“Poor child! What will become of you?”
The piece provided below is from the first chapter of the memoir of Catherine Sager Pringle, written around 1860, though it centers upon events in 1844. Pringle, along with her parents and six siblings, joined hundreds of other families in migrating across the plains in the early 1840s, headed for Oregon. Not yet a part of the United States (it would not achieve statehood until 1859), Oregon was presented as a healthful country with fertile fields. The Sager family, originally from Ohio, set off on their westward trek from St. Joseph, Missouri, a city along the Missouri River that was a popular jumping-off point for the trails toward Oregon and California.
Pringle’s memories of the journey westward are highly visual, and they resonate with other journals of those who followed the Overland Trail, a more southern alternative to the Oregon Trail. Her words are even more intriguing given her age of nine years at the time of her family’s travels. While her family endured tragedy and heartache, Pringle and three of her siblings did eventually succeed in their mother’s hope that they would reach Oregon and a better life, though it was not in the way that Naomi Sager had envisioned.
For Catherine Sager Pringle’s father, Henry, the dream of the West held much promise, and he fully intended that he and his family would reach it and erect a family home that would endure for generations. The climate, advertised as good for one’s health and well-being, would greatly improve his wife’s strength, and his children would grow with vitality. As he possessed skills both in farming and as a blacksmith, Henry Sager could easily have slotted into a comfortable role within a new community; after all, Pringle wrote that her father “had a wide reputation for ingenuity.” Sadly, like so many others who preceded them on the trail west, and the others that followed, Sager did not live to set foot upon Oregon, and neither did his wife. The Sagers planned well, travelling during the optimum time (late spring and summer), but, just like the weather, illness and accidents could not be foreseen.
Oregon Country, later a territory in 1846, was the land held aloft as fresh and open. The fields were lush with flora and fauna, a more picturesque area not to be found elsewhere. The alluring descriptions of Oregon were widespread through the 1830s and 1840s, and soon it reached such a crescendo, as historian Frank McLynn wrote, “that it almost seemed as that the laws of God’s universe had been breached and that missionaries had found themselves back in the Garden of Eden” (33). Ginger Wadsworth, in her work Words West: Voices of Young Pioneers (2003), quotes Edward Lenox, who rode the Overland Trail with his father, as hearing that, “they do say that out in Oregon, the pigs are running about under the great acorn trees, round and fat, and already cooked, with knives and forks sticking in them” (44).
It is left to history what stories or hyperbole Henry Sager may have heard. Whatever prompted him to relocate his family from Missouri to Oregon, there is little doubt that he held only the best intentions for his family. However, as described by his daughter, the Sagers’ overland trip was laden with accidents and tragedy. Knowing his end imminent as he lay dying of typhoid, or what his daughter terms “camp fever,” he despaired, “Poor child! What will become of you?” The Sagers did not travel with any relatives, nor did any relatives live in Oregon or other reaches west. Pringle wrote, “His wife was ill, the children small, and one likely to be a cripple,” in reference to an injury explained below. It would be left to the charity of strangers among the other travellers and those already in Oregon to care for Sager’s seven children.
Catherine Sager Pringle, born on the fifteenth of April in 1835, holds a secure place in the history of American westward migration. Though she provides history with a rich recounting of her journey, she neglects or simply chooses not to include a narrative of her life before the family’s decision to relocate. One of seven children (two sons, five daughters) born to Henry and Naomi Sager, Pringle survived the trek to Oregon, but at a severe price. Accidents were certainly common enough in everyday life, but even more so along the Overland Trail, especially for those unused to a nomadic life as part of a caravan. Parents were busy with a variety of duties—aside from driving the wagons and animals—to get their families through each day. On the first of August, roughly four months along the trail, Pringle leaped from the wagon while it was still in motion, but the hem of her dress “caught on an axe handle and the wagon wheels ran over her, crushing her legs” (McFlynn 208). Of the accident, Pringle wrote that her father “picked me up and saw the extent of the injury when the injured limb hung dangling in the air. In a broken voice he exclaimed, ‘My dear child, your leg is broken all to pieces!’” Though the leg was set, Pringle had to ride inside the wagon for the duration of the trip. Within less than a month, worse occurrences followed.
Both parents died of typhoid within weeks of each other, leaving Pringle and her siblings orphans. Before Henry Sager’s death, he spoke to the wagon train’s captain, William Shaw, and begged that he bring his family to the mission run by Dr. Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Whitman in Oregon, which was established in the region of Waiilatpu. Following Naomi Sager’s death in September of 1844, the Shaws installed themselves as temporary guardians of the seven orphans until they met with the Whitmans the following month. Sadly, the tragedy of the Sager orphans did not end with their adoption by the Whitmans. Three years later, in November 1847, the Whitman mission was attacked by a branch of the Cayuse Indian tribe. Both Dr. and Mrs. Whitman were among the dead, as were the two Sager boys, John and Francis. Louisa, still a young child, succumbed to disease, leaving Catherine, Elizabeth, Matilda, and Henrietta, the baby born on the trail. Catherine, along with Elizabeth and Matilda, lived to old age, passing away in 1910 in her mid-seventies.
When Henry and Naomi Sager set out on their journey in April of 1844 from St. Joseph, Missouri, they had with them their six children—John, Francis, Catherine, Elizabeth, Matilda, and Louisa—who ranged in age from three to thirteen years. Months into the trail, Naomi gave birth to a fifth daughter, Henrietta. This venture into the unknown eventually led to both Henry and Naomi’s deaths from typhoid, termed by Pringle “camp fever,” as well as a variety of accidents to Pringle and her siblings. With Henry’s death in August of that year, Naomi—whose own demise closely followed his—and her seven children were left on the trail with the others in their caravan, trusting to charity for their support and maintenance. As they were so far along the trail, turning back was not possible, nor did the Sagers have any relatives joining them on the trek or ahead of them in Oregon.
Pringle’s details, namely the tragedies and various accidents, including that of her leg being run over by a wagon wheel, reveal a forthright description of progress along the trail, yet there is a measure of detachment in her memoir. This may be read in a variety of ways, such as simply the passage of time. The events of 1844 occurred when Pringle was only nine years old, whereas she recorded her memories around the age of twenty-five.
Despite the eclipse of approximately sixteen years from the events to her writing of them, Pringle is very clear on particulars, such as the rivers she passed and the people she met. This would suggest, though the resources do not account for it, that she may have had help during the writing process, or, at some point after settling in Oregon, was moved to record her memories. Either way, her memoir provides modern readers with valuable insight into her experience and that of countless others.
A journey along the Overland Trail, despite the daily hard work, all the hours of travelling, and the consequent stresses, presented itself as a big adventure to the hundreds of children making their way across the plains with their parents. As the majority of those on the trail were of farming families, their children would not have been strangers to hard work; they would already have been used to heavy chores throughout their daily routines. Adapting such duties to the outdoor spectrum on the dusty plains took getting used to, especially for those involved in the family’s cooking and washing. Here, men, women, and children performed their various chores while exposed to torrential rains and sweeping winds, excessive heat, and, if delayed, snow and hail storms.
Travelling westward required great fortitude and hardiness, and it came with a heavy price tag. The journey itself would take months, but the planning stages could take that or longer. Supplies had to be bought, gathered, or made, enough to sustain an entire family for the trek west. Posts and forts were located along the trail that sold various goods and supplies, but typically their prices were at a premium. Francis Parkman, a historian from Boston, Massachusetts, travelled the Oregon Trail in the 1840s—around the same time as the Pringle family—and was not impressed with the actions of storekeepers: “They [emigrants on the trail] were plundered and cheated without mercy. In one bargain, concluded in my presence, I calculated the profits that accrued to the fort, and found that at the lowest estimate they exceeded eighteen hundred percent” (McLynn 106). Planning and saving for the emigration to Oregon might have taken a while, but, as shown by Parkman, it was far better than running out of supplies and losing money at forts.
A rather large item of necessity, and the iconic image of the western pioneer, was the wagon. The wagon served a number of purposes: conveyance, storage, shelter, sickroom, and pantry. It had to be structurally sturdy to withstand the rigors of the trip, and yet not too heavy, as it still needed to be pulled easily along by animals. Frank McLynn cites oak, hickory, and maple as some of the more popular types of wood used in construction, with elm and ash also favored (53). The top cover—typically made of “a heavy rainproof canvas, caulked, oiled, and painted, usually linen, sailcloth, or oilcloth” (53)—provided shelter to the goods inside. The oxen or mules (both were popular for teams) did not have an easy time; wagons could carry anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 pounds, though 1,600 pounds was the recommended weight limit. Generally, the wagon was not used to carry all members of the family, as the back of the wagon was mainly for storage. Excepting the ill and the very young, all others walked alongside the wagon; it was not merely an issue of space, but extra weight for the animals at the head. Pringle, due to her leg accident, could not walk, so was allocated a spot in the wagon for the remainder of the journey. Given that the wagon would not have been built with suspension, her ride inside would not have been very comfortable or enviable, and all the bumps along the trail may have aggravated her injury further.
Gathering supplies for an entire family for a months-long journey into the relatively unknown took up the bulk of the preparation time, and it did not merely include food. The wagon was to be a home in miniature. With that in mind, all essential items had to be brought: tools for fixing the wagon, candles, soap, kitchen utensils, medicine and various other medical items, clothes, bedding, sewing materials, guns and ammunition, and other things deemed essential. Ginger Wadsworth cites the memory of a thirteen-year-old girl, Kit Scott, who recorded her memories of her family’s westward preparation of clothes and other goods: [The] fingers of the women and girls all the winter, providing . . . bedding, blankets, of stockings and sunbonnets, of hickory shirts and gingham aprons . . . that the family might be outfitted for the trip. Ah! The tears that fell upon these garments, fashioned with trembling fingers by the flaring light of tallow [animal fat] candles; the heartaches that were stitched and knitted and woven into them, through the brief winter afternoons. (14)
[The] fingers of the women and girls all the winter, providing . . . bedding, blankets, of stockings and sunbonnets, of hickory shirts and gingham aprons . . . that the family might be outfitted for the trip. Ah! The tears that fell upon these garments, fashioned with trembling fingers by the flaring light of tallow [animal fat] candles; the heartaches that were stitched and knitted and woven into them, through the brief winter afternoons. (14)
While measures were taken for keeping warm and dry during the trip, many families spent much of their preparation time ensuring that their families would be well fed. Some practiced cooking over open fires so that they might be ready when the time came. Others put time into making what they could before the journey, such as the snack so often associated with Civil War soldiers, hardtack. John Roger James, cited by Wadsworth, remembered how he, his father, and his brothers spent much of their time in this occupation before setting out for Oregon: Father fixed up a place to mix up a lot of dough and knead it with a lever fastened to the wall. He would put a pile of dough into a trough . . . and would have us boys spend the evening kneading the dough thoroughly, then roll it out and cut it into cracker shape about four inches square and then bake them hard and fill them into seamless grain sacks. There would be no lard or butter used, as there would be danger of them spoiling. (16)
Father fixed up a place to mix up a lot of dough and knead it with a lever fastened to the wall. He would put a pile of dough into a trough . . . and would have us boys spend the evening kneading the dough thoroughly, then roll it out and cut it into cracker shape about four inches square and then bake them hard and fill them into seamless grain sacks. There would be no lard or butter used, as there would be danger of them spoiling. (16)
Hardtack was not known for being an epicurean delight, but it was food and it satisfied hunger, if not taste, especially if there was nothing else available.
It is very probable that the extra chores performed before a family made their way westward also served as trials for the children for the work they would be expected to do along the trail. As deemed by their sex, older daughters were babysitters from the start, along with assisting their mothers with the cooking, mending, and doctoring. While the various duties of children may have differed from family to family according to their needs, there was one chore that all historians document, the same chore remembered by many who made the journey as children: the collection of buffalo chips. Wood for fuel was not always readily available along the plains. The pioneers took to using whatever was plentiful and available, and one that filled both these criteria was the dried dung of buffalos, known as buffalo chips. McLynn states that the chips, “when dry . . . resembled rotten wood and would make a clear hot fire” (103). Marion Russell, a child on the trail, remembered being on the prairie and collecting buffalo chips: I would stand back and kick them, then reach down and gather them carefully, for under them lived spiders and centipedes. Sometimes scorpions ran from beneath them. I would fill my long full dress skirt with the evening’s fuel and take it back to mother. (Wadsworth 84–85)
I would stand back and kick them, then reach down and gather them carefully, for under them lived spiders and centipedes. Sometimes scorpions ran from beneath them. I would fill my long full dress skirt with the evening’s fuel and take it back to mother. (Wadsworth 84–85)
For others, the drudgery of chores held highlights, such as driving the teams pulling the wagons and cracking the whip. Taking part in such a grown-up activity, especially given the arduous life on the trail, must have indeed been a special treat.
Pringle’s father, like many men, was anxious to score a buffalo (or bison) kill; according to Pringle, he did accomplish this, but there is no mention whether Mr. Sager made any use of the meat. Pringle wrote only that “he not only killed the great bison, but often brought home on his shoulder the timid antelope.” Read at face value, Pringle presents her father as shooting for sport, rather than for the necessity of feeding his large family, particularly when faced with Pringle’s comment that her father “was enthusiastic in his love of such sport.” The buffalo, like the covered wagon an iconic image of the westward movement, roamed the plains in such large numbers so as to look like brown waves moving about the land. Although the assorted American Indian tribes were scrupulous in using every part of the animal, those on the trail were not so meticulous. Only a small portion of the buffalo was taken for food—the “tongues, hump meat, and marrow bones,” the rest left to scavenger animals such as vultures and wolves, while the American Indians could fashion clothing, shelter, and food from the buffalo (Wadsworth 80). Buffalo hunting for sport came into vogue during this time, driving the animals nearly to extinction. The sport continued through the late nineteenth century, attracting the likes of future president Theodore Roosevelt.
The Sagers, like countless other families striving to make a fresh start in Oregon, met with tragedies they never could have foreseen. Plagued by accidents and then the deaths of their parents, the Sager children experienced the thrill of the trail, but also the trail at its most harsh and brutal. It would be impossible to estimate the number of families that did not arrive in the West without losing someone they loved. Despite the sadness of her story, Catherine Sager Pringle left for history the testimony of her experience, an experience shared by more people than she could have realized.
As evidenced in Pringle’s excerpt, accidents along the trail could occur easily, as when Pringle jumped off the moving wagon. Simple accidents and infections, though, particularly in a time of limited medical knowledge—much less being situated along the plains far from a doctor—could spell certain death. For example, during the Civil War, twenty years after these events, more soldiers died from disease and infection than from gunshots. There were cases, such as those of Henry and Naomi Sager, in which even the presence of a doctor could not assuage bouts with typhoid. Typhoid and cholera, both prevalent along the plains (as well as in cities back East) could act swiftly, often with fatal results.
The Sagers’ affliction with typhoid aside, accidents were what plagued the family the most. Before the mention of her own accident, Pringle recounts one of her mother. She states, “Soon after crossing South Platte the unwieldy oxen ran on a bank and overturned the wagon, greatly injuring our mother.” This occurrence was also documented by McLynn; he states that in addition to injuring Naomi Sager, the overturning wagon also tore off Pringle’s dress and that “Henry Sager’s face was badly skinned” (209). The day did not end there for the Sager family, as “later, the girls went out for a midnight stroll and were nearly killed when a sentry shot at them, mistaking them for Indians” (209). Life on the trail, though filled with promise and excitement, was also filled with dread, as demonstrated by Pringle’s memories.
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