. In the next six years its collection grew so rapidly that more space was necessary, and the archives were removed to the tower room of the old Masonic Temple. When the Galveston hurricane of 1900 blew the roof off the temple, many of the records were destroyed or water damaged. Eldridge G. Littlejohn, who served as secretary from 1896 to 1931, salvaged most of the collection. It was subsequently deposited in the Rosenberg Library, where the society began to meet. In 1931 the collection was given to the library. Although only five meetings were held from 1901 to 1931, the society rendered Texas historians invaluable service in the use of historical resources. The Texana collection included 700 unbound manuscripts, two bound volumes of manuscripts, 100 books, 500 pamphlets, 825 unbound newspapers, 11 volumes of bound newspapers, and 60 historical relics and museum pieces. On October 29, 1942, a meeting sponsored by friends of the Rosenberg Library resulted in the reorganization of the Galveston Historical Society. Walter Grover was elected president, T. D. Affleck vice president, and J. N. Olson secretary treasurer. The group collected valuable papers and manuscripts and encouraged research and preparation of papers on Galveston's history, institutions, and citizens. It had eighty members in 1948. In 1951 the society published and sold 5,000 copies of Historic Galveston Homes, and in 1956 the Rosenberg Library published a calendar of the Samuel May Williams papers, Samuel May Williams, 1795–1858, compiled by Ruth G. Nichols and S. W. Lifflander.
The society formed the Galveston Historical Foundation on November 23, 1954, as a not-for-profit corporation for the new purpose of preserving historic homes. The first president, Anne A. Brindley, was instrumental in the acquisition in May 1955 of the Samuel May Williams-Philip Crosby Tucker home, built in 1839 and one of the two oldest houses on Galveston Island. The house was opened to the public on April 15, 1959, after extensive preservation work and repairs. The foundation's first full-time, professional staff member, executive director Peter Brink, was hired in the 1970s. Brink oversaw the restoration of Ashton Villa and a five-block area known as the Strand, which comprised nearly fifty restored iron front buildings in 1991. The Strand Visitors Center is operated by the foundation. Foundation support and the growing historic preservation movement led to the 1979 designation of the East End Historic District, the formation of the Silk Stocking Historic Precinct, and the establishment of a county museum in the former City National Bank Building. Five other museum properties later acquired and/or operated by the foundation include St. Joseph's Church (1859), the Galveston County Historical Museum, the Twentieth Floor Observation Area in the American National Insurance Tower, and the restored tall ship Elissa, built in 1877 and berthed at the Texas Seaport Museum. A 1973 potluck supper for foundation volunteers led to the annual December "Dickens on the Strand" street festival, while the annual Galveston Historic Homes Tour focuses attention on the historic city and encourages preservation. Foundation membership grew steadily from 1,200 in 1974 to a total of 3,000 in 1991, when the foundation sponsored programs ranging from architectural preservation and museum operations to community advocacy and was involved in restoration efforts, house painting programs, commercial redevelopment, neighborhood revitalization, and crime prevention programs. That year the foundation received a Governor's Award for Historic Preservation from the Texas Historical Commission.