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.