Landmarks: Grave belies author’s fame
A survivor of the Whitman Massacre of 1847 lies buried in Spokane.
Not only was she a survivor of one of the most written-about events in the history of the territory that would become the state of Washington, but she was the author of “Across the Plains in 1844,” an account of her family’s journey across the plains and her life with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman – a work considered by many to be one of the most authentic firsthand descriptions of America’s westward migration.
She is Catherine Sager Pringle, one of the famous Sager children, who were orphaned twice. And if that weren’t improbable enough, she and her sisters were held captive after the massacre and then ransomed; she was 12 at the time.
She was born in Ohio in 1835, the third of seven children of Naomi and Henry Sager, who set out in 1844 with their family and a group of pioneers, called the Independent Colony, heading for the fabled Oregon Territory. By August of that year, their wagon train was struck by an outbreak of camp fever near the Continental Divide. Henry Sager died, followed 26 days later by his wife, who was already weakened from giving birth along the journey, and who, as she lay dying, according to her daughter’s written account, asked that her seven children be delivered to the missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman in the area that is now Walla Walla.
That was the first time the Sager children, ages 4 months to 14 years, were orphaned.
When the Independent Colony reached the Walla Walla Valley, they were left there and adopted by the Whitmans, whose own daughter had died. They had already taken in other children.
There is still controversy over the causes of the Whitman Massacre on Nov. 29, 1847. Measles had run rampant among the American Indian tribes of the area. There was talk that Dr. Whitman failed to care for them as he did his white patients, but evidence of that possibility has been difficult to establish. There certainly was a clash of cultures, and today some revere the Whitmans as pioneer heroes, while others see them as white settlers who imposed their religious views on the Indians.
On that fateful day in 1847, tribal members descended on the Whitman enclave and killed 14 people, including the Whitmans and two of the Sager orphans: John, 17, and Francisco, 15. The remaining five Sager daughters were again orphans. During the several weeks the children were held captive, 6-year-old Hannah Louise Sager died of measles.
Once ransomed, the remaining four Sager sisters were split up and grew up with different families. Rosanna, the baby born along the Oregon Trail, died at age 26, killed by an outlaw. Both Matilda and Elizabeth married, had many children and lived into their 80s. Catherine married Clark S. Pringle and bore him eight children. They lived in Oregon for many years but moved to Spokane in their later years to live with their youngest daughter, Lucia Pringle Collins.
In 1860, Catherine Sager Pringle wrote “Across the Plains in 1844,” in which her accounts of the Sager family’s journey are presented simply and clearly, with particular attention to detail.
For example, she described the moment she and her siblings first saw Narcissa Whitman:
“She was a large, well-formed woman, fair complexioned, with beautiful auburn hair, nose rather large, and large gray eyes. She had on a dark calico dress and gingham sunbonnet. We thought as we shyly looked at her that she was the prettiest woman we had ever seen.”
She had said she hoped to earn enough from her writings to start an orphanage in memory of Narcissa Whitman, but she was not able to find a publisher during her lifetime.
She died in Spokane in 1910 at age 75; her husband died four years later. Marking their graves at Fairmount Memorial Park is a simple granite headstone, about 2 feet tall, on which their names are inscribed. At the bottom is a Bible verse: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
Interestingly, her name on the stone reads Catherine S. Pringle. No one would ever know, just by looking at this monument, exactly who she was and how important her writings were in documenting the Whitman Massacre and America’s move westward.