Faith Gong: American orphans

Our children had some friends over this past weekend, and they decided to embark on an outdoor adventure. The negotiations, as I overheard them, went something like this:

“Let’s pretend we’re on the Oregon Trail!”

“YES!”

“And also, some of us could be runaway slaves.”

"Okay, that works; that was around the same time.”

“I’ll be the Quaker person helping the slaves escape.”

“And also, we’re orphans….”

If they hadn’t been so insistent on historical accuracy, I’m pretty sure they would’ve added a couple of Jews fleeing the Nazis for good measure — they’ve played that before. (Jewish orphans, of course.)

I’m not entirely sure why children love playing at being orphans in perilous situations, but I know the attraction extends far beyond my own children. In fact, I remember loving a good orphan make-believe session myself; for at least a year of my own childhood, my friends and I pretended to be inmates in Miss Hannigan’s orphanage from the musical Annie.

Part of the appeal must lie in the sense of independence and courage that comes from imagining facing dangers alone, without the safety net of parents. In this way, games of “orphans in trouble” actually prepare our children for the reality of the world beyond childhood. The world can be a big and scary place, after all, and regardless of whether our parents are still alive, most of us have the sense at one time or another that we are on our own.

My daughters have been studying the Oregon Trail in history this month. As part of this unit, I read them a book called The Stout-Hearted Seven: Orphaned on the Oregon Trail by Neta Lohnes Frazier. Based on the title alone, I figured this book would dovetail nicely with my daughters’ obsession with orphans in peril. And since it was geared towards children, I also figured it would end with those stout-hearted orphans triumphing over the odds to arrive in Oregon.

The Stout-Hearted Seven is a true story, based upon the firsthand account by Catherine Sager of her family’s experience traveling the Oregon Trail. The Sager family set out from Missouri in 1844. Given the spoiler subtitle Orphaned on the Oregon Trail, my daughters knew that Mama and Papa were destined to kick the bucket from the start, and this created a great deal of excitement for the first half of the book. Whenever the family had to ford a dangerous river, or their covered wagon overturned on an embankment, my daughters would perk up and ask, “Is this when the parents die?!?” After this build-up, they were disappointed when Papa and Mama succumbed in the end to “camp fever.”

“That’s so boring!” they groaned.

As it turned out, the second half of the book contained enough bloodshed to make up for Papa and Mama’s lackluster deaths.

The seven Sager children were between the ages of three months and thirteen years when they were orphaned. They were cared for by other members of the wagon train until they reached the Whitman Mission in the Walla Walla Valley, where Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, provided medical care and schooling to the local native tribes and respite for the settlers passing through on the way to Oregon. The Whitmans adopted the Sager children, which was a temporary happy ending: In 1847, members of the Cayuse tribe attacked the Whitman Mission, angered by the encroachment of the settlers on their land and a measles epidemic that was decimating their population. Fourteen people were murdered in the “Whitman Massacre,” including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the two oldest Sager boys. Another Sager daughter died of measles in captivity in the days following the massacre.

The four surviving Sager daughters did make it to Oregon at last; orphaned a second time, they were split between various settler families and never lived together as a family again.

As the final sentence faded into the air, I tried in vain to remember where I’d seen this book recommended for an elementary American history curriculum.

“That’s so sad!” moaned one of my daughters. “The moral of that story is: Don’t leave Missouri!”

The question of whether the Sagers — and others like them — should have left Missouri is a big one; not just for my daughters, but for the arc of American history. Why would you leave your home for such an uncomfortable and perilous trek into the unknown? What kind of person does something like that? And what does it say about a country that was founded by people who did just that — a country that has made such adventurous risk-taking the stuff of legend?

“You’d have to be a little bit crazy to make that trip,” one of my daughters mused.

“We’ve gotten wimpy,” another added.

It bears considering, this issue of what our country once was — or thought it was — and what it is now. Is the story of the Sager orphans a triumph of the human spirit, or a needless tragedy? It could be either, depending on how you read it. Have we gotten wimpy, and is that a bad thing? Or does some of that pioneer spirit live on in the descendants of the original American pioneers, albeit channeled towards different frontiers?

I’m not sure that my daughters inherited much of that pioneer spirit from their ancestors. After all, their ancestors, who came from both Europe and China, stopped at the coast. They planted themselves in New England and California and stayed; none of them felt the need to move on to Missouri, let alone cross the entire continent.

Still, my children pack pretzels, apple slices, and a walkie-talkie into a backpack and set out with their friends across our snowy back field into the woods. For an afternoon, at least, they are orphans alone.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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