Life was good for 15-year-old Sarah Jane Marler—about as good as it could get in Port Gibson, Mississippi, in 1850. As the oldest daughter of a wealthy land owner, Sarah Jane enjoyed many of the comforts of the Old South: a beautiful and spacious home, many servants, and a bustling social life.
Along with her parents and seven brothers and sisters, she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1845. Now she had the blessing of the restored gospel, too.
Yes, life was good for Sarah Jane, almost perfect. Then her parents, Allen and Harriet Heath Marler, made a decision to leave, to sell their land and most of their possessions, and join with other pioneer Saints in the Salt Lake Valley. In early March of 1850, along with Sarah Jane’s uncle Samuel Heath, his wife and two little boys, her family left tender ties and a warm climate to make the long, arduous journey to a new life in Utah territory.
How did Sarah Jane feel? Did she pout? Did she cry? She probably felt like any modern-day teenager does when facing a forced move. Sad to leave her friends, maybe a teensy angry with Mom and Dad, and most certainly knots-in-the-stomach scared! After all, she would never see her Mississippi home again.
During the first part of their journey the two families traveled by riverboat up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers headed for St. Joseph, Missouri. However, before they reached their destination, the dread disease cholera broke out in the family. One of the children was seriously ill. The riverboat captain, fearing his boat would be quarantined if a sick person was found aboard, insisted that they leave the boat at once. It was night, and the small band went by foot in cold and drenching rain to find refuge in St. Joseph. The child died in his mother’s arms. And within hours all members of the family, except Sarah Jane, were violently ill.
Can you imagine Sarah Jane’s desperation? Her loneliness and isolation must have been overwhelming as she ran through the streets of St. Joseph begging for help. The people of that community were sympathetic but so fearful of catching the disease themselves they dared not come near her family. She must have thought, I’m the only one! I’m the only one who can help! The fear in her heart must have been unbearable. For days, she was doctor and nurse to her family.
Sarah Jane’s father, three of her sisters, and her two boy cousins died. She served as midwife for her mother, who bore a premature baby girl who died, too. She then had to be mortician for her family. After begging again, help came, and she was finally able to bury her loved ones.
In a few weeks those remaining were well again. After much prayer, Sarah Jane’s mother and uncle decided to continue west. A row of graves, large and small, left behind a story of tragedy and sacrifice. But they moved on, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley on October 2, 1850.
Sarah Jane Marler was my great-great aunt. Her courage and faith, borne of a powerful testimony of the gospel for one so young, has been an inspiration in our family for generations.
I often wonder, could I have done what she did?