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Sager orphans: Wikis


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The Sager family at the beginning of their journey west

The Sager orphans (sometimes referred to as Sager children) were the children of Naomi and Henry Sager. In April 1844 Henry Sager and his family took part in the great westward migration and started their journey along the Oregon Trail. During their journey both Naomi and Henry Sager lost their lives and left their seven children orphaned. Later adopted by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, missionaries in what is now Washington, the children were orphaned a second time, when both their new parents were killed during the Whitman massacre in November 1847. About 1860 Catherine Sager, the oldest of the Sager girls, wrote a first-hand account of their journey across the plains and their life with the Whitmans. This account today is regarded as one of the most authentic accounts of the American westward migration.

The children's names were (from oldest to youngest):


Before the Oregon Trail

Henry Sager was described as a restless one by his daughter Catherine. Before 1844 Henry Sager had moved his growing family three times. Starting in Virginia they moved to Ohio, later to Indiana before finally arriving in Platte County, Missouri. There Henry Sager, backed by his two sons John and Francis (Frank) decided to head for Oregon, the fabled territory in the Pacific Northwest. Naomi was reluctant to go, at first, but eventually agreed. In late autumn 1843, the Sagers reached St. Joseph, Missouri, a jump-off point for the Oregon Trail. At this time Naomi was already pregnant for the seventh time. Over the winter the family stayed in St. Joseph, Missouri where in March 1844 Henry Sager joined a group of pioneers who called themselves The Independent Colony.

On the Oregon Trail

The route of the Independent Colony

At the end of April 1844, the Independent Colony, 300 people in 72 covered wagons, crossed the Missouri River and started out on the 2,000-mile (3,200 km) journey along the Oregon Trail. The company was under the command of Captain William Shaw, who himself was traveling with his wife Sally and six children. After five weeks on the trail Naomi gave birth to her seventh child, a baby girl named Rosanna. Due to the delivery, Naomi was weakened and only slowly regained her strength.

On July 4, 1844, the Independent Colony celebrated independence day on the banks of the Platte River. A couple of days later, while crossing the south fork of the Platte River, Naomi was severely injured as the Sager wagon overturned in the shallow waters along the river bank. But the pioneers pressed on. At the end of July 1844 the wagon train passed Chimney Rock, a famous landmark along the trail in what is now Nebraska. Chimney Rock was the reminder that the Great Plains were almost crossed and the Rocky Mountains lay right ahead.

A few hours before reaching Fort Laramie, nine-year-old Catherine caught her dress on an ax handle when she jumped out of the moving wagon. Her leg got beneath one of the heavy wheels and was broken several times, an event that could have easily been fatal under the medical and sanitary conditions of that situation. But due to the immediate treatment by Henry Sager and Dr. Dagon, a German born doctor, the leg was eventually saved. Catherine however was confined to the wagon for the rest of the journey. From Fort Laramie onward, Dr. Dagon stayed with the Sagers in order to care for Catherine's injury. Thus the wagon train moved on and a couple of days later the Independent Colony reached Independence Rock in present day Wyoming, where some of the travelers carved their names into the granite rock.

The death of Naomi and Henry Sager

Independence Rock State Historic Site

On August 23, 1844, the wagon train reached South Pass, a mountain pass that is part of the continental divide. During the descent into the Green River valley some of the travelers fell ill due to an outbreak of camp fever. Amongst those suffering from the fever was Henry Sager. After crossing the Green River, two women and a child were already dead, and it became evident that Henry Sager wouldn't live through the night. He asked Captain Shaw to take care for his family and died soon afterwards. He was buried by his family, on the banks of the Green River in an improvised coffin.

Naomi Sager, still weakened from child birth and mourning her husband, now had all the responsibility for the seven children. Although Captain Shaw and Dr. Dagon did everything possible to assist her, the exertions were too much. Suffering from heavy fever she became delirious and finally requested Dr. Dagon to squire the children to Dr. Marcus Whitman, a missionary in the Walla Walla Valley of what is now southeastern Washington. Naomi died near present day Twin Falls, Idaho. Her last words were "Oh Henry, if you only knew how we have suffered". As there was no lumber available, Naomi was buried wrapped in a bedsheet. John, the oldest Sager orphan, carved the words Naomi Carney Sager, age 37 out of a wooden headboard and thus marked the shallow grave. The children—the youngest four months, the oldest thirteen years—were orphaned for the first time.

The Whitman years

Whitman Mission around 1840

In 1837 Narcissa Whitman, aged 29, gave birth to a baby girl, Alice Clarissa. Two years later, Narcissa was distracted for a moment and little Alice drowned in nearby Walla Walla River. Narcissa suffered deeply from this loss. In an attempt to regain some sense of family she began taking care of other children. Soon four children were in the custody of the Whitmans, including the daughters of mountain men Joseph Meek and Jim Bridger.

In early October 1844, the Independent Colony reached the Whitman Mission, and the Sagers found a new home with Narcissa. In July 1845 Dr. Marcus Whitman obtained a court order giving him legal custody of the children. The Sager orphans had new parents.

The deaths of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Dr. Marcus Whitman was a physician and a Protestant missionary. In 1836 he and his wife Narcissa, together with a group of other missionaries, joined a caravan of fur traders and traveled west, establishing several missions as well as their own settlement. Located in the Walla Walla Valley on the northern end of the Blue Mountains near the present day city of Walla Walla, Washington, their settlement was in the territory of both the Nez Percé and the Cayuse Native American tribes. The latter called it Waiilatpu (Why-ee-lat-poo, the 't' is half silent), which means "place of the rye grass" in the Cayuse language. Marcus farmed and provided medical care, while Narcissa set up a school for the Native American children. In the early days, life was peaceful at the Whitman Mission. But the peaceful coexistence of the local Cayuse and the white missionaries was in a delicate balance, and in 1847, three years after the arrival of the Sager orphans, the balance began to shift to distrust and animosity.

The number of wagon trains and pioneers had increased significantly since 1843. The settlers inadvertently brought with them diseases the Indians had no immunity to. In the fall of 1847 measles carried west with an emigrant train swept through the Cayuse villages. In the cold and damp weather of November 1847 the epidemic reached its peak and half the tribe died, including most of the children. On November 29, 1847 the situation erupted into violence. A man from the east named Joe Lewis, hoping to create a situation in which he could ransack the Whitman Mission, spread the rumor among the local Cayuse that Dr. Whitman, who was attempting to treat them during the epidemic, was in fact deliberately poisoning them. On November 29, 1847, the Cayuse attacked Waiilatpu.

The Whitman massacre ended with the death of fourteen people at the mission, including Narcissa and Marcus Whitman and John and Francisco Sager. Another fifty-four women and children were captured and held for ransom, including the daughters of Joseph Meek and Jim Bridger and all the Sager girls. Several of the prisoners died in captivity, mostly from illnesses such as measles, including Helen Mar Meek and Hannah Louise Sager, aged 6. One month after the massacre, on December 29, 1847, Peter Skene Ogden from the Hudson's Bay Company arranged an exchange of sixty-two blankets, sixty-three cotton shirts, twelve rifles, six hundred loads of ammunition, seven pounds of tobacco and twelve flints for the return of the forty-nine surviving prisoners. They were brought to Fort Vancouver and released into freedom.

After the Whitman massacre

Catherine, Elizabeth and Matilda Sager meet at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Whitman massacre in November 1897

At this point family life ended for the remaining four Sager orphans. The girls were split up and grew up with different families. All of them married young.

  • Rosanna, the baby girl born on the Oregon Trail, had no children. She died at the age of twenty-six, mistakenly shot by an outlaw.
  • Matilda had 8 children. She spent her later life with a daughter in California, where she died on April 13, 1928, at the age of eighty-nine.
  • Elizabeth gave birth to 9 children. She lived in Portland, Oregon, where she died on July 19, 1925 at the age of eighty-eight.
  • Catherine, the eldest of the Sager girls, married Clark Pringle, a Methodist minister and bore him 8 children. They lived in Spokane, Washington. About ten years after her arrival in Oregon Catherine 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. Catherine died on August 10, 1910, at the age of seventy-five.

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

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.


  • Catherine Sager-Pringle, Across the Plains in 1844.
  • National Park Service – Whitman Mission NHS, The True Story of the Sagers.
  • Mary Trotter Kion, The Sagers go West.
  • Erwin N. Thompson, Shallow Grave at Waiilatpu: The Sagers' West (1969).
  • Ken Burns, The West, Transcript of the PBS documentary.

External links



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