By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2012 Heather Blanton
Through the lens of history, you can scan a lifetime in the blink of an eye. This learning from a distance, though, not only insulates us from the anguish of dreams left in ashes, it prevents us from appreciating the hard-fought victories.
So put yourself in the shoes of a Sager sister.
I stand in awe of Catherine Sager, a pioneer of the toughest stock. Born in Ohio, she was the eldest daughter of Naomi and Henry Sager. In 1844, after having moved his family three times, Henry set his eye on the Oregon Territory. Her mother Naomi, pregnant, and already a raising a brood of six, went grudgingly. Catherine was nine when the family departed from St. Joseph, Mo.
Along the trail in May, her mother gave birth to Little Naomi. As if that wasn’t enough of a hardship, in July the wagon overturned crossing a shallow stream, severely injuring Naomi (apparently Little Naomi was fine). Still, the family pushed on. Then, only a few hours from a good rest at Fort Laramie, Catherine jumped from the wagon. The hem of her dress caught on an ax handle, throwing her under the huge, lumbering wheel of a fully-loaded Conestoga. Her leg was broken in at least seven different places. Little more than a month later, her father contracted a fever and died.
The trail west nearly wiped out the whole family.
And Death wasn’t through hunting the Sager family. Naomi succumbed to the fever as well and died in Oregon—so close to the goal. She had requested that the wagon master take care of her children and he kept his promise, or at least he tried. By October, the train had made it to the Whitman Mission in Oregon. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman happily adopted all the Sager children. The couple ran a school, farm, trading post, and doctor’s office. The settlement, however, was smack dab in the middle of Nez Perce and Cayuse territory. Due to the treachery of a white man, the Cayuse were manipulated into attacking the settlement in 1847. Catherine again lost loving parents, along with her two older brothers, in the massacre. The surviving women and children were held for ransom by the Indians. In the month-long siege, her six-year-old sister Louisa contracted measles and died.
Four Sager girls survived. Catherine, Elizabeth, Matilda, and Naomi, the baby girl born on the trail. After the massacre, they were separated and shipped off to foster homes. One more untimely death, however, awaited the sisters. A stray bullet struck down Little Naomi at the age of 26.
Finally, Death took a holiday from its unnatural greed for the Sager family. And like Job, had much of “wealth” restored to them. Catherine, Elizabeth and Matilda married good men, had large families, settled into blissfully normal lives, and lived to be senior citizens. Catherine shared the Sager story, and her grief, in a memoir she penned in 1860. Having lost siblings myself, I am amazed at the resiliency of these women. The fortitude to keep going when everything had been stripped from them is beyond admirable. I feel their pain and will always be grateful for their sacrifices.
Respect the lace.
by Heather Frey Blanton
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Not every woman who helped settle America did so with eager determination. Some did what they had to do and didn’t really think about it. Others, deeply regretted ever leaving home and most likely spent their last breaths cursing the fateful decisions. None of this makes these women any less brave.
Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to travel west of the Rockies, is sadly, one of the darker stories of settling the country. She started out with good intentions, focused too much on the bad when things didn’t go her way, and ended up dying an ugly death.
Early in 1836, she and her new husband Marcus Whitman left New York to open a mission in Washington state. You’ve got to put the danger and difficulty of this trip into perspective. This was before the 1849 Gold Rush that caused the West to explode with settlers. The land left of the Rockies was populated by Indians and mountain men. Period. Roads were mere trails. There was no rail road, no stagecoach lines, no towns, unless you counted military forts. But Narcissa fell in love with Jesus at the age of 11 and knew he had a plan for her.
She was convinced the Indians needed to know about Jesus and answered God’s call to carry his word into the darkness. With few possessions and an energetic, often insensitive, faith, they arrived at their destination in late September.
For Narcissa, this was really when the hard work began. Her husband, a doctor, had many opportunities to get out and about for medical calls, but she stayed mostly at the mission. The Cayuse Indians were not very receptive to the Whitman’s teachings or way of life. Constant misunderstandings occurred because of issues with cleanliness, privacy, and ownership of property.
Eventually the couple, disillusioned with the Indians, turned more towards the trappers and immigrants passing through. Still, due to language and faith barriers, Narcissa was lonely. Things only went from bad to worse for her when her daughter, two-year-old Clarissa, drowned in the Walla-Walla River.
Tensions between the Whitmans and the Cayuse continued to rise as thousands of settlers poured into Washington and the mission-turned-trading-post played host to them. Over a decade, the Cayuse saw their land and way of life disappearing because of this onslaught of settlers. Marcus had several physical altercations with warriors in the tribe who insisted the Whitman’s close the post and leave.
In the fall of 1847, a wagon train arrived with over five thousand immigrants. Along with their hopes and dreams of a brighter future, these settlers also brought with them measles. Few of the Cayuse had any resistance to the disease and dropped like flies. Rumors circulated that Dr. Whitman was causing the deaths. The Indians attacked. Along with her husband and fourteen other people, Narcissa died in the mud just outside her door.
An inglorious end to a noble, though misguided, effort. Still, Narcissa had tried. She dealt with things the best way her whiney nature would allow. I respect her efforts, but I’m glad I’m not her descendant.