We Who Survived -17 - Visit to the Sager Sisters part 1
May 15, 1881
My last leg of my journey is to go to see the Sager sisters at Prineville. I took a train from Walla Walla to Richmond and rented a horse from a livery stable there to ride the last few miles of the journey.
On this last leg, I am visiting with Mr. and Mrs. Pringle, Mr. and Mrs. Helm, and Mr. and Mrs. Cason. Mrs. Fultz didn't manage to make the meeting. After dinner, the men went outside leaving me to carry on my reminiscences with the women.
What I really wanted to find out more about the personalities of the Whitmans, from those who knew them best and whether that might have had some effect on the Indians turning against them. As we gathered together in the front room after coffee, I posed the question to them. Catherine started us off.
“The Indians didn't really understand Mother Whitman. They didn't understand her ideas of
hospitality. When Mrs. Whitman took a little Indian boy into her home, his relatives, who had abandoned him, believed that such generosity should have extended to them. But she didn't want his grandmother, who had refused to keep him, visiting him and upsetting him.”
Elizabeth said, “I must say she was certainly very loving of the half-breeds that she agreed happily to care for. The little boy that Catherine mentioned came one morning just after we had done some reading for Mother. Two native women came in and asked her to take him. He was about four, nearly naked, and they said his mother had thrown him away and gone off with another Indian. His father, a Spaniard was in the mountains. The boy had been living with his grandmother the winter past,
and she was old and had no compassion for him. His mother had several others by different white men, and one by an Indian, who were treated miserably and scarcely were subsisting The next day, after conferring with the Doctor, Mother Whitman agreed to take him. The care of such a child was very great as he was dirty, covered with body and head lice and starved. Before he came his hair was cut close to his head and a strip as wide as your finger was shaved from ear to ear, and
also from his forehead to his neck, crossing the other at right angles. This the boys had done to make him look ridiculous. He had a burn on his foot where they said he had been pushed into the fire for the purpose of gratifying their malicious feelings, and because he was friendless.”
Catherine said, “Helen was there when we came, but apparently she had been in the same condition when she was taken in, and it was a long and tedious task to change her habits, young as she
was, only two. She was so stubborn and fretful and wanted to cry all the time if she could not have her own way. But, Mary Ann Bridger was of a mild disposition and easily governed and made little trouble. To avoid them becoming influenced by the Indians, Mother Whitman kept them in the house most of the time so she made them some rag babies to play with so they wouldn't go for the Indian children's dolls which were carried on a back board. They caressed the rag babies and carried them about everywhere.”
Elizabeth put in, “I remember when we first arrived, how much care Mother took of our baby, who was only just alive, sick, emaciated. The old woman who cared for her on the trail had done the
best that she could. Mother Whitman particularly wanted the baby, more than the rest of us, because she said she was like a charm, and she would bind the family together. She gave her some milk, and put her in a cradle, which because she wasn't used to so much, she vomited up. But then she gave her some warm water, and cleaned her up, put fresh new clothes on her, and she had a fine nap. It was a long time before she was well enough to drink milk full strength. And eventually with her loving care, our baby, then called Henrietta Naomi after our parents, became strong, healthy and full of mischief, with a disposition to have her own way.”
Both the Sager sisters were becoming rather saddened by remembering their now dead sister, so I decided to change the subject somewhat. I asked whether the Indians had ever had any frightening
confrontations with the Whitmans before the massacre.
“I remember Father telling about the time when there were complaints about Mr. Gray who the Indians felt had done something unseemly on a Sunday, and were upset that Father didn't turn him out of his house. Father disagreed strongly with Tiloukaikt who then took hold of Father's ear and pulled it and struck him on the breast ordering him to hear. When he let go Father turned the other ear to him and he pulled that over and over, then he pulled off his hat and threw it into the mud, and this again was done over and over again, each time more violently and Father got muddier and wetter. After that they all went home but on the Sabbath all came to worship as usual.”
Elizabeth continued, “Do you remember, Catherine, that time when the Indians were talking with Father in the kitchen (where they were allowed to go) and other Indians were pounding on the
windows in the dining room, threatening Mother with a hammer, and another was trying to open yet another door? Father pushed them all out and locked the kitchen door, but waited, hoping the Chief would restore order. But they came with an ax and held it to his collar, and struck him with a fist in the mouth and tore his clothes. He just managed to duck a blow with a club being leveled at his head. And yet, Father was laughing as he was telling us all these things, saying the Indians made fun of him, saying he was not afraid of death, that he was challenging the Indians to kill him. But he said, 'I don't want to die, and I don't want to have pain inflicted on me, but I wanted to prove to them my point – which was that they were not welcome to make free of my house.'”
I asked, “Did Mrs. Whitman ever have any dealings of a medical nature with the Indians? I understand that Dr. Whitman was often away.”
Catherine replied, “In the Doctor's absence Mother Whitman was their physician. One day while in the midst of housecleaning, an Indian woman came rushing in and wanted her to go to her lodge, where her husband had reportedly just died. It was raining very hard and the ground was covered with water; but without hesitation she threw on her shawl and accompanied the woman to her
lodge about half a mile away. Arriving at the lodge, she found the Indian not dead but having the same disease as a man that the Doctor had just cured on the Umatilla. Returning to her house, she procured the necessary medicine and selected some tea, sugar and other things for the sick man. She returned to their lodge and soon had the satisfaction of seeing him much better. He finally recovered.”
Elizabeth added, “You're talking about Nicholas Finley. She should have let him die. It was at his lodge where the Indians afterward met in council to deliberate on the death of Father. I’m not saying he participated in the massacre, but I'm pretty sure he knew it was going to happen, and he didn't do anything to stop it.”
I then asked, “What were the Indians like with other white people?”
Catherine said, “Well I can remember when Mr. Kane, the artist came and wanted to sketch some of the Indians. Father Whitman took him to their lodges and sort of introduced him to the place, and then left him in peace to do his drawings. He told us about it afterwards.
“Tomahas sat sullenly, brooding without attention to Mr. Kane. When the sketch was finished Tomahas came to life and demanded to see it. Enraged, and suspecting that Kane was going to give the likeness to Father Whitman, he tried to throw it in the fire. After a struggle, Kane rescued his sketch, mounted his horse and fled the village.”
“Mr. Kane came back to Waiilatpu and argued the danger with Father Whitman for nearly an hour without results. He declined the invitation to go to the fort and stated that he had lived so long among the Cayuse that he felt no danger from them.”
So I put in, “So you don't think the Whitmans really seriously suspected that the Indians were planning to kill them?”
Catherine said, “There were so many things that were working against us at that time. The weather had been so awful, and it had been awful the year before as well, so the crops had not grown
well. I can remember him saying, 'We are not likely to be as well off for provisions this season as usual. The people who stop here are the poor people - those that are not able to get or pay for what they need - judging from the past; and connected with this, is a disposition not to work, at any rate, not more than they can help.”
I couldn't help myself here. “We weren't like that – poor and unable and predisposed not to work. We worked darn hard.”
She continued, “Mother thought the poor Indians were amazed at the overwhelming numbers of Americans coming into the country. They seemed not to know what to make of it. They were
willing to have them spend the winter here, but in the spring wanted them to go on.”
“Changing the subject slightly, I wonder why the Indians were so convinced that they were being
poisoned. Was it just the matter that more of them had died than you?” I asked.
“I have heard,” said Catherine, “that in order to satisfy any doubt on that point, they requested
the Doctor to administer medicine to three of their friends, two of whom were really sick, but the third only feigned illness, and that all three were corpses next morning.”
“I heard the priests told them to do that test,” put in Mary.
“And I heard that the teacher, Mr. Rodgers was accused of saying that poison was intended. What is your thinking about that?”
“If he did so, it would have been to save us. We loved Mr. Rodgers. He played the violin and sang. Together Mother Whitman and Mr. Rodgers sang many a duet to the delight of us all. He
taught the children to sing and formed a choir for Sunday services.”
“Was he a handsome man?” I asked.
Catherine described him as "a young man of about twenty-five, tall and slender, with a thin, sallow complexion, denoting bad health. His hair was sandy from which he derived his Indian name, Hushus Muk Muk which means Yellow Head. His health improved and stayed good and eventually he quit as teacher at mission in order to continue his ministry studies.”
“Do you think that Mrs. Whitman actually liked the Indians? There seems to be all sorts of comments made of how she almost loathed them.”
“She felt that they put upon the white people. I can remember her saying that the moment you do the Cayuse a favor you place yourself under lasting obligations to them and must continued
to give in order to keep their love strong towards you,” said Elizabeth, “and she resented that.”
“What sort of mother was she to you girls? What sorts of things did you do together?”
“We spent a lot of the time bathing at the river in the summer, and I can remember her telling people that we would as soon do without our dinner as go without. that. She never gave us children candies or sweetmeats. But she taught us sewing, read with us, and took us on nature walks.”
“Do you think she was worried that the Indians would do something desperate before long?”
“They both hoped that the Indians would be quiet. Their main emphasis was on the travellers and giving them shelter over the winter, and this took resources, which the Indians resented as it left less for them. Father said he hoped for no acts of violence, but Mother expected problems I think,” said Catherine.
“Do you think they really did put the emigrants' needs before the ones of the Indians deliberately?”
“I can remember her saying, 'Settlers are coming like a flood and every one needs the gospel as much as the heathen.'
And Elizabeth added, “Father said, 'I have no doubt our greatest work is to be of aid to the white settlement of this country and help to found its religious institutions. Although the Indians have made and are making rapid advances in religious knowledge and civilization, yet it cannot be hoped that time will be allowed to mature either the work of Christianization or civilization before the white settlers will demand the soil. Progress of white civilization is inexorable, progress is part of a divine plan.'”
“So he felt the white population were more worthy of his time and the land.”
“Yes, I think he did.”
“Was he worried about the idea that Te-wats were killed if their patients died?”
“I can remember him telling us about what happened a few years before we got there. Umtippe got in a rage about his wife who was his patient and told him, that if his wife died that night he should kill him. Thank God none of them died to whom medicine was administered on that occasion.”
Catherine put in, “You say that you wonder if Father Whitman intended to leave Waiilatpu. I think he perceived the gathering storm but thought it could be averted till after the winter. Thomas McKay warned him that it was unsafe to live longer with the Cayuse, and Fsather offered to sell the property to him, an offer which McKay agreed to accept if he could dispose of his claim on the
Elizabeth added, “No wonder Father got all upset when he heard that the Catholics were planning to make headquarters for themselves at Waiilatpu. He had just made arrangements to abandon all
he had accomplished by eleven years of self-denial and labor, and here he found those to whom he attributed his misfortunes ready to take his place even before he had left it. He angrily told the
priests his opinion of their conduct.” (to be continued)