The Sager Sisters Remember
Compiled by Stephenie Flora
"An adopted daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Marcus Whitman, Mrs. W.F. Helm is a resident of Portland. She lives on Nottingham avenue in Parkrose addition. Recently, while a passenger aboard the steamer, J.N.Tea, from Cascade Locks to Portland, I spent a very pleasant half day with Mrs. Helm. Later I went to her home in Parkrose and spent the afternoon listening to her vivid descriptions of the home life of Dr. and Mrs. Whitman." My father's name was Henry Sager, said Mrs. Helm. He was born in Virginian as was also my mother, Naomi Carney Sager. They met in Ohio where they were married. There were seven children in my family. John and Frank, the oldest children, were killed by the Indians in the Whitman massacre .Catherine, the next child, married Clark S. Pringle of the Pringle neighborhood, south of Salem. My name is Elizabeth. I was the next child. Matilda Jane, next younger than myself, married Louis Hazlet. After his death she married Mathew Fultz and, again becoming a widow, she married Daniel Delaney, the son of Daniel Delaney who was murdered for his money at his farm near Salem in 1845 by George P. Beale and a man named Baker.
Hannah Louise, the next child, died of exposure a few days after the murder of Dr. and Mrs. Whitman. Henrietta, the baby, grew to womanhood and was married. At the age of 26 she was killed by the accidental discharge of a gun.
I was born on July 6, 1837 in Ohio. When I was two years old we moved to Missouri where we rented a farm on the La Grande River. Later we moved to Platte county, taking up a place five miles from St. Joe. My father was a farmer but the work he loved best was healing the sick. Wherever he was he soon had a good practice. He was not a regular doctor. He didn't believe in giving the strong drugs and the big doses of those days. He treated disease with roots and barks and herbs.
Mother was frail and father thought of going to Texas. He thought the change of climate would be good for her health. Mother said, `No, I am going to Oregon. I feel sure I will get strong and well in the Willamette Valley.
We got ready to go with our neighbors, Peter Burnett and others from that part of Missouri, in 1843, but Matilda got a swelling on her leg and we had to give up going. Father finally cured it and we started the next spring.
Colonel Neil Gilliam was in charge of the train. John Inyard, who had served with him in the Seminole War was his side. M.T. Simmons was next in command. Four captains were elected. We were in Captain William Shaw's company.
At St. Joe we saw our first cook stove. The man who owned it let mother cook a meal on it, the first one she had ever cooked on a stove. We crossed the ferry near St. Joe and made camp. That night our oxen ran away. The rest of the company went on and we had to wait till we found our cattle. When the cattle were recovered father had to stop at the Osage mission to have blacksmithing done on our Tennessee wagon.
We soon overtook the wagon train and joined our detachment under Captain Shaw. My mother was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and my father, while a member of no church, was intensely religious. Under no circumstances would he allow me to say `What under the gun' or `For mercy's sake'. We called Catherine `Katie' and they called me `Lizzie' but father always called us Catherine and Elizabeth. They say everybody swore while crossing the plains, but my father was an exception.
Tennessee wagons have a high front and are very awkward to get into and out of. Catherine, in trying to climb into the wagon, fell and broke her leg. Father set it and then made a box for it to rest in. The jolting of the wagon made the broken ends of the bones grate together and at times poor Katie could hardly keep from screaming with the pain.
We had been on the road about a month when we had to lay over for a day while Henrietta, the baby, was born. As there was no doctor in our company, mother had to get along the best way she could. Father was as good as a doctor. They used say `Henry Sager can make anything from a figure 4 trap to a sawmill'. There was a good bit of fever and I can remember seeing father cupping and bleeding his patients and occasionally taking a tooth out with a snacklebar or a turnkey. Sometimes the tooth broke and sometimes the jawbone broke, but usually the tooth came out. I remember seeing a man with a toothache let one of the other men drive his tooth out with a hammer and a large nail.
We saw our first buffalo this side of the Platte. There were five of them. Father and a man Caples ran after them to try to shoot them. Father became overheated, drank some stagnant water in a buffalo wallow and took the mountain fever, as they called typhoid in those days. Mother had all she could do to tend to the cooking and care for the children and take care of the new baby, so we got a young girl by the name of Page, to nurse father. Mother hired a man to drive our wagon. Different ones in the company set up nights with father. The night before we came to Green River John Minto set up with him. Next forenoon, as we crossed Green River, father sat up, caught the sideboard of the wagon, and fell back dead.
The company halted by the side of the Green river, and while some of the men dug a grave, Captain Shaw cut down a big cottonwood tree and cut off an eight foot log. He split this, hollowed out the two halves and put father's body in this crude coffin, splicing the tree together so the wolves could not get it open. They buried his body by the side of the stream and scattered brush and limbs all over his grave, so the Indians wouldn't see it and dig up his body to get his clothes. Mother caught the fever from father and for the next 26 days suffered greatly. Father told Captain Shaw before he died, to have mother and the children spend the winter at Dr. Whitman's mission. Mother died at Pilgrim Springs in September. The other women laid her out in a blue calico dress and the men dug a grave, and lining it with willows. They put willows over her and then filled in the grave and tramped down the earth tightly and leveled it with the ground and brushed dust over it. Mother was 36 when she died. Father was 37. We children were alone in the world. There were seven of us, the oldest 14 years old, the youngest a baby four months old." [Oregon Journal, March 14, 1915 The Oregon Country, The Early Days by Fred Lockley]
"Better here than the dry-as-dust pages of history are the stories of the pioneers. The history they tell is vivid and vital. It is a flesh and blood history. Recently I visited Mrs. W.F. Helm at her home in Parkrose and she told me many intimate and unrecorded incidents of the life of her foster parents, Dr. and Mrs. Marcus Whitman.
My mother died on the plains within a month of the death of my father, said Mrs. Helm. We had no relatives among the immigrants and you can imagine we felt pretty lonely as we saw our mother lowered into a hastily dug grave near Pilgrim Springs.
Catherine, my sister was still very lame from having broken her leg a few weeks before. Henrietta, the four months old baby, was a problem. Before mother died Mrs. Perkins, who had a baby of about the same age, had let Henrietta nurse, but she was afraid her own baby wasn't getting enough nourishment, so our baby sister had to be put on cows milk. Feed was so scarce that the cows gave but little milk and that of poor quality, as they had to keep traveling all day. John, the oldest in our family was 13 years old, so he became the head of the family.
Our cattle were worn out with the long trip across the plains and could no longer pull our heavy Tennessee wagon and keep up with the others. We decided to throw away everything we could do without. Mother had made 40 yards of rag carpet to take to Oregon and she had, by pinching and saving, bought a set of dishes. We carried the dishes out to one side of the road and put the roll of carpet by them and drove on. Still our gaunt oxen lagged, so the men helped cut our wagon in two. They made a two wheeled cart of it and with the hind wheels and heavy body we abandoned mother's treasured camphor wood chest and everything but our provisions.
In our party was a German, a university graduate. He took us under his wing--we could not pronounce his name, so we called him `the good Dr. Dagon'. I remember the first time he got in our cart he climbed in from the back. His weight over balanced the cart, the tongue flew up in the air and over went the car. Dr. Dagon crawled out and cussed the cart eloquently in both German and English. His tongue was rough, his manner was gruff, but his heart was soft and we loved him sincerely.
Our train stopped on the Umatilla near the present site of Pendleton for the cattle to rest and feed for a few days. While we were camped there Captain Shaw went to Dr. Whitman's mission at Waiilatpu to tell Dr. Whitman that our parents had willed their seven children to him.
Dr.Whitman and his wife were real missionaries and real Christians. They accepted the trust without a murmur. Nowadays if some total stranger came up to you and said someone you had never heard of had died and left you seven children you wouldn't be altogether grateful and resigned.
Captain Shaw came back and told us it was alright; we were to go to Dr. Whitman's. Of the journey from the Umatilla river to Waiilatpu I remember but little. I remember on the way that brother Frank traded one of mother's good table cloths to a squaw for a big cake of camas root bread.
We arrived at the mission in the afternoon. We found a low place in the ditch to drive through and as we approached the house, I saw a little girl, whom I later learned was Mary Ann Bridger, throwing out a pan of dish water.
Captain Shaw went to the house to tell Dr. Whitman of our arrival. In a moment, Mrs. Whitman came out and walked quickly toward our cart. Brother John was having all he could do to keep our tired oxen from lying down. Mrs. Whitman had by the hand a little girl of about six or seven years of age. We children were ragged and dirty and sunburned and this little girl looked like she had just stepped out of a bandbox. She had a green dress and a white apron and a sunbonnet--the sunbonnet was pushed back and I thought the little girl was the prettiest, daintest creature I had ever seen in my life. Her eyes were bright and full of fun, her hair was glossy black and I soon learned her names was Helen Mar Meek and that her father, Joe Meek, was a mountain man and her mother a Nez Perce Indian woman. Mrs. Whitman was tall and seemed large. She was very blonde. Her eyes were blue and she had a great mass of Auburn hair. Sometimes it looked like gold and other times had a copper tinge. She came to the cart and said, `So, these are my new children. Come to the house and we will get acquainted.'. Katies was still quite lame, so she took her by the arm to help her and took Louisa, who was about two years old, by the hand and we girls started for the house.
Captain Shaw told her the baby was with Mrs. Perkins and would be along in a day or two.
We all filed into the house and she told us to sit down. She said to the little girl who had come out to the cart with her: `Helen go out to the mill and tell Doctor to come in and see his new children.' In a moment or two we heard a firm step in the hall and a tall, solid looking man with dark hair and deep set blue eyes under heavy eyebrows came into the room.
Dr. Whitman said, `Well, Mother, where are the boys? If you are to have the girls I must have the boys.' Mrs. Whitman said: `The boys went over to the mansion house.' Dr. Whitman turned to Helen and said: `Helen run over to the mansion house and bring the boys over.' When my brothers, John and Frank, came in rather bashfully, Dr. Whitman said: `Well boys, how about it, don't you want to stay here and be my boys?' They nodded their heads and said `Yes'.
We spent that afternoon getting acquainted. Dr. Whitman had a nephew then, Perrin Whitman, who was just about my brother John's age, 14. Mary Ann Bridger told us she had been there for two or three years and that her father, Jim Bridger, kept Bridger's fort. We were taken by Dr. and Mrs. Whitman in the fall of 1844 and no father and mother could have been better to us than they were. Our legal adoption papers were all made out when Dr. and Mrs. Whitman were killed by the Indians in November, 1847. [Oregon Journal, March 15, 1915 The Oregon Country, The Early Days by Fred Lockley]
"Elizabeth Helm and
Matilda Delaney, adopted daughters of Dr. and Mrs. Whitman are both residents
They are sisters, and they are the only
living members of the Sager family of seven orphan children adopted by Dr. and
Mrs. Whitman in the fall of 1844.
Recently Mrs. Elizabeth Helm, at her home here in Portland, told me of the home life at
Waiilatpu, a place chosen by Rev. Samuel Parker, a Presbyterian missionary who
had been sent out by the Dutch reformed church of Ithaca, N.Y.
Rev. Mr. Parker had chosen a place on the
north side of the Walla Walla river near the mouth of the stream now known as Mill creek.
The valley was covered with rye grass and was
called by the Cayuse Indians `Waiilatpa' or `Waiilatpu', meaning `the place of
the rye grass'.
To read history you get the impression that Dr. Whitman was a very somber and austere man, said Mrs. Helm. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was full of fun and pranks. Both Dr. and Mrs. Whitman had fully developed senses of humor. He was a great tease and constantly playing jokes on Mrs. Whitman or us children. I don�t mean that he did not have his serious side for he did, but at home he relaxed and we used to have a happy time.
Mrs. Whitman's maiden name was Narcissa Prentiss. Her father, Judge Prentiss, was one of the substantial citizens of Prattsburg, N.Y. When we went to their home, Dr. Whitman was about 41 years old and Mrs. Whitman was several years younger. They had been married about eight years. Dr. Whitman didn�t think the name Narcissa fitted Mrs. Whitmans so he usually called her `wife' or sometimes `mother'. Mrs. Whitman was 29 years old when the doctor married her.
One day as we girls came home from our bath Dr. Whitman said, `Remember this girls, Get married at 16; don�t wait till you are old maids as your mother did, and whatever you do don�t name your girls after your mother. I can't think of a homelier name than Narcissa. Mrs. Whitman would just laugh and tell him to stop his nonsense. In the evenings he used to make shadow pictures with his hands. He could make shadow faces and frogs and squirrels and all sorts of animals. One night I noticed his fingers were crooked so I said, `Father, why are your fingers so crooked? He looked at his twisted fingers and said, `I'll tell you daughter, why my fingers aren't straight like yours. I froze my hands when I went back in the winter to see Daniel Webster.
A girl named Mary Johnson used to work for Mrs. Whitman. She used to want to be weighed every little while to see if she was gaining flesh. Doctor used to weigh her on a long steelyard. She weighed 148 pounds and Mrs. Whitman weighed 1850. Mary wanted to gain two pounds so she would weigh as much as Mrs. Whitman. One time to Dr. Whitman�s great surprise she outweighed Mrs. Whitman. Cornelius Rogers, our teacher, began laughing and said `See how Mary walks. No wonder she weighs more than Mrs. Whitman. Dr. Whitman proceeded to investigate and found she had put a flatiron weighing five or six pounds in the pocket of her dress. He laughed and said he would pay her back for getting the joke on him. A little while after that Mary was standing by the stove with her back to the door. She had on a wrapper of Mrs. Whitman�s. Doctor coming in saw her standing there and tiptoeing up to her he put his arm around her and gave her a good hug. She was greatly embarrassed and scandalized. Doctor was as solemn as an owl and protested he thought it was his wife, but I could tell by the way his eyes twinkled he was playing a joke on her. Mary Johnson married Henry Clymer and her daughter, Mrs. Walker, lives at East Thirty-Third and Taylor streets in Sunnyside.
Mrs. Whitman believed that cleanliness was nigh unto godliness. We children had to take a bath every day. Between 11 and 12 every day Mrs. Whitman would round up all her girls and we would all go down to `the girls swimming place' and go in swimming.
I remember one year when the other missionaries had gathered for their annual church meeting. There were Rev. and Mrs. H.H. Spalding from Lapwai and Rev. and Mrs. Elkanah Walker and Rev. Cushing C. Eells and wife from their mission Chemakane on the Spokane river. Mrs. Walker had with her a little girl named Emma Hobson. It was early spring and the water was high and Mrs. Whitman didn�t have time to go with us. Finally she said we could all go if Mrs. Eells would go along to see we didn't get drowned. We went in and the first thing we knew little Emma Hobson was floating downstream with her head under water. Mrs. Eells stood on the bank screaming. In a moment or two, Mr. Howard, an immigrant, and an Indian came running up. The Indian ran downstream, got Emma out, and as she had no clothes on, he took off his blanket, wrapped her in it, brought her back, and handed her gravely to Mrs. Eells. After that Doctor selected a new bathing place for us.
Mrs. Whitman would have made a wonderful kindergarten teacher. A child couldn't help loving her. She used to take us out on walks and picnics. She loved wild flowers and in the spring we wandered all over the foothills gathering wild flowers. I remember one time we had a birthday party. We had gone about a mile and a half up the Walla Walla river. We took our lunch along. Mrs. Whitman used to make a sort of custard out of Irish moss. My brother Frank had a little wagon. He came along and carried the lunch and dishes in his wagon. On the way back Helen Meek and I threw some clods at a wasp's nest. The wasps swarmed out and one stung Helen on the knee. They attacked Mrs. Whitman. Her horse reared and plunged and nearly threw her. They stung Frank and he ran off hard as he could. The wagon went Hokety-out over the brush and two of Mrs. Whitman's china plates jumped out and were broken. When we got home Mrs. Whitman said, `Which of your children threw at the wasp's nest? Helen said, `Elizabeth and I did, but I threw first. Mrs. Whitman sent her to bed without her supper.
Dr. and Mrs. Whitman got up every morning at 4 o'clock. We children got up at 5 and went to bed at 7. On special occasions we could stay up till 8 o'clock.
On Sunday we wore our Sunday best. All work and play was forbidden. Even the baby�s playthings were put away. We had Sunday school in the morning and we had to repeat the seven verses we had learned during the week. The great even of our lives was when mail came once or twice a year and when the missionary barrel arrived from back east. They were from one to two years on the way." [Oregon Journal, March 16, 1915 The Oregon Country, The Early Days by Fred Lockley]
"We lived with Dr.
and Mrs. Whitman three years, said Mrs. W.H. Helm of this city, in recalling
her girlhood experiences.
and their home seemed to be big enough to take in anyone in need.
They had taken in our fatherless and
motherless brood of seven and they were constantly adding to their family.
While Dr. Whitman was on one of his trips he
had cut an arrowhead out of James Bridger's back and in gratitude Mr. Bridger
gave Dr. Whitman his little girl Mary Ann.
She was about 9 years old when we went to Waiilatpu.
On another one of his trips Dr. Whitman rescued a little half breed boy 2 years old. His mother had dug a hole, made a fire in it and threw the little boy in. Doctor was in time to rescue him but not before his legs were badly burned. His mother was a squaw and his father a Mexican. He was a very likeable little chap and in all my life I never saw anyone who was as much a part of his horse as he was. After the massacre he was taken by the priests. He died when he was 14 years old.
Colonel Joe Meek left his little girl Helen Mar Meek with the Whitmans as he couldn't take her with him on his trips. Her mother was a Nez Perce squaw. Joe Meek wanted her to be raised as a white child so he took her away from her mother and put her in the mission. Sometimes her mother would come to see her. Helen would say, `Oh no, you are not my mother. Mrs. Whitman is my mother.' Helen died seven days after the massacre. She had been very sick with measles and caught cold and died.
Mrs. Whitman was very precise in her language and she expected us to be the same. For example, if we said `the mosquitoes are very thick she would say `you mean they are very numerous. One time Katie, my sister said, `shall I peel the potatoes mother? Mrs. Whitman said, `No, I would pare them if I were you'.
Mrs. Whitman had six or seven sisters. We used to name our rag dolls after her sisters. I had dolls named after three of her sisters, Clarissa, Harriet and Jane. Arrangements had been made shortly before the massacre for `Aunt Jane as we children called Mrs. Whitman's sister, to come out and teach at The Dalles, where Dr. Whitman was planning to move his mission. Perrin Whitman, Doctor Whitman's nephew, who was about 14 or 15 years old told us that he overheard Doctor and Mrs. Whitman talking and he thought they were hoping that our teacher Cornelius Rogers might fall in love with Aunt Jane and marry her. Doctor Whitman had already bargained for the Methodist mission at The Dalles shortly before he was killed. He was to pay $600 for it.
Some years ago I met Mrs. Whitman�s sister, Mrs. Clarissa Kinney, in California. She died in San Francisco just before the fire. I also met another sister of hers, Mrs. Harriet Jackson, she died recently in Ohio.
When the Indians came to have their children baptized they would ask Mrs. Whitman to pick out names for them. She had lots of relatives so she named them Richard and Deborah and other family names of her people. She always used to speak of Deborah as `Cousin Deborah. She had named her after a favorite cousin of hers.
�he doctor used to give the Indians calomel when they had the measles. They would take a big dose of calomel and then take a sweat bath, then jump in the Walla Walla river, then die. Joe Lewis, the Catholic halfbreed negro and Indian who incited the massacre, was employed by Dr. Whitman to make coffins for the Indians and it kept him pretty busy. Mrs. Whitman's sovereign remedy was onions. If we children had the croup or tonsillitis or quinsy or almost anything else, Mrs. Whitman would bake some onions and put on a hot onion poultice on our throats. She knew it couldn't do any harm and it might do some good. One day when it was raining we heard the squaws wailing. Mrs. Whitman sent someone to see who was dead. They reported that Thomas was as good as dead and the squaws were singing his death chant. Mrs. Whitman learned that he couldn't breath so, taking a basket of onions she went to his tepee. She was there several hours. She baked some onions and clapped them on his neck red hot. He got his breath back all right and eventually got well and I don't think he ever had the quinsy again.
Sometimes when the missionary barrels would be delayed a year, we children would run very short of clothes. We always went barefoot or wore moccasins. One year we had to stay in bed Monday mornings while our clothes were being washed. I remember one Monday morning Helen Meek was gathering the clothes to be washed. Mrs. Whitman lit a candle and giving it to her told her to go up to the children�s room and look all round for some clothes that were missing. She came back presently with some of the clothes, but without the candle. Mrs. Whitman said, `Did you blow the candle out, Helen? She said, `No, I stuck it in that keg of black sand at the foot of the children's bed, and I am going back to look for the rest of the dirty clothes. Mr. Rogers went up the steps three steps at a time and got the candle. The black sand was gun powder. We children had taken the cover off and had been playing with it. I always wonder that the lighted candle did not set fire to the powder. Fortunately, the flame was two or three inches above the powder." [Oregon Journal, March 17, 1915 The Oregon Country, The Early Days by Fred Lockley]
My name is Stephenie Flora. Return to [ Home Page ] All [ Comments and Inquiries ] are welcome.