The True Story of the Sager Family

by Sarah Kirk


In the days of the Pioneers, many people dreamed of going to Oregon or California.  If you were a gold prospector, you might have decided to go to California for the gold.  But if you were a farmer, your dream was the rich soil of Oregon’s Willamette Valley; where land was abundant and free of charge.  Free land was appealing, and when the Great Migration (c. 1843--1860) started, many of the farmers that had only dreamed of going west emigrated.   

Settlers of the Oregon Territory had a common problem that still plagues us today: Land.

William Shaw: “Linn’s homesteading bill in congress was the first start that set me to thinking of coming here.  Another inducement was to settle my family, a family of boys who were getting to be men.  I was not able to settle them in Missouri.  Land began to go up and it was hard to get.  I thought by moving to a new country my boys could shift for themselves.” 1 

Captain Shaw, a veteran of the war of 1812, married in 1822.  Twenty years later he joined a wagon train going west.  He was chosen leader of 25 wagons in the 100 wagon train, including the Sager family. 

Henry Sager was a simple farmer, and when the wagon train (one of four that year) passed by, Henry, his wife Naomi and their children John 14, Frank 12, Catherine 9, Elizabeth 7, Matilda 5, and Louisa 3 years old; joined Captain Shaw’s division at Capless Landing (near Weston Mo.).   Soon after, the baby was born.  They named her Henrietta. 

At the start, every one enjoyed the journey, the children ran laughing and playing, and the adults would play musical instruments in the evening when they camped for the night.  Catherine Sager:  “The first encampments were a great pleasure to us children.  We were five girls and two boys, ranging from the girl baby to be born on the way to the oldest boy, hardly old enough to be any help.” 2 

It may have been all fun and games at the start of the journey, but not too far from the north bank of the Platte River, Catherine Sager tried to jump out of the wagon while it was in motion.  The skirt of her dress caught on an ax handle and she was thrown under the wagon before her father could stop the team.  Her leg was very badly broken, and she was confined to the wagon for the rest of the journey.  The news spread to the other wagons, a halt was declared and a doctor called upon to set her leg.  They pushed on that same night until they reached Laramie, Wyoming. 

 After Laramie, they entered what was called the Great American Desert; a part of the Western U.S. that is dry and barren with few trees.  This was hard on the teams and water was scarce.  Sickness became common because of poor sanitation and bad water.  Because of the scarcity of water, when the water they carried in the wagons was gone, they had to drink whatever water they could find, even if it was a stagnant pond.   

Not too far away from Laramie, WY, Henry fell fatally ill.  They crossed the Green River and camped for the night, where Henry wept bitterly; as he was concerned for his large and helpless family because he was dying.  Captain Shaw found him weeping and asked what troubled him.  He replied that it was his last hour and he was filled with worry for his family; his wife Naomi was sick and the children small.  He begged Captain Shaw to take charge of his family.  The next day, Henry Sager was buried on the banks of the Green River and the wagon train traveled on, not even pausing to mourn for lost loved ones. 

The Sagers hired a young man to drive the oxen for them and the doctor who set Catherine’s leg tended to Mrs. Sager, who had become a "lunatic" after her husband’s death.   

At Fort Bridger they set up camp and used the canvas tops of the wagons to catch fish from the stream.  That evening, the new driver told Mrs. Sager he would go hunt for game if she would lend him her husband’s rifle.  He took the gun, and was never seen again, having joined another wagon train ahead of them where he had a sweetheart.   

They got along as best they could with the good doctor’s help.  Naomi planned on getting her family to the Whitman Mission and spending the winter there before going to the Willamette, but she was too sick with grief over the passing of her late husband to be able to cope.  She contracted camp fever, but fought bravely for the sake of her children, becoming delirious soon after reaching Fort Bridger.   

Catherine Sager:  “Travelling in this condition over a road clouded with dust, she suffered intensely.  She talked of her husband, addressing him as though present, beseeching him in piteous tones to relieve her sufferings, until at last she became unconscious.” 3 

The baby was cared for by the other women of the train; the same women took care of Naomi Sager, washing the dust off her face and making her comfortable.  The road they traveled the day Naomi died was a rough one, and she moaned piteously all the way.  That night she died near Idaho Falls, Idaho, and next morning the children had a last look at their mother’s face; then the train moved on.   

The whole wagon train adopted the children and helped take care of them, but Captain Shaw had primary responsibility, even dividing his last loaf of bread to feed the children. Stopping at the Snake River, they converted their wagon into a cart because the oxen were wearing out.  Into this they loaded what was necessary; and sold or left on the plains what wasn’t needed. 

On the last day of September the train arrived at Grande Ronde, where one of the younger girls caught her dress on fire and would have burned to death if the doctor, at the risk of burning his hands, hadn’t saved her.        

   Catherine Sager: “We had been out of flour and living on meat alone, so a few were sent in advance to get supplies from Dr. Whitman and return to us.  Having so light a load we could travel faster than the other teams, and went on with Captain Shaw and the advance.  Through the Blue Mountains cattle were giving out... We made but a few miles a day.” 4                             

 They reached Umatilla approximately October 15th (the exact date is debated), and waited while Captain Shaw went on to Dr. Whitman’s Mission to see if he would take care of the Sager Children.  Two days later, Captain Shaw had arranged for the children to stay with Dr. Whitman, and he brought the children to the mission at Waiilatpu (near present day Walla Walla, Washington). They were a sight to behold; disheveled, undisciplined, and unbathed.   

The baby was sickly and likely to never recover, but under the care of Mrs. Whitman, she soon returned to good health.  At first the Sagers were shy, but soon warmed to the loving compassion of the Whitman’s and began calling them Father and Mother.  The Whitman’s were stern disciplinarians, holding them in strict subjection, but any effort to obey the rules was rewarded.  Life was pleasant at the mission; they lived a life filled with hard work and domestic duties, with much time spent in school studies, and reading the Bible.  

After 3 years, a measles epidemic swept away more than half of the Indian tribe, including most of their children.  Dr. Whitman tried to treat them, but his medicine was no more effective than an Indian medicine man.  While the Indians died, most of the ailing white settlers lived.  Lies were spread saying that Dr. Whitman was poisoning the Indian patients.  For this perceived act of murder, the Indians decided to take revenge on the Whitman’s.  However, it is unclear why the Indians massacred ten other people instead of just taking revenge by murdering Mr. and Mrs. Whitman.  

After seeing their adoptive mother shot to death, and finding the dead bodies of other family members, they were kept captive by the Indians in one of the adobe houses adjacent to the Whitman house.   Five days later, Louisa died of the measles.  

About a week after the massacre, a trapper from the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to pay ransom for the 45-50 captives.  He didn’t know if the United States government would reimburse him, but he was willing to use his own money to rescue the hostages.  He was able to make a treaty with the Indians and the captives were granted safe passage away from the Whitman Mission. 

Although there were perilous adventures and mishaps, the Sager girls eventually ended up in the Willamette Valley.  Catherine Sager married a prominent early day settler in Salem by the last name of Pringle, becoming Catherine Sager Pringle.  Elizabeth Sager married and became Elizabeth Sager Helm.  Matilda became Matilda Sager Delaney.  Henrietta became Henrietta Sager Cooper Sterling.  They all lived to be old women.   

Many of the families that made it to the Willamette are still here today (including the Pringle and Shaw families), and have kept at least part of their original land claim.  The Pioneers left their mark in many ways through their bravery, courage, determination to get to Oregon, and because they were willing to risk their lives and the lives of their children. 

References for The True Story of the Sager Family

1 Stephenie Flora            Article written by Joyce Friesen

2 Catherine Sager Pringle,  Across the Plains in 1844 (Fairfield Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1989), p5.

3 Catherine Sager Pringle,  Across the Plains in 1844 (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press 1989), p8.

4 Catherine Sager Pringle,  Across the Plains in 1844 (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press 1989), p9.

 Addition References:

Stephenie Flora

Stephenie Flora

Across the Plains in 1844, by Catherine Sager Pringle

A Survivor’s Recollections of the Whitman Massacre, by Matilda Sager                                                                                                                                                      

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