Matilda and Elizabeth Sager, the Oregon Trail

Historical portrait of three women.
Catherine, Matilda, and Elizabeth Sager.

Image/Public Domain

Matilda and Elizabeth Sager – Oregon Trail[1]

By Angela Reiniche

Henry and Naomi Sager, along with their children, began their journey together as a family of nine. However, by the time they reached Oregon, the seven Sager children were orphans, both of their parents having succumbed to exhaustion, exposure, and injuries. Upon reaching the Willamette Valley, all seven were taken in by the missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Both Matilda and Elizabeth detailed their memories of 1847’s incident at Waiilatpu (Whitman) Mission, during which they lost two older brothers and a younger sister.[2] The surviving four sisters led mostly separate lives after their rescue, rarely intersecting beyond irregular visits and correspondence; Elizabeth and Matilda’s fortunes diverged in particularly noticeable ways. Interviewed several decades after their journey to Oregon, both sisters shared their memories of both the momentous and everyday events that shaped their lives.

Before they left Platte County, Missouri, in 1844 to join the multitudes of emigrants heading to Oregon Territory, the Sager family had moved at least three times. Elizabeth, the fourth child of Henry and Naomi Sager, was born 6 July 1837 in Union County, Ohio; Matilda, their fifth child, was born 6 October 1839 in Buchanan County, Missouri. They had three older brothers and one younger sister, Catherine. Their mother, Naomi, was pregnant with the seventh Sager child during the winter of 1843–44, which they spent in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was there that Henry joined The Independent Colony, which consisted of three hundred people and seventy-two wagons, under the leadership of Capt. William Shaw. They left Missouri at the end of April. Five weeks later, Matilda and Elizabeth witnessed the birth of their younger sister, Louise. They also noticed how weak the birth had made their mother.

Elizabeth and Matilda were four and six years old, respectively, when they began their fateful journey west across the plains. Their sister Catherine was injured just before they reached Fort Laramie and had to be confined to the wagon for the rest of the journey. With no doctor available to set her broken leg, Henry had to do what he could to keep it in place. They encountered a German doctor by the name of Dagon at Fort Laramie; impressed with her father’s handiwork but wanting to keep an eye on Catherine’s injury, the doctor stayed with their party.

Elizabeth remembered “a narrow escape” made during her journey across the plains. She and another girl, sixteen-year-old Alvira Edes, decided to leave their camp one morning to “walk ahead of the train and find a good drink of water.” After taking a shortcut up a coulee, the two girls were lost and “climbed one rolling hill after the other, till we didn't know which direction the road was. ...We walked for hours in the heat of the sun until we were almost ready to give up in despair, when, to our great joy, in climbing up one of the rolling land waves, we saw, away off in the distance, the canvas covers of our wagon train.” At first her brother, who was driving one of the wagons, refused to allow the heavily fatigued Elizabeth to ride but “this was too much for me, so I sank down by the side of the road in a disconsolate heap and began to cry. He relented and got out and lifted me up into the wagon.”[3]

During the descent into present-day Wyoming’s Green River Valley, Henry fell with fever and died soon afterward. The good doctor offered to drive the Sager family’s wagon the rest of the way to the Willamette Valley. Naomi, already weak from giving birth on the journey, contracted a severe fever; knowing she would not survive, she asked that her children be put in the care of Marcus Whitman, a well-known missionary who had space enough to house the children. Perhaps Naomi also knew that Narcissa, Marcus’ wife, had recently lost her only daughter and had already taken in a number of emigrant children. Matilda remembered her mother's words: “Now I know why your father begged to be taken out of the wagon. It seems as if it would be easier to die than to stand this jolting.” Naomi Sager died near what is now Twin Falls, Idaho. Matilda recalled,

I can remember, so distinctly, our camp where mother died. They dug a grave and lined it with willow boughs, laid Mother in the grave, and then put a lot more willow boughs over her before they shoveled the earth in. ...When our oxen got poor we lightened our load by leaving all of the things we could spare. We had a big Tennessee wagon, and as the grazing became more and more scarce, even this was too heavy for the jaded oxen, so Dr. Dagon cut it in two in the middle and made our wagon into a cart.[4]

When they arrived at the Umatilla River, they camped for one or two days while Captain Shaw went to the Whitman Mission to see if they would take the children for the winter. Shaw’s plan was to pick them up in the spring of 1845 and settle them in the Willamette Valley. Matilda remembered that when her “Aunt Sally” Shaw (William’s wife) “washed us up and put on our best dresses to go to Dr. Whitman's, the tears ran down her face, and she said, ‘I wonder what will be the fate of you poor little orphan children.’”[5]

They reached the Whitman Mission in October and the Sager orphans found a new home. Upon meeting Narcissa Whitman for the first time, Elizabeth recalled that Narcissa was a “matronly woman ...who was rather reserved, and her hair was a coppery gold. She was rather plump, weighing about 150 pounds or more.” Elizabeth did not agree with those who did not like Whitman, saying that she was neither stuck up nor red-headed. She recalled that her cleaned clothes had made her feel “prim and presentable” until she saw how Helen Meek, another of Whitman's young charges, was “so neatly dressed and with such pretty clothes.” Elizabeth also recalled their first dinner with the Whitmans – baked pork and lady finger potatoes – and that Dr. Whitman was genial and kindly while making clear that Narcissa was the disciplinarian. They lived there for more than three years; Elizabeth states that the children were adopted by the Whitmans (in written form, as official as the process could be in that unorganized territory), and she thus criticized “so-called historians who dispute this because we cannot produce written papers of adoption.”[6]

In 1847, tensions between the Whitmans and the Cayuse—Indigenous residents of the area—boiled over. Motivated by general trends, such as disease outbreaks and encroaching settlers, as well as more specific grievances, like the Whitmans’ refusal to pay for their land and the murder of a chief’s son, the Cayuse attacked the mission; they killed fourteen people, including Marcus, Narcissa, and the two Sager boys.[7] The Cayuse took fifty-four women and children for ransom, among them Matilda, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Louise Sager—the latter of whom died of measles during their captivity.[8] Elizabeth gave an eyewitness account of the attack and of the survivors’ month-long captivity at the Mansion House. She described sleeping outside the mill where she had dug a hole in a straw stack; she covered the opening with a blanket so that she and Eliza Spaulding could “be out of the wind.”[9] Elizabeth also witnessed the violent death of her fellow captives at the hands of the Cayuse leader Edward Telekaut, who beat Amos Sales and Crockett Bewley to death as they lay sick in their beds.

Elizabeth was one of forty-two children living at or near the mission when the violence erupted. She noted that twenty-seven of the survivors were housed at the Mansion House, eighteen in the Whitman home, thirteen at the sawmill, and the rest in the remaining buildings.[10] Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson’s Bay Company came to the captives’ rescue; he traded 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 captives, who were brought to Fort Vancouver and released. After their liberation from the Whitman Mission, several families shuffled the surviving Sager children amongst themselves, none of them with either the means or the desire to keep them together. Elizabeth lived and worked for brief periods in the homes of Gov. George Abernethy, William Johnson, the Robbs, the W. H. Willson family, and the Reverend J. L. Parrish; she even worked in her sister Catherine’s house that she shared with her husband, Clark Pringle. Elizabeth married William Helm in the summer after her eighteenth birthday, and her father-in-law Reverend William Helm gifted the couple a piece of land near the Looney Ranch, twelve miles outside of Salem. They stayed there just a year and spent the next forty-two years working other farms and ranches in Oregon, namely near Lebanon, Prineville, and The Dalles. They had nine children together. Elizabeth moved to Portland after her husband’s death in 1915, where she continued to live until her own passing on 19 July 1925.

Although she stayed with the Spalding family for a short time after leaving the Whitman Mission, the young Matilda later came to live in the home of William Geiger, a newly-married doctor who ran his household with “strict and severe discipline.” When Geiger “caught the gold fever,” he left his family with the Reverend J. A. Cornwall. At the Cornwall farm, Matilda spent the winter “pulling the wool from dead sheep that had frozen to death from lack of attention and [washing] it in the creek. …Washing the dirt and grease out of the wool in the ice cold water, was a heart-breaking job.” Matilda had little choice in the matter, for Mr. Geiger had left them without any money, and his wife used the wool to knit socks that she sold to miners for one dollar per pair.[11]

While living with the Geigers, Matilda received little opportunity to gain a formal education. She spent two three-month terms at a school in Forest Grove run by Cushing Eells and worked for her board when the school moved to a new location in nearby Hillsboro. Fifteen-year-old Matilda married Lewis Hazlitt on 5 June 1855. The couple moved to California where they prospered in cattle and farming near Henley (Cottonwood), a popular trading center for the mines. Their good fortune did not last long, however – the harsh winter of 1862–63 decimated the Hazlitt’s livestock and, in the spring, Lewis lost his life after a three-year battle with cancer. Matilda was a widow with five children at the age of twenty-four. She had a small piece of land, seventy-five head of cattle, and a productive garden and orchard. Matilda also worked as a laundress to make ends meet.

Matilda married her second husband in 1865. He was a partner of her first husband and had helped Matilda care for her homestead in the years since his death. They had three daughters together. In 1882 they sold the farm in Henley and moved to Farmington, Washington, where they invested in a hotel and eventually added to their portfolio a furniture store, livery stable, and an undertaking business. Within a year, however, Matthew’s death left Matilda widowed for the second time. David Delaney, prosperous and prominent in his own right, sought Matilda’s hand and they married in 1889.

Around that time, a proposal surfaced to remove the victims’ remains from the Whitman Mission to Whitman College. Matilda, writing to the Walla Walla Journal, called this an “act of vandalism.”[12] That their brothers’ ashes had comingled with the Whitmans' in their shared grave meant that the Sager sisters should have at the least been consulted on the matter; Matilda was satisfied, however, in 1897 when the anniversary observations included the memorialization of the remains at the site of the old mission—where she believed they belonged. Matilda’s rheumatism grew increasingly bothersome as she aged and, while on a trip to Lewiston, she learned that her hotel and all her possessions had burned in a fire. She lived out her years in the care of her children, spending the last days of her life at the home of her youngest daughter in Reseda, California. She died there on 13 April 1928, the last of the seven Sagers.

Elizabeth and Matilda Sager experienced a harrowing journey on the Oregon Trail that fractured their family; afterward, they faced unimaginable trauma at Waiilatpu. Their recorded memories provide a unique insight into the journey of a single emigrant family from the perspectives of two children. Yet Elizabeth and Matilda’s lives diverged drastically after their shared suffering. Elizabeth remained in Oregon, married, and—relative to Matilda—thrived as a result of her education and the networks she developed within her community. Poverty and lack of education characterized what remained of Matilda’s childhood and she was often distant from her two sisters after moving to California when she married. To be sure, though, the memory of the trail and the events of 1847 kept the two sisters linked as they sought to reconcile personal memories with public memorialization in the decades following their journey.

[1] Part of a 2016–2018 collaborative project of the National Trails- National Park Service and the University of New Mexico’s Department of History, “Student Experience in National Trails Historic Research: Vignettes Project” [Colorado Plateau Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (CPCESU), Task Agreement P16AC00957]. This project was formulated to provide trail partners and the general public with useful biographies of less-studied trail figures—particularly African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, women, and children. Thank you to the Oregon-California Trails Association for providing review of draft essays.

[2] The event is commonly known as the “Whitman massacre,” but the alternate phrasing used here—“the incident at Waiilatpu”—is meant to encourage a more balanced view of the relationship between the Whitmans and their Indigenous neighbors.

[3] Fred Lockley and Mike Helm, Conversations with Pioneer Women (Eugene, Oreg.: Rainy Day Press, 1981), 48.

[4] Lockley and Helm, Conversations, 46–47.

[5] Ibid, 46–47.

[6] Lockley and Helm, Conversations, 49–51. The adoption papers were published in Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 11, no. 3 (1910): 312­–13.

[7] A measles outbreak amongst the area’s Indigenous peoples is often cited as the conflict’s sole catalyst, when in fact a variety of factors provoked the violence at the mission. Stafford Hazelett, correspondence with National Trails staff, 5 July 2018.

[8] During Lockley's interview, Elizabeth states that—in the chaotic melee that ensued—her sister was forgotten and died as a result of neglect; she does not mention the captivity. Lockley and Helm, Conversations, 45.

[9] Lockley and Helm, Conversations, 57.

[10] Lockley and Helm, Conversations, 59. The figures are Lockley’s personal notes and research rather than the recollections of Elizabeth and Matilda Sager.

[11] Erwin N. Thompson, Shallow Grave at Waiilatpu: The Sagers’ West (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1973), 146–47.

[12] Thompson, Shallow Grave, 153.

Part of a series of articles titled People of the Oregon Trail.

Oregon National Historic Trail

Last updated: March 9, 2023