Sarah Yesler Proved A Challenge For Henry

Henry Yesler hadn't been gone very long before Sarah was sick of being a Gold Rush widow.

She sold her house and household goods and wrote her footloose husband, asking if she could leave Ohio and join him out West.

Six years later Sarah was still waiting.

Henry had stopped looking for gold in all the wrong places and was pursuing his fortune in lumber. He'd become a city father in Seattle, a town with few city mothers, but he still wasn't ready for Sarah.

Many families divided

Thousands of women like Sarah Yesler were left behind during the last half of the last century when their men joined the stampede west for gold, land, adventure and a place in the history books. Although Sarah eventually told Henry she was packing her bags whether he liked it or not, many families were split by the Great Divide forever. Historians for the most part ignored them.

Sarah Yesler's ordeal is included in a book, "Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement." The writers, Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, are including her story in a lecture series based on the book in Washington, Oregon and Montana this fall. Sarah's story will be told at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry and 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.

Peavy and Smith pieced together the stories from the letters that criss-crossed the plains, and from census and other records.

Many men went West because they weren't getting along with their wives, although this wasn't true of the Yeslers, Smith said.

"None of them left the best conditions and many of them had financial problems. Most of the women had never earned anything other than butter and egg money."

Sarah Yesler wasn't left destitute when Henry set off for the gold fields in 1851. He was 40 and a successful mill owner in Masillon, Ohio; Sarah was 29. The couple had been married 11 years and had a son, 5-year-old Henry George.

Henry sold the mill, gave power of attorney to a friend, and left, telling Sarah he would send for her as soon as he was established. Sarah said she'd wait two years.

Yesler claimed 160 acres of land in Seattle for himself and 160 acres for Sarah. His land started at the waterfront and rose up what we know as Yesler Way; hers spread across the heavily timbered hilltop. By 1854, the new mill was running, Yesler was shipping lumber to build the west and Sarah was pestering him to let her join him.

It's too dangerous, he said, and lumber prices have dropped and we can't afford it.

Cut your losses and come home, she wrote in 1856.

No, he said. We'll wait until the railroads come through and lumber prices rise again.

By 1858, Sarah had had enough. She left their sickly son behind with relatives and came to Seattle. Henry George died the following year.

Once the Yeslers were reunited, their marriage was similar to modern marriages, Peavy and Smith say. Sarah, who never had any other children, traveled to San Francisco as a buyer for the Yesler company store. She became as prominent as Henry in the social life of the city - helping found the library association and the Children's Home and working for women's suffrage. She was on the committee that helped Asa Mercer bring brides from back East to Seattle's lonely frontiersmen.

A compatible union

The marriage was compatible, but the Yeslers disagreed somewhat on priorities. Henry wrote Sarah from Seattle: "I inhabit a portion of a castle situated in the center of the city at the water's edge."

Sarah, on the other hand, disliked the mansion Henry built for her. Too ostentatious, too pretentious, too big, the authors say.

"Henry was a man who needed a healthy debt structure," says Smith. "He needed the mansion for status. She didn't need it at all."

Sarah died in 1887, soon after moving into the mansion. Henry went on to marry Minnie Gagle, a young woman of about 20 whom he met on a trip back to his boyhood home in Maryland. He was 82 when he died in 1892, and Minnie apparently inherited the Yesler fortune. Historians lost track of her after that, Peavy and Smith say.

Like the other pioneer women - those who stayed back east to tend the crops, mind the families and pay the bills and those who refused to stay - Sarah Yesler could take care of herself.