Sunday, February 12, 2012

Seven Alone---the movie vs. the grim reality

The movie Sager family...

...and the real Sager family.

Well, okay, about the movie Seven Alone, the G-rated movie my school went to see in the mid '70s:

It was based loosely on a true story. I quickly looked at Netflix and for information. One of the descendants of the kids the story was about had posted comments about it.

I didn't remember the movie that well. But in the film, the seven Sager kids are orphaned, then apparently make their way on to Oregon by themselves. They had a chance to stay the winter at a fort along the way, but instead they trudge, Donner Party-like, through the snow covered mountains and go down a river on a crude raft they put together. I remember none of this---I was just looking at stills from the movie.

But Wikipedia had what I assume was a more accurate account of what actually happened.

In real life, the father didn't kill any Indians and he didn't die of blood poisoning after being injured by Indians. He died of "camp fever" (typhus) in Wyoming. The mother had been weakened by childbirth and died along the way in Idaho. The children were sent to live in the Whitman mission near what is now Walla Walla, Washington. They lived with the Whitmans, a doctor and his wife. They were Protestant missionaries. This was in the 1840s.

One of the Sager girls died of Measles in an epidemic that wiped out half of the Cayuse Indians---for them, it was worse than the Black Death had been in Europe. Nearly all the Cayuse children died. The Cayuse were unhappy with the influx of white settlers, they blamed Dr Whitman for the deaths from Measles, and, reportedly, the competing Catholic missionaries as well as a local trouble-maker named Lewis who hoped to loot the Whitman's mission spread the rumor among the Indians that the doctor had, in fact, been spreading the disease and poisoning the Indians.

The Cayuse Indians massacred the Whitman mission. The two Sager boys, who by then would have been about 15 and 16, were killed. Mrs Whitman was shot in chest by Lewis then lured outside and shot some more. Dr Whitman was killed rather horribly.

The Sager girls were taken away by the Indians and eventually ransomed. They were then split up and sent to live different families. They all married young and had way too many children. Here's a picture of the three surviving Sager girls fifty years later in 1897.
Much of this was detailed in Ken Burns' documentary, The West.

There are limits to what you can do in a modestly budgeted movie, but they could have pulled it off.

Look at the movie Meek's Cutoff, set around the same time in the 1840s. Meek himself had a niece who survived the Whitman Massacre but died in capitivity a short time later. In the movie, wagon train takes a different route called "Meek's Cutoff" to avoid the Cayuse Indians.

Of course, the true story of the Sager kids wouldn't have been much of a G-rated family film. So the makers of Seven Alone added the casual killing of Indians, made the murdering racist Kit Carson a character, had the kids, including a baby, trudge off alone across the snow covered Rocky Mountains which they would never have survived; they showed the father killing a man, and had Pat Boone sing the theme song. That was their idea of wholesome family fare.


Anonymous said...

I think you mean one of their descendants commented on it:

"One of the ancestors of the kids the story was about had posted comments about it."

I have a very vague memory of seeing a short doco on this story several decades ago, haven't seen the movie but the true story would not have made a G-rated movie. Yes, interesting how they dressed it up to make it more "family-friendly"!

Waldo Scott said...

Oh, yes, descendants, of course.

There--I'll correct it.


Misty Waters-Harvey said...

I have just purchased this movie at my local Dollar General store for $2.95! It also had two more movies on the disk. Where the red fern grows and The proud rebel all the original movies!! Just wanted to share the good fortune!

Waldo Scott said...

"Where the Red Fern Grows" and "Seven Alone" were from the same producers and starred the same kid. I saw a recent interview with him. For scenes where he was running around barefoot, he put duct tape on the soles of his feet.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned the setting of Meek's Cutoff. Don't you mean 1840s instead of 1940s?

I don't remember seeing the movie, just reading the novelization (probably in the 80s). Personally, the thing that struck me about it was John's character arc. IIRC, he started out being irresponsible and rebellious and ended up getting everything on his shoulders.

I don't know if the movie managed to cover that or not, but I honestly thought it was the main thrust of the story, and a pretty interesting one at that (probably because I was close to that age.)

Not sure the movie deserved this much of a slam. This WAS the 70's, after all, and at least it was attempting to hit history in SOME way, which is more than I can say for anything G-rated these days. All you get now are feel-good cartoons.

Waldo Scott said...

Yes, I did mean the 1840s. It's corrected now. Thank you.

You're probably right. Most people who saw the movie as kids seemed to like it.

I saw it with my school when I was in the 6th grade. I remember being surprised that you could show Indians being killed in a G-rated movie or than anyone would want to. I liked movie violence, but I rooted for the Indians.