Westward I Go Free
My father's name was Henry Sager. He moved from Virginia to Ohio, then to Indiana and from there to Missouri... In the month of April 1844, my father got the Oregon fever and we started west.
Henry Sager had moved his growing family four times in as many years, always a little farther west in search of land that was more fertile and less expensive. By 1844, the Sagers were in St. Joseph Missouri, restless and ready to move again. 2,000 miles to the west was the Oregon Country. The United States now claimed it. So did Great Britain. But the United States had the people to settle it.
Eastward I go by force; but westward I go free... I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe...
One thousand Americans had made their way to Oregon in 1843 alone. Ten thousand more would follow over the next four years. Henry Sager was determined to join them. He signed on with a group called the "Independent Colony" -- 300 people in 72 wagons. Most were families like the Sagers and their six children.
Sager was very keen to go west. And his wife, Naomi, was pregnant. And
she was not just beginning her pregnancy, she was along. And she was more
reluctant to go. But go they did with all their children."
In what is now eastern Kansas, spring rains turned the prairies to mud and made river crossings dangerous. The children, confined to their covered wagon for mile after lurching mile, grew seasick. Five weeks out, Naomi Sager gave birth to her seventh child -- a baby girl.
On July 4th, the caravan rested near the Platte River in Nebraska, and a young couple in the wagon train used the occasion to get married.
The weather was fine, and all seemed to enjoy themselves. There were several musical instruments in the company; and these sounded out clear and sweet on the evening air while gay talk and merry laughter went on around the camp fire.
Farther on, they forded the South Platte, and Henry Sager lost control of his oxen. The wagon overturned and Naomi was injured, but they kept going. In late July, they passed Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff in what is now western Nebraska. One afternoon, young Catherine, age nine, tried to hop off the wagon.
The hem of my dress caught on an axe-handle, precipitating me under the wheels, both of which passed over me... before father could stop the oxen... A glance at my limb dangling in the air as he ran... revealed to him the extent of the injury I had received, and in a broken voice he exclaimed, "My dear child, your leg is broke all to pieces!"
For the remainder of the trip Catherine either rode in the jolting wagon or hobbled along beside it on makeshift crutches.
They kept moving -- beyond Fort Laramie to Independence Rock, where emigrants carved their names as proof of their individual passing. On August 23rd, the Sager's wagon crossed South Pass and the continental divide. Now they were beyond the boundaries of the United States and in Mexican territory. Oregon was still weeks away.
A sickness called "camp fever" struck the caravan. Two women died. Then a little girl. Then Henry Sager fell ill.
We crossed the Green River and camped on
the bank... Looking upon me as I lay helplessly by his side, he said,
"Poor child! What will become of you?" Father expired the next morning,
and was buried on the bank of the Green River, his coffin... hastily dug
out of the trunk of a tree.
Fatherless, the Sagers pushed on. At last they crossed the border into the Oregon Country. But on the dusty trail along the Snake River, Naomi, too, became delirious with fever.
We traveled over a very rough road, and she moaned pitifully all day. When we camped for the night... her pulse was nearly gone..... She lived but a few moments more, and her last words were, "Oh, Henry, if you only knew how we have suffered!"
The children buried their mother, wrapped in a bed sheet, in a shallow grave along the trail, with willow brush and a wooden headboard to mark the spot.
teams were then hitched to the wagon and the train drove on, leaving her
to her long sleep. Thus in twenty-six days both our parents were laid
in the grave, and we were orphans, the oldest fourteen years old and the
youngest five months old.
there were these seven children, left without any relatives in the world.
The word orphan is almost insufficient to describe their situation. And
of course, the other thing to remember about them is that there was no
one in the West waiting for them. So these children were just alone."
Under the care of other families in the wagon train, the seven Sager children pressed on. In early October, they reached Cayuse country. One member of the caravan rode ahead to the mission run by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman to tell them that a needy wagon train was approaching -- and to talk with them about adopting the Sager children.
Application has been made for us to take an orphan family of seven children, as they have not a relative in the company. What we shall do I cannot say; we cannot see them suffer, if the Lord casts them upon us.
Since her own daughter's death, to ease her grief, Narcissa had taken in four other children, including the daughter of the mountain man Joe Meek.
"For Narcissa, the death of her daughter, Alice, was the beginning of a real collapse, a physical and a psychological breakdown. And then, when the Sager children arrive, it's really her salvation. She can recreate a very satisfying domestic life and really turn her back on the real mission work that she came out to do."
Husband thought we could get along with all but the baby -- he did not see how we could take that; but I felt that if I must take any, I wanted her as a charm to bind the rest to me.
The Whitmans sent word back to the wagon train that they would take all seven. A few days later, after six months and 2,000 miles, Henry and Naomi Sager's children finally reached their new home in Oregon. Narcissa Whitman came out to meet them for the first time.
was a large, well-formed woman, fair complexioned, with beautiful auburn
hair, nose rather large, and large grey eyes. She had on a dark calico
dress and gingham sunbonnet; and we thought as we shyly looked at her
that she was the prettiest woman we had ever seen.
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