We Called Her Sally

Memories of Sarah King Chambers

By Charlotte Wirfs

For the last 150 years, she was known to many Oregonians as "the woman in the grave."  It is the grave of Sarah King Chambers, which to those who have seen it, evokes a sense of mystery.  It lies in the Oregon wilderness near the waters of Beulah Lake in Malheur County, within sight of Castle Rock, sometimes called Fremont's Peak.  It is said to be a "lonely grave, marked 'Mrs. S. Chambers Sept. 3rd 1845,' surrounded by wild, unspoiled beauty."

To historians there are several unique qualities about Sarah's grave.  It marks the road of Meeks Cutoff, supposedly a short-cut to the Willamette Valley that would be a quicker and easier road than the usual route of the Oregon Trail.  It is also a rarity in that very few graves of Oregon pioneers were ever marked, as family feared vandalism by Indians.  The stone was so carefully selected, carved, and placed by human hands.  Finally, it is unusual for it still remains in good condition after 150 years.

Who was this woman?  How did she get there?  Why did her life end as it did?  Luckily we know the answers to these questions, mostly due to the written records and oral history passed on by those who were with her the day she died, or those who passed the gravesite over the years.

Sarah King Chambers was known to her family as "Sally".  She was the daughter of Nahum and Sarepta (Norton) King, born July 25, 1823, in Madison Co., Ohio.  It was there at age 18, that she married Rowland Chambers Aug. 17, 1841.  Soon afterwards the King clan began their westward move, as her two children, Margaret and James Chambers were born in Carroll Co., MO.  These youngsters were still in infancy and toddler stages when the family left Mo. in the spring of 1845.  Sarah was not quite 22 when she started her fatal journey over the Oregon Trail.

The earliest report of her death reached civilization when Sarah's sister-in-law, Anna Maria Allen King, wrote "home" in the spring of 1846.  Anna Maria told of the six-month trek, describing good weather and easy traveling until they arrived at Fort Boise on the Snake River.  Sickness had overcome the wagon train at Fort Laramie when whooping cough and measles went through their camp.  Anna Maria's letter indicates that a "slow, lingering fever prevailed" after leaving the "old road" and taking the new trail recommended by Stephen Meek that was directly into the Willamette Valley in 20 days.  This new route was abandoned when the travelers began to run out of provisions and conditions became intolerable for humans, animals, and equipment.  The King clan had enough provisions to see them through, but "sickness and death attended" them the rest of the way.

Donna Wojcik Montgomery describes Sarah's death in her book The Brazen Overlanders of 1845.  The King family was camped along the north fork of the Malheur River just south of Castle Rock.  They had already traveled 100 miles since leaving the old route at the Snake River.  On the evening of Sept. 2nd or 3rd Sarah "Lay in her wagon hovering between life and death".  She had contacted "camp fever" a while back and although everything was done to ease her suffering, she died and was "laid to rest beneath the sagebrush."

Lambert Florin writes of her headstone in a magazine article, "The Grave of the Woman," published Aug. 1980 in True West.  He tells of a bereaved husband, Rowland Chambers, who stayed behind to mark his wife's grave when the King party moved on the morning following Sarah's death.  A saddle horse was left behind so that he could catch up with them upon completing his task.  He went down to the river and chose a flat, light-colored stone that was harder and older than the black lava that was also present.  It most likely took him a day to smooth the stone and inscribe Sarah's name and the date, but he did rejoin the family and traveled with them to the Willamette Valley as they found their way to The Dalles and down the Columbia River to the Tualatin Plains, where they spent the winter of 1846.  Less than six months after Sarah's death, Rowland Chambers married again.  The wedding took place in Washington Co. of Oregon Territory Feb 22, 1846.  The bride was Sarah's sister, Lovisa King.  Together they raised a large family, including Sarah's two children, on their Donation Land Claim in Kings Valley where they settled in the spring of 1846.  They are buried there in Kings Valley Pioneer Cemetery.

L.K. Bullock, a resident of Vale, OR, was age 83 when Florin wrote his article.  Bullock stated he liked to go fishing at Buleah Lake and he had heard about a lone grave in the area.  He searched for the grave for many ears.  When he finally located it, the marker was laying flat on the ground, which he felt was an easy target for vandalism or theft.  He secured the stone, standing it upright, sometime in the late 1960's by building a base of cement for it.  He said he put the date on the left-hand edge of the base.

The latest written record is from L.E. Tiller, who co-authored a book with Keith Clark, "Terrible Trail, The Meek Cut Off: 1845."  Mr. Tiller wrote a letter dated July 26, 1992 to the King descendants stating that the northwest chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Ass'n. had placed a pole fence around Sarah's grave along with "an informational plaque explaining who Sarah was and how she came to be there".

In the future all who pass by Sarah's lonely grave will know her story.  It also serves as a memorial to the 30,000 or more who perished along the Oregon Trail.