Orphaned on the Oregon Trail

I’m constantly impressed by what people are able to endure and accomplish when faced with adversity. Especially children and young adults. And, some of my favorite stories about human potential and resiliency come from people who migrated West across the American Great Plains back in the mid-nineteenth-century.

I’ve read varying accounts from two books and an old immigrant’s journal describing the experiences of a fourteen-year-old girl by the name of Catherine Sager. The following is a brief account I’ve pieced together about Catherine and her family, along with some observations of my own.

Catherine Sager was one of seven children who left St. Joseph, Missouri with their parents bound for Oregon Country in the Spring of 1844. Thankfully, Catherine kept a journal as she traveled along the famous Oregon Trail.

One August day, Catherine was jumping in and out of the Sager wagon as it was moving and her dress got tangled on the wagon axle. She was thrown under the wagon wheel and her leg was badly fractured. She was forced to stay in the wagon for the remainder of the long trip, which might have been the reason she had so much time to write in her journal.

Just east of Green River in what is now Southwest Wyoming, Catherine’s father became ill and died. Catherine’s journal doesn’t say what type of sickness her father succumbed to, but does talk about how distraught he was about the condition in which he was about to leave his family. He was buried on the banks of the Green River.

Various members of the expedition did their best to help the Sager family, but others apparently took advantage of Mrs. Sager a couple of times before she also became sick.  Catherine wrote in her journal, “The night and mornings were very cold, and she took cold from the exposure unavoidably. With camp fever and a sore mouth, she fought bravely against fate for the sake of her children, but she was taken delirious soon after reaching Fort Bridger, and was bed-fast.”

At fourteen, Catherine was likely the oldest child and the youngest was less than a year old. Only twenty-six days after Catherine’s father died, her mother also passed away, leaving the children to be taken care of by strangers who were mostly ill-prepared to even take care of their own.

Catherine went on to write that “a woman from the train” took the baby as her own and the rest were “adopted by the company” and was “ready to do us any possible favor.” When the emigrants reached “Whitman’s mission,” they left the Sager children behind.

Whitman’s mission was located at Waiilatpu on the Walla Walla River in what is now Washington State. Waiilatpu is a Nez Perce word meaning, “people of the place of the rye grass.” Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman had established their mission in 1836 to “bring Christianity to the Cayuse Indians.”

The Whitman mission struggled a great deal between that Spring of 1844 and 1847. By the time the Sager children arrived, the very first large groups of emigrants bound for Oregon country had already been passing through for two years.

Those emigrants brought measles and other diseases with them; the same diseases that might very well have caused the deaths of Catherine Sager’s parents. The Cayuse certainly had no resistance to the various diseases the Oregon-bound emigrants brought along with them and began to resent the Whitmans, even though the helpful work they did for the Cayuse, was well documented.

By 1847 half of the Cayuse tribe had died of the measles. Dr. Whitman’s medicine helped the white children, but did nothing for the children of the Cayuse. Many Cayuse understandably thought they were being poisoned so there would be more room available for the whites.

On November 29, 1847 a group of Cayuse attacked the Whitman mission and killed Dr. and Mrs. Whitman along with a dozen other people living with them.

Catherine Sager and here siblings were taken captive during the Cayuse attack, along with approximately 60 other people.

Although all the captives were said to have been safely ransomed about a month later by employees of the Hudson Bay Company, one can only imagine how the Sager children measured loss and sacrifice as they went on with the rest of their lives.

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