Across the Plains in 1844

I came across this booklet by Catherine Sager the other night, through a circuitous route that I won’t bore you with right now. Across the Plains in 1844 is the firsthand account of the Sager family’s misadventures on the Oregon Trail, and then, later, of the Whitman Massacre. It’s short and to the point, and you can read it in one sitting. It isn’t at all a pleasant read, and all the less so because Catherine Sager tells her story with little emotion. People distanced themselves from trauma in the nineteenth century; they couldn’t otherwise survive the hardships they faced. I don’t wish to neutralize the pain of modern westerners, but our souls haven’t been steeled by the constant trauma our forebears had to cope with.

Catherine Sager was the oldest girl of seven children and was sadly cursed with a father who couldn’t stay in one place. There was always a greener pasture to be explored. For a man like that, the Oregon Trail held great appeal. By the way, my paternal grandfather was like this, and he caused his family to live in poverty and constant mishaps. In my father’s childhood, mishaps were more common than complete tragedy, as the world had long since discovered the cause of infectious diseases and, furthermore, had suppressed the bloody wars on the frontier. Also, a trip across the country could be done in my grandfather’s day by car or by hopping a train and was, hence, much faster. This not being the case for the Sagers, the father’s hunger for greener pastures led his family to near ruin.

First, the father himself died of a slow creeping disease as they travelled westward. Soon after, the mother also succumbed to infection; she’d just given birth to a child and was too weak to fight off disease. This left seven children alone in the wagon train heading west. There was a Dutch doctor who vowed to care for them; they had met the doctor when Catherine’s ankle bones were severed with a wagon wheel. There were other kind folks who made sure the children were loved and cared for until they arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Despite hardship, or maybe because of it, many were willing to give near strangers what little they had. At the end of the trail, the Sager children were left at the Whitman mission, which was located near Walla Walla, WA.

The Whitmans had gone West to be a missionary family to the Cayuse people. Without children of their own, they had already adopted a few children, some of them “half-breeds” that weren’t accepted by either peoples. I don’t know that it would have ever been their intention to adopt seven non-Cayuse children, as they were responsible to a mission board that supported their efforts to preach the gospel and give medical care to the natives. The Whitmans, however, were generous people and adopted all seven children.

This is where the story gets interesting to me. It’s obvious Catherine left out many details of the wagon ride West. I would guess this is because she shut away the deaths of her parents and thus didn’t have as many memories of this time. By contrast, the children’s time with the Whitmans provides many good details. When the children arrived at the mission, the Whitmans had a good relationship with the Cayuse people. Their new father was trained as a doctor but had always wanted to be a preacher. He brought together these skillsets for his ministry, though Catherine criticizes him a little over the untrained nature of his preaching — i.e. she finds it boring. Nevertheless, he managed to hold regular services for the Cayuse and also did sabbath studies every Sunday in his own home.

The children had a good life with the Whitmans: it was a strict but fair household that provided the stability their own parents had failed to provide. They attended a mission school and helped in the garden and with all manner of tasks around the home. Catherine particularly focuses on the washing because with so many people now in the household, they all had to rise at four a.m. on washing day to accomplish the task.

Their lives, then, in this frontier land of Washington were good…until a number of events coalesced to turn it upside down. When Catherine writes about their trip along the Oregon Trail, she mentions that there are many native peoples along the way that offered help to the families on the wagon train. In general, I’d say most people don’t want to live in constant warfare. They want to make peace with other tribes of humans because it makes life easier. But the United States government could not be satisfied with peaceful relations between settlers and Native Americans and, after a series of military campaigns against the natives, this peace evaporated. The government was always doing this — whatever good intentions the average people had were destroyed by the US government. And, obviously, the government produced much propaganda to create its mess, e.g. on the philosophy of Manifest Destiny.

In the case of the Cayuse people, they had their own “turncoats,” as it were. A group of Cayuse men spread lies about the Whitmans because they didn’t want the missionaries around any longer. Perhaps they were opposed to Christianity. Perhaps they were against the Whitmans’ meddling in tribal affairs. When brought together with the US government’s treacherous acts, waves of diseases that were killing both the natives and the new settlers, and the vying groups of Christians trying to proselytize, an explosive situation occurred. A band of rebellious Cayuse slaughtered fourteen adults at the Whitman mission as well as some of the older children, sparing only the youngest.

Because Catherine Sager was a young teenager at the time, she was spared. However, the Cayuse took the children as captives and vacillated on whether they should continue to hold them or simply kill them, too. During this time, Catherine describes one Cayuse man as trying to “make her his wife” by force. I didn’t get a good sense of their living quarters, but the narrative states that there were both Cayuse and white children and adults being housed in one building. I’m not sure who the white adults were. Because Catherine wasn’t alone, whenever this man came around, she would scream and fight tooth and nail to keep him off of her. The Cayuse men ignored her screams, and the white men — according to her — only rescued her because they grew tired of listening to her scream. I only bring this up because it’s obvious that neither ethnic group was courageous or full of honor. In other words, there were scumbags amongst both. I mean, can you imagine allowing a young girl to be raped and only stopping it because the ruckus was preventing you from sleeping?

The problem with moralizing about history is that it’s rarely composed of neat binaries of good/bad and right/wrong. The modern day notion of the “evil white man” is absurd when looking at events like this through eye witness accounts. There were some decent people in the mix, such as the Whitmans who seemed to be very sincere in their desire to help the Cayuse with medicine and education and not simply foist their religion on them. One of their adopted children, in fact, was a half-Spanish, half-Cayuse whom the grandmother had rescued from her own daughter’s neglect and brought to them to care for. She trusted them to care for her unloved grandchild because they had demonstrated themselves to be decent people.

And while it’s tempting to paint the Cayuse as innocents oppressed by white people, that would be glossing over the truth. For a start, most natives in the Americas warred with other local tribal peoples, either from defense or as aggressors. The Cayuse were not exceptions. According to just this short account, some of them rebelled against their own tribal authorities and committed murder. Obviously rape wasn’t out of the question either, if Catherine’s story is to be believed. At the end of the account, the children only escaped due to the Cayuse’s attention being drawn to another military affair, in which their captives no longer mattered.

Catherine Sager and the other surviving siblings went on to live happy enough lives after this series of traumatic events. Catherine married, raised eight children, and lived to a decent age of seventy-five. According to historical documents, the other Sager daughters lived to nearly ninety.

This story has a happy ending…for some people. Others were sacrificed to whims of adventure or the US government or downright murderous mutiny. This is life, I guess, in all its messy and gory details. In short, if you have a couple of hours, read this account. I’m a little obsessed with primary source documents; they are endlessly fascinating to me. One word of caution, though — you have to accept them for what they are. They aren’t works of fiction. Most aren’t tightly plotted or masterpieces of journalism that merit special book prizes. The authors had their own reasons for writing them down. In Catherine’s case, she wanted to publish the story and make enough money to support an orphanage in the name of her adoptive mother, Narcissa Whitman. By the way, she wasn’t able to publish it in her lifetime. Ultimately, though, these types of accounts are simply glimpses into the world as it was through the eyes of the people who were unwitting witnesses to history in the making.

Here’s a link: Across the Plains in 1844.

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One comment

  1. The noble savage thing is embedded in the American psyche ever since Iron Eye Cody. Per capita, the natives were pretty ruthless, though I think it wasn’t as pronounced because of their low-tech and the fact that they were very spread out and unpopulous compared to Euros.

    It’s interesting: people, left by themselves, tend to sort themselves with little conflict. Violence happens, maybe even at a greater frequency than state-sponsored violence, but at a much smaller scale and probably less bloodily. But this violence is more local, literally; when the state is involved, it can be far removed from our attention. Decentralized violence, if we can call it like that, is right at our doorstep.

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