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.