Sarah Wheeler: Cultivating Duluth Community
Sarah Wheeler’s Lasting Impact on Duluth
By Kyle Chisholm
Sarah Caroline Brewster was born on August 17, 1828 and spent her childhood years in New York State before making the westward pilgrimage – like so many American of that era did – at the age of 18 when her family relocated to Galena, Illinois. While in Galena, Sarah wrote a series of essays that provide some insight into her character and the future she would have as a community leader… virtuous, realistic, humble, and of sound mind. One essay, titled “Slavery” criticized forced labor, racism, and exploitation as “the greatest curse that ever was permitted to rest upon our beloved land“. In another prominent work titled “Contentment”, Sarah wrote about the ailments of the human condition and mused that “if people would only make the best of everything and be satisfied to enjoy what they have, half of their troubles would vanish away“.
Sarah met Henry Wheeler in 1846 and the two were married by the next year. In 1848, Sarah Brewster Wheeler began a series of moves, following Henry’s job opportunities which landed the couple first in Neenah, Wisconsin, then St. Paul, and finally the new town of Duluth in 1855. While Henry backpacked along a military road from St. Paul, Sarah and her 3 children embarked on a nearly six week journey that included river boats, stage coaches, and a 90-mile sailboat voyage on Lake Superior – a voyage that clearly demonstrated her mettle. It was this fortitude and determination that would later inspire Sarah to serve the community of Duluth.
Sarah was instrumental in helping to create the educational, religious, and medical facilities that the growing community of Duluth lacked at the time but so desperately needed. She helped tend to her sick neighbors, administered Sunday School courses, nursed sick neighbors and even served as a mid-wife for countless childbirths in the growing community. Life was not easy in Duluth and there was a lot of community development needed. Sarah Wheeler was clearly the right woman for the job and served as an important community leader. In 1857 a financial panic struck the country and Duluth suffered substantially… leaving not much to eat other than fish. However, Sarah and the community she helped to create was able to persevere. The community that she helped build was officially named Oneota Township in 1858, eventually becoming a neighborhood of Duluth in 1894.
Sarah died in 1910 at age 82 and was laid to rest in Oneota Cemetery. She was survived by nineteen grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, with many more to come. Many of her descendants would themselves provide service and guidance to the community – a clear indication of her lasting impact on Duluth.