The year was 1844 and in the United States, it was an election year. Former president Martin Van Buren went in to the Democratic convention hoping to win the nomination, but when it became clear that he would not, he threw his support behind the first â€œdark horseâ€ candidate–James K. Polk. Henry Clay was on the ballot for the Whig Party, and a new anti-slavery party on the political scene, nominated James G. Birney.
At the heart of the election were the issues of the annexation of Texas and slavery. Slavery opponents opposed the annexation of Texas because it would upset the fragile balance of slave vs. free states. Polk supported the annexation, solving the balance issue by also committing to secure the Northwest areas that now include Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and part of British Columbia. His slogan, “Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” referred to the northernmost latitude of that territory.
In the closest election in American History, Polk won by a mere 38,367 votes, and didn’t even carry 50 percent of the popular vote. The third party candidate had played a huge role. He won votes that Clay needed to carry the state of New York. Had Clay won that state, he would have won the election.
1844 was also a year that would transform communications. On 24 May Samuel F.B. Morse sent the words “What hath God wrought?” electronically through wires from the capitol in Washington, D.C., to a train station in Baltimore, some forty miles away. Soon, his telegraph machines were tapping out messages throughout the country and in 1866, communication by telegraph connected Europe with America, dramatically reducing the time in which news reached foreign shores.
A New York farmer named William Miller had been spreading the word that based on calculations he drew from Scripture, there was to be a second coming of Christ on 22 October 1844. As the date approached many of the Millerites left their jobs, sold all that they owned, donned white robes, and prepared to meet their Maker. When the day came and went without event, many became disillusioned with the movement, while some remained faithful and formed the Adventist Church.
In 1844, Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his brother were murdered by a mob in a jail in Carthage, Illinois. Continued violence following their deaths would lead to the Mormon exodus to the West under the leadership of Brigham Young in 1846.
Already wagon trains had begun making the 2,000 mile trek across the U.S. along the Oregon Trail to settle in the Pacific Northwest.Â In April of 1844, seventy-two wagons, carrying 300 people (called the Independent Colony), began their journey along that famous route. Among these pioneers was the Sager family. Both parents died along the trail leaving seven children to be cared for by other families in the wagon train. When they arrived in Oregon country, they were adopted by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, missionaries who had traveled to the area in one of the first wagon trains in 1836. The Sagers were orphaned a second time when the Whitmans were massacred by Cayuse Indians in 1847, along with the two Sager boys. The daughters were captured and held for ransom. One of the girls died in captivity and the rest were freed a month later. The oldest daughter of the Sagers, Catherine, later wrote an account of their journey that is among the few first-hand accounts of the westward migration.