Friday, March 8, 2013

Catherine Sager and the Sager Orphans

By Celia Yeary
When I began researching the Sager Orphans, the thought struck me that one could hardly imagine the hardships, the tragedies, and the sorrows of those pioneers who became part of the Great Westward Migration in the mid-nineteenth century. In today's world, we know of many large groups of people in Third World Countries who also suffer in this manner. However, there is one big difference between the groups--Hope. The American pioneers made the decision to trek across an entire country with the great desire to own land and be one's own person--they had Hope.
Catherine Sager was the third child of seven children, and the oldest girl. Her father had moved his growing family three times, from Virginia, to Ohio, to Indiana, and then Platte County, Missouri.

Henry Sager and his two oldest sons decided to head for Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. Naomi agreed to go so the family would stay together. In the autumn of 1843, they reached St. Joseph, Missouri, the starting point for the Oregon Trail. The family wintered there, and in 1844 they joined a group of 300 called The Independent Colony.
The Oregon Trail

In April 1844, the 300 people in 72 covered wagons crossed the Missouri River and began their journey along the Oregon Trail. On July 6, 1844, the mother, Naomi Sager was severely injured as the Sager wagon overturned in the shallow waters along the river bank. But the pioneers moved on.

At the end of July 1844 the wagon train passed Chimney Rock in Nebraska, making the spot where the Great Plains were almost crossed, and the Rocky Mountains lay ahead.
A few hours before reaching Fort Laramie, Wyoming, 9-year-old Catherine caught her dress on an axe handle when she jumped out of the moving wagon. Her leg got beneath one of the heavy wheels and was broken in several places, an event that could have easily been fatal under the poor sanitary conditions. Her father picked her up.
In a broken voice he exclaimed: "My dear child, your leg is broken all to pieces!"
But Henry and a German doctor treated the leg and Catherine was spared. The doctor stayed the family in order to care for Catherine. However, she was confined to the wagon for the remainder of the journey.
The Sager Orphans
On August 23, 1844, during the descent into the Green River Valley which lay just over the Continental Divide, some of the group fell ill to an outbreak of camp fever. Among those was Henry Sager. Soon, knowing he would not survive, Henry asked Captain Shaw to take care of his family.
Naomi, who had given birth to their seventh child, also contracted the fever. She finally asked Dr. Dagon and Captain Shaw to escort the children to Dr. Marcus Whitman, a Presbyterian missionary in the Walla Walla Valley of what is now the southeastern part of Washington.
She died soon after.
The children, the youngest four months and the oldest thirteen,
were orphaned for the first time.

The Whitman Massacre
Marcus and Narcissa Whitman adopted the children and kept them at the mission house in present day Washington. There, the Whitmans opened their arms and their hearts to the children. In a written first-hand account of their journey across the plains and their life with the Whitmans, Catherine 's work is regarded as one of the most authentic accounts of the American westward migration. When writing her story, she says of meeting the Whitmans:

"Thus Mrs. Whitman found us. She was a large, well-formed woman, fair complexioned, with beautiful auburn hair, nose rather large, and large gray eyes. She had on a dark calico dress and gingham sunbonnet. We thought as we shyly looked at her that she was the prettiest woman we had ever seen. She spoke kindly to us as she came up, but like frightened things we ran behind the cart, peeping shyly around at her. She then addressed the boys, asking why they wept, adding: "Poor boys. no wonder you weep!" She then began to arrange things as we threw them out, at the same time conversing with an Indian woman sitting on the ground nearby."
From: "Across the Plains."

Marcus farmed and provided medical care, while Narcissa set up a school the for Native American children. In the early days, life was peaceful at the Whitman Mission. But the peaceful coexistence between the white missionaries and the local Cayuse was in a delicate balance.
Three years after the arrival of the Sager Orphans, the Cayuse attacked the mission.

The Whitman massacre ended with fourteen people dead, including Narcissa and Marcus, and two Sager children, John and Francis. Fifty-four women and children were captured and held for ransom, including all the Sager girls. Louisa Sager, age 6, died during captivity.

One month after the massacre, on December 29, 1847, the remaining forty-nine prisoners were ransomed for blankets, shirts, rifles, ammunition, tobacco, and flint.

"All of us wept as we drove away from that scene of suffering; wept for joy at our escape and for sorrow for those who had been slain and could not go with us. As we left an Indian woman came from a lodge nearby and told us to hasten for our lives, that her people had repented and were coming to kill us. We made all speed we could, and as darkness came on the welcome walls of the fort loomed dimly before us and we were soon inside, but did not feel safe until a week afterwards, we reached the settlements. Thus ended our captivity among the Indians."
From: "Across the Plains."

Four Sager children remained, all girls.
They were split up and all married young. Henrietta, the youngest, died at age 26, mistakenly shot by an outlaw.
Catherine, Elizabeth, and Matilda lived into old age.
In 1897, more than 3,000 visitors attended the 50th anniversary commemoration of the massacre on the mission grounds.
Invited as guests of honor were some of the survivors of the events of 1847, including Catherine Sager Pringle, Elizabeth Sager Helm and Matilda Sager Delaney, the last survivors of the Sager orphans.

About ten years after her arrival in Oregon, Catherine Sager  wrote an account of the Sager family's journey west. She hoped to earn enough money to set up an orphanage in the memory of Narcissa Whitman. She never found a publisher.
She died on August 10, 1910, at the age of 75.

Her children and grandchildren saved her manuscript without modification, and today it is regarded as one of the most authentic accounts of the American westward migration.

Celia Yeary

Text from Across the Plains:

Wikipedia-The Sager Orphans

Lecture Notes provided by Anna Kathryn Lanier-"A Journey Fraught With Danger"


  1. These tales of survival always leave me in awe. People must have been made of stronger stuff then, surviving all those tragedies. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow, great story! I'd heard about the massacre, but not the Sager children. I'd really love to read that book.

  3. What a wonderful story, Celia. The Sager familly history is heartbreaking but an example of the courage that these pioneers possessed. Thank you so much for sharing this story that I was not aware of.

  4. As you know, I've researched this myself, especially since Sager is my maiden name. I am confused about one item in your post. I thought Henry Sager died as a result of a stampede of buffalo. It's a tragic story and you have to wonder how the girls managed to survive when they lost all that they had. I highly recommend getting Catherine's book.

  5. What harsh lives people endored in those days. I don't know that I would have the strength of character to make it through all that.
    What a shame that her book did not become published until after her death.
    Great article.

  6. Awesome information, Celia, and much I didn't know. Thanks for the book info, a must-read for western writers.

    I can't even imagine the courage it took to be a pioneer, or the grief at such tragic losses. When I look back, I realize what a spoiled baby I really am.

    Wonderful post!

  7. Cate--definitely, people were stronger and possibly braver back then. I'm not only not strong, I'm a scaredy cat! But did any of them know what they were getting into? No, I'm sure they didn't. And I've read that many of the women would have been happier staying home--not trekking across wild territory in a covered wagon.
    Thanks for your visit.

  8. Kathy--the massacre is about the Whitman missionaries, and would make a good blog post on it's own. Read the entite book content by clicking on the link at the bottom of the post. It's only three chapters long and it is very intriguing.

  9. Linda--I became quite involved reading and researching this story and the Sager orphans. Yes, they had courage that we cannot imagine. But truly, did they have any inkling of what they might face? I don't think so.
    Thank you so much for reading it.

  10. Anna Kathryn--It's terribly horrific and sad, too.
    Henry died from the fever, true, but during his illness there was a buffalo stampede, and apparently he rose from his sick bed and tried to chase them away. He collapsed, and was carried back to his sick bed...and died soon after.
    Thank you again for your help.

  11. Sarah--Catherine did have strenghth. And because she was the oldes female, I believe as she got older she took more responsibility for the young ones. But you see she did not get to run and play with the others. She spent most of her growing up years in the house, tending the fire, sewing. And she became painfully shy, fearful of speaking with others, expecially strangers.
    She talks about that in her book.
    Thanks for you comment.

  12. Tanya--You mentioned the word grief. I think that says it all, how much they all suffered. And even when they reached their destination, the girls were split up and all married early.
    Now, that would make a great romance.
    Thank you.

  13. Celia, what a touching story. I'd never heard of the Sager family before. Thank you for sharing your research with us. I'm going to read the book -- if I ever have time. Ha! Maybe in my next lifetime.

  14. I had never heard of Catherine Sager, but now must have this book. Thank you for spotlighting an amazing woman.

  15. I loved this story and I didn't know about the children. Thanks for sharing this great story with us.

  16. LYN--I'm glad you appreciated the story. I barely knew the name, and when I thought of it, it seemed like someone had written about her and the orphans.
    The ms takes about 15 minutes to read--I couldn't stop until I finished it.
    Thanks for commenting!

  17. Caroline--yes, it's a book to keep, one to save. Amazon has a Kindle version, and I think there is a print.But beware, there are other books titled Across the Plains. Make sure you get Catherine's.
    I so glad you liked it.

  18. Quilt Lady--I didn't know about them either..only a vague memory of the Sager name. When I began researching and reading, it just opened up an epic story.
    Thank you for visiting us here at Sweethearts.

  19. Hi Ceila,
    What an amazing story, all the more extraordinary because it is true.



  20. Hi, Margaret! I haven't talked with you in ages! I'm so glad you visited Sweethearts of the West. Don't be a stranger--do you still write Western Historicals? Maybe you could be our guest one day.
    Thanks so much for stopping by and reading about the Sager Orphans.

  21. Fantastic accounting, Celia. So many tragic stories coming out of that age of our country's heritage. It breaks my heart to hear of all the suffering. I have my great, great grandfather's handwritten journal of his journey on a wagon train from St. Joseph to California. My story coming out in a couple of weeks was inspired by his journal.

  22. Paisley--that journal, then is a treasure. What a wonderful thing to have. Congratulations on the new book!
    Thanks for your comment.

  23. Just purchased this book, Catherine is my Great-Great Grandmother. Thank you Celia


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