Seven Alone

Do you remember those books from your childbhood that made a lasting impression on you? I can remember walking into my elementary school library and choosing a book from the shelves because the title made me laugh – The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles – written by none other than Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews Edwards. That was the first book I remember reading that caused my imagination to picture a story unfolding without the use of illustrations. I was amazed that I could actually SEE the story happening in my mind.

There was another book from my childhood, however, that shaped my love for western historicals. A story that still holds me in awe today because of the courage and determination of the real family whose lives inspired the novel.

Seven Alone chronicles the tale of the Sager children who were orphaned while on the Oregon Trail. Henry and Naomi Sager joined a wagon train led by Captain William Shaw in 1844 in a quest for a better life. With them, they brought their six children: John 14, Frank 12, Catherine 9, Elizabeth 7, Matilda 5, and Louisa 3 years old. Along the trail, Naomi gave birth to child number 7 –  baby Henrietta. At first all was well with the family, but as the trip grew more arduous accidents and  sickness befell them. Catherine fell beneath a wagon and broke her leg. Then Henry fell ill. The father of the Sager family passed away and was buried on the banks of the Green River, not far from Laramie, WY. Naomi was out of her mind with grief. The women on the wagon train did all they could to help her – taking care of the baby, tending to Naomi when her grief led to illness.

They found a single man to help drive the Sager wagon, but after promising to bring back meat if allowed to use Henry’s rifle, he absconded with the weapon and was never heard from again. The doctor who had set Catherine’s leg did his best to aid the family along with Captain Shaw. Naomi struggled to hold on to life, determined to get her family to the Whitman Mission and winter there before continuing on to the Willamette. Despite her determination to hang on, Naomi Sager died near Idaho Falls.

Everyone in the wagon train pitched in to help the orphans, and by October they reached the Whitman Mission. Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, agreed to take in the Sager children. In July of the following year, Dr. Whitman petitioned for legal custody of the children. Yet, tragedy continued to follow these children. The Whitmans ministered to the Cayuse Indians, and maintained peaceful relations with them. However, as more and more settlers passed through on wagon trains, disease came with them. In 1847, an outbreak of measles decimated the Indians tribes of the area. The Cayuse held the white man responsible and attacked the Whitman Mission. The Whitman massacre claimed 14 lives at the mission including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the two Sager boys, John and Frank. The women and children were taken captive. Louisa Sager was one of those who died while in capitivity. One month after the massacre, Peter Ogden from the Hudson’s Bay Company, arranged for their release trading sixty-two blankets, sixty-three cotton shirts, twelve rifles, six hundred loads of ammunition, seven pounds of tobacco and twelve flints for the return of the forty-nine surviving prisoners.

Catherine, Elizabeth, and Matilda Sager meet at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Whitman massacre in November 1897.

After losing both their biological and adoptive parents, the four remaining Sager girls were split up and sent to different families. Henrietta (the baby born on the trail) died young at age 26, supposedly shot mistakenly by an outlaw. The other three girls, Catherine, Matilda, and Elizabeth all married, had children, and lived well into old age.

About ten years after her arrival in Oregon, Catherine wrote an account of the Sager family’s journey west. She hoped to earn enough money to set up an orphanage in the memory of Narcissa Whitman. She never found a publisher. Her children and grandchildren, however, saved her manuscript without modification, and today it is regarded as one of the most authentic accounts of the American westward migration.

The book Seven Alone, and the movie that followed, only chronicles the Sager children’s hardships and adventures while on the wagon train. Yet, I couldn’t resist telling the rest of the story.

So what about you? What stories (biolgraphical or purely fiction) do you remember reading as a child that made such an impact on you that you still remember them today?

Oh, and as an aside, if you haven’t read Jody Hedlund’s book The Doctor’s Lady, you might find it enjoyable. It is a fictionized account of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s journey west and how these two missionaries who married for convenience found love along the way.

Karen Witemeyer
For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

20 Comments

  1. Hi Karen, Awesome post. It reminds me of an old TV show called “The Monroes.” It had a similar story–kids alone in the Old West–and was set in Wyoming. The episode about a wolverine attack scared me to death! Anyhow, stories like “Seven Alone” are why I love westerns. Such courage! And kindness, too.

  2. I’d never heard of “The Monroes” Vicki. I’ll have to check that out. Sounds like one I would love. I love the pioneering spirit of these children and how brave they were. So inspirational!

  3. As a kid I read and reread all of the books in the Trixie Belden series. I wished I could have been a kid-detective. It also made me wish that I had a friend like Jim wheeler.

    The other book that I loved as a kid was “King of the Wind” by Marguerite Henry. Not only because it fed my love of horses but also because of the bond the stable boy had with his horse and how he stuck with his horse against all odds to the very end.

    Oh, my goodness, and I almost forgot “Johnny Tremain”.

  4. Great stories, Chris! I was a sucker for a good horse story when I was a kid, too. Read all the Black Stallion books. And I was hooked on Encyclopedia Brown mysteries for a while, too. I always felt so proud of myself when I figured out the mystery before the end of the book. LOL.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Karen this is so weird (well, maybe not) I just read Narcissa Whitman’s story in a recently purchased book I think I heard of through this blog. but they mentioned (I re-read it last night after I saw your blog post) she took in the Sager Children but when I was reading it I didn’t connect it to the ‘seven alone’ kids… which I’ve also heard of.
    Sometimes I get the feeling there were only about 50 women total in the west so of course we’ve heard of all of them!!!

  6. What an amazing story, Karen. I’ve read about the Whitmans but not the Sager children. And I hadn’t read Seven Alone. Unbelievable, what that family went through!
    My all time favorites as a child, and even now, are Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books. I loved the idea of living out in the jungle with all those exotic animals. But I can’t stand what Disney did to these stories, with all the singing and dancing and goofiness; the original stories have this mystical dark quality about them.
    Thanks for a great blog today!

  7. Mary – How fun to make that connection. I love it when that happens!

    Elizabeth – I love Disney, but the Jungle Book was not my favorite. However, there was a Jungle Book (non-animated) movie they made later on that I absolutely LOVED. I even bought a copy, which for me is saying a lot. It had that Tarzan feel and was much more closely linked to the book.

  8. I have read Seven Alone and loved it, I also loved the movie! Thank you so much for telling what happened after the book ends. I have always wondered about them. How sad that so much tragedy had to happen after they reached the Whitman Mission.

  9. Hi, Sharon. It really is tragic what all they went through. But at least for three of them, they triumphed in the end and went on to have long lives with families and children.

  10. I love the Seven Alone story! My family (being Sagers) was introduced to the movie by our church’s librarian, and later we discovered the book. We so enjoyed the neat experience of reading about folks with the same last name. As a result my youngest sister’s middle name is Naomi!

  11. I really loved A Light in the Forest about a white child who was kidnapped by Indians and lived with them for years then is returned to his family.
    That transition back to life with his white family, then he runs off back to his Indian family, then he … well, it’s really a powerful book.

    I’m a huge Black Stallion Book reader.
    I loved the Box Car Children, especially the first one where they were truly on their own. So brave and intrepid.

    Then I read all the regular series. Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys. I was a huge book worm.

  12. As a child, I enjoyed the Little House series and a set of biographies about historical figures(Childhood of Famous Americans). I was fortunate enough to get one of these from a library’s discard pile.

    Fascinating about the Sager family. Really tragic, too.

    LindaC

  13. Nicole- How cool to make that connection with your name. I wonder if there is any distant connection?

  14. Hi, Linda. I loved the Little House series. Anne of Green Gables, too. Thanks so much for sharing!

  15. Thanks for filling in the details of the real story behind SEVEN ALONE. What happened to this family is a good study of the trials and dangers experienced during the western expansion.

    Mary O’Hara’s trilogy – MY FRIEND FLICKA, THUNDERHEAD, and GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING opened a new door for me. Until then I had read Nancy Drew and similar mysteries. These books were so much more and started my interest in the West.

  16. Thanks for posting this Karen – I’d never heard the story of the Sager children. I’ve been an avid reader from an early age. The books I remember most clearly are the series books The Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Belden, and a standalone book called The Mystery At High Hedges. I reread all of these many times, delighted that I could discover new things to like about them at each reading

  17. I’ve never heard of the Sager family. When I was young I read Heidi, The Prince & the Pauper and Rebecca From Sunnybrooke Farm. I also enjoyed Caddie Woodlawn, The Cricket In Times Square, Charlotte’s Web, Ender’s Game, The Sound of Music, Little House On the Prairie , Anne of Green Gables, The Snow Queen, and Peter & the Wolf.

  18. I am glad to hear someone besides my sister and I read the Trixie Belding books. They never seem to be mentioned as much as the Nancy Drew series.

    Seven Alone has been on my mind lately since I took a road trip with my daughter and grandkids to the Whitman Mission on April 3. It’s two hours from here and made a fun day trip. As we were walking along one of the trails at the park we talked about the “Seven Alone” movie. There is a grave marker for the people killed the day the Cayuse attacked the mission. The two Sager boys’ names are included on the marker.

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