Meet Ezra Meeker, the 76-year old who saved the Oregon Trail from disappearing

Meeker PortraitThe date was November 29, 1907. Ezra Meeker, a slight, elderly fellow whose unkempt beard was full of dust from the road, was waiting in the cabinet room of the White House for President Theodore Roosevelt. Just one month shy of his 77th birthday, Meeker had arrived in Washington DC by ox-drawn covered wagon all the way from Washington State. A man on a mission, he had already come a very long way. And he had even further yet to go.

Meeker was born on December 29, 1830 in Butler County, Ohio into a family of pioneer farmers. Moving west as the country expanded, the Meeker family relocated to Attica, Indiana in 1839, Meeker later stating that as a young lad of nine he walked the 200 mile trip beside the family’s wagon. In Indiana he would receive minimal schooling, around four months all told, preferring work to school. One of his more memorable jobs was as a printer’s “devil” (assistant on the printing press, paper deliverer, and all around errand boy) for a Free Soil newspaper. One of the clients Meeker remembers bringing the paper to was Henry Ward Beecher who later would become famous for his abolitionist church in Brooklyn (as well as more notorious personal scandals).[1]

In 1851, at 21 years old and newly married, Meeker and his wife, Eliza Jane, decided to leave their parents’ farms and head west to Iowa to look for a farm of their own. One Iowa winter was enough to convince the young couple that the Midwest was not for them and in 1852, now with a seven-week old baby boy, Ezra and Eliza Jane loaded up a covered wagon and set out on the Oregon Trail.

They would settle in a small town south of Seattle called Puyallup, at the time in the Oregon Territory but shortly to be included in the new state of Washington. Meeker would try his hand at many carriers, everything from longshoreman to lumberjack, shopkeeper to town mayor. His most successful venture would come as a farmer. Beginning in the 1860’s Meeker grew hops and by the 1890’s was known as the “Hops King of the World”. Disaster would strike in 1891 when a blight of aphids wiped out the hops crop in the Northwest, sending Meeker back to square one. Despite financial setbacks Meeker maintained a heavy interest in local affairs, advocating for schools, libraries, and roads in Puyallup, as well as serving as president of the Washington Historical Society.[2]

By 1905 Meeker was becoming increasingly concerned at the rapid disappearance of the Oregon Trail. Despite being the route of the single largest land migration in human history the Trail was never marked and by the turn of the century was in danger of being wiped away by farms, railroads, and the passage of time. Meeker’s idea was two-fold. One the one hand, he wanted to mark the trail, to officially lay down the route and memorialize all those who travelled it to expand the nation as well as those thousands who died in the attempt. He also felt that the Trail had not outlived its usefulness and wanted to encourage the construction of a national highway along it.

To these ends he came up with a plan. He would, at 76 years of age, construct a “prairie schooner”, a covered wagon like the one he and so many others drove West, and would travel the length of the Trail from west to east, planting markers along the way and raising support for the Trail’s preservation. He probably knew it sounded silly, but he was a very effective promoter and speaker and knew that the sight of a bearded old man in a covered wagon would get people interested. In each town he visited he would encourage people to form a committee for the installation of a stone monument to both mark the trail and honor those who braved it.Camp No. 1

It sounds daft, and most thought it was (a church trustee in Portland wouldn’t allow Meeker to give a lecture at the church saying he “did not want to do anything to encourage that old man to go out on the plains and die!”[2]) but that didn’t stop Meeker. Money was an issue, Meeker not having much left from his “Hops King” days, but he was able to raise the seed money from friends. Covered wagons were no longer being built, but he was able to gather a large number of parts (including a wheel hub from a wagon that traveled the trail in 1853[1]) and had a local carpenter construct a wagon for him. A pair of oxen, Dave and Twist, were acquired from local stockyards. Camping out on his front lawn, what he referred to as “Camp No. 1”, Meeker made his final preparations. On January 26, 1906 Meeker headed east with Dave, Twist, a driver he hired to help on the trip, and a collie named Jim.[1]Team Picture

The first few towns he visited were encouraging and although he couldn’t stay to see permanent monuments installed citizens assured him they would do so. The first monument Meeker dedicated himself came at Tenino, Washington on February 21, with the whole town turning out for the ceremony.[2] The further down the Trail Meeker progressed the more the newspapers took notice, word spreading about his mission until a pattern began to form in the Trail towns. Hearing he was coming, and anxious to hear from the old man in the ox-drawn wagon, towns would form monument committees on their own so they could have a chiseled stone or granite monument ready to dedicate when Meeker arrived. He especially encouraged schoolchildren to get involved, feeling that the children were the ones who would ultimately be responsible for the Trail’s preservation.

Dedicating Monument at The Dalles
One of the first monuments Meeker dedicated.  His original oxen are front and center, Dave on the left and Twist on the right.

In Pendleton, Oregon Meeker purchased a small camera so that he could document the trip.[1] During breaks out on the trail (referred to as “nooning”) Meeker would write about the previous day, planning to have a book published about what was now known as “The Old Oregon Trail Expedition” as soon as possible to offset costs. During the early stretches of the trip Meeker and his driver, William Marden, didn’t eat very well for lack of funds, but once the book and postcards were available to be sold their situation improved.[2]

Ezra Meeker #13
Scenes along the Trail
Nooning
Meeker writing in his journal during a break along the Trail

Throughout the trip Meeker was hard at work. When he wasn’t writing or lecturing, he was driving wooden stakes along the Trail to mark it, planning to set more permanent markers later on. One of his biggest challenges came on August 9, near Brady Island, Nebraska when Twist, by far the more congenial of his two oxen, suddenly took sick and died. Meeker believed he had eaten some poisonous weeds. Unable to pull the wagon with just one ox, Meeker initially made a deal with a local farmer to use a horse team but it was a short-term solution. For a while the wagon was pulled by rotating in one of a pair of large cows, the other cow walking behind. Finally, at a stockyard in Omaha, Meeker found a four-year old ox capable of pulling the wagon with Dave. Meeker named the steer Dandy. Together Dave and Dandy would carry Meeker for four years.Ox and Cow Team

In Lincoln, NE Meeker had his book published, calling it “Ox Team, or The Old Oregon Trail 1852-1906”. He also contracted with the William-Haffner Company, a local printer, to have his photographs turned into postcards he could sell.[2] On January 7, 1907 Meeker reached Indianapolis, Indiana, eleven months and 2,600 miles away from Puyallup. He had installed, or arranged to be installed, 19 stone monuments, inscribed 12 boulders, placed 100 temporary wooden stakes along the Trail, and spoken to over 20,000 people.[2] But he wasn’t done yet.

Meeker knew that the only way to get a national highway or widespread preservation effort off the ground was to have the ear of the federal government. He could make a beeline for Washington DC but wouldn’t arrive until after the current congressional session was out and it would be December before the next one. Rather than sit around and wait he chose to stay on the road, touring his wagon though Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey on his way to DC.

By June, 1907 the rig had made it as far as Buffalo, NY. Meeker took the train ahead to New York City to make preparations to take the wagon out to Oyster Bay, Long Island, where he heard President Theodore Roosevelt would be. When asked about the Expedition Meeker replied “I am in no hurry. A large project like this cannot be rushed to completion. But steady application should have the desired effect, since the object is obviously a worthy one.”[3] Meeker was also in contact with the New York City mayor’s office to make sure there would be no difficulty about bringing his wagon into the city.

To make the trip through upstate New York easier Meeker used the Erie Canal towpath, only occasionally running into mules and canal boats. In one particularly colorful incident a trio of men demanded that Marden take the rig off the towpath and that if he didn’t “they would do it quick enough”. To defend himself Marden grabbed Meeker’s old muzzle-loading rifle to use as a club and called to Jim, the dog, to grab one of the assailants. Upon seeing the gun the men backed down, crying “Don’t shoot!”, not realizing Marden meant to used it as a blunt instrument. As Meeker later wrote “The fun of it was that the gun that had spread such consternation hadn’t been loaded for more than twenty-five years. The sight of it alone was enough for the three stalwart braves of the canal.”[1]

Meeker had been given assurance by the acting mayor of New York City that he would permitted to bring his wagon into the city, but for whatever reason beat cops of the NYPD didn’t get the instructions. On August 20 Meeker had made it as far south as 161st Street on Amsterdam Avenue when a “zealous young patrolman” ordered Marden to take the rig to the nearest police station. Meeker had gone around the corner to engage a stable and lodgings for the night and returned to the wagon to find Marden under arrest and the patrolman trying his darndest to move the oxen, who “simply gazed at him in blank amazement.” As Meeker would write “Another patrolman tried to coax me to drive the team down to the police station. I said, ‘No sir, I will not.’ He couldn’t drive the team to the station, and I wouldn’t, and so there we were.” A police captain arrived shortly and, seeing as it was the only way to get oxen off the street, released Marden, telling him and Meeker to drive to the stable they had arranged for.[1][4]

The trouble stemmed from an ordinance that forbid the driving of cattle through the streets of New York. Meeker was told he would need another ordinance from the board of aldermen to be able to drive his oxen anywhere in the city (including just leaving the stable) but when the aldermen passed the ordinance the acting mayor was unwilling to approve it until ten days passed. When he did, the city attorney stepped in and said the aldermen had exceeded their authority and could not grant Meeker such a privilege. It took almost a month of bureaucratic wrangling for the powers that be to agree to let Meeker drive his team in the city.[1]

On Wednesday, September 18, 1907 Ezra Meeker drove his covered wagon down the entire span of Broadway, from 161st St. to the Battery.[5] On the way he stopped at several prominent landmarks, including Grant’s Tomb, the Flatiron Building (then called the Fuller Building), Federal Hall, the Barge Office, and Castle Garden. He also made a trip over the Brooklyn Bridge and had his picture taken with the statue of Henry Ward Beecher, his old newspaper customer from Indiana.

Grant's Tomb
Meeker in front of the tomb of General Ulysses S. Grant, present-day Riverside Park
Madison Square
In Madison Square.  The Fuller Building (today called the Flatiron Building) in the background.
Washington's Statue
In front of Federal Hall on Wall Street
Barge Office
In front of the Barge Office.  Located at the southern end of Manhattan, the Barge Office stood at the eastern end of Battery Park.
Beecher Statue
In Brooklyn’s Borough Hall Park in front of the statue of Meeker’s former newspaper customer Henry Ward Beecher.  The statue still stands, today located in Cadman Plaza.

Meeker was unable to see Roosevelt while in New York, but that was no never-mind to him. He was heading for Washington, and was determined to speak with the President when he got there. He arrived in the capital in November and made arrangements with Washington Senator Piles and Representative Cushman to be introduced to the President.[1]

He met with Roosevelt on November 29, 1907 and read a prepared statement in which he asked for the President’s support to memorialize the Trail and its pioneers and preserve it as a national highway. The President was unsure of the feasibility of a national road because he wasn’t certain the states involved would all agree, but told Meeker he strongly supported the marking and preserving of the Trail.[6]

When the interview was over the President asked Meeker if he brought his wagon. On hearing it was parked outside Roosevelt “without ceremony, and without his hat … was soon alongside, asking questions faster than they could be answered.” Meeker later wrote that his warm reception from Roosevelt was one of the most rewarding parts of his journey.[1]

Meeting Roosevelt
Outside the White House, Meeker showing President Theodore Roosevelt his wagon rig.

Meeker rode the rig back west, stopping in dozens of cities and towns along the way until he reached St. Joseph, Missouri in May, 1908. He had been away from home almost two and a half years and his wife was in poor health. He opted to take the Oregon Short Line railroad back home.

Still he wasn’t finished and continued in his advocacy of the Trail. Meeker, with Jim, Dave, and Dandy would cross the Trail again in 1910. In 1916 he made another trip over the Trail, this time in an automobile with a custom covered wagon cloth top as part of an agreement with the Pathfinder Company to promote their car. There seems to have been a slight difference of opinion between Meeker and the Company as to the purpose of the journey. Meeker wanted to promote the Trail in much the same way he had been while the Pathfinder Company chided Meeker for failing to stick to a schedule of appearances at Pathfinder dealerships.[2]

In 1923, Meeker met Army Air Corps Lieutenant Oakley Kelly, who had just set the transcontinental speed record in an airplane. In October of the following year Kelly was heading from Seattle to Dayton, Ohio for the International Air Races at Wilbur Wright Field. Meeker applied to the Army for permission to ride with Kelly to the races in his open cockpit biplane. Landing in Dayton on October 4, 1924 Meeker, at 93 years old, said that while “the airplane goes faster … it ain’t in it for fun with an ox team.”[7]

After the Air Races Meeker and Kelly kept on pushing east, stopping next in Washington DC where Meeker met with President Calvin Coolidge regarding the building of a highway along the Trail. The 2,700 mile coast-to-coast trip took Meeker only 23 hours and 30 minutes of flying time.[8]

Meeker would be seen frequently in Washington over the next few years advocating on behalf of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association (OTMA), which he founded in 1922.[2] The organization was primarily concerned with the goals that Meeker had been fighting for for almost 20 years: memorializing those who traveled the Trail, accurately mapping the Trail and its cutoffs, and pushing for a national highway system. Meeker appeared before the House of Representatives’ committee on coinage in 1926 to encourage the passing of a bill for the minting of a half-dollar coin to commemorate those who traveled west on the Trail. The bill passed, and proceeds from the sale of the coins went to OTMA.[9]

Meeker’s tale began to wind down towards the end of 1928. At 97 years of age he was in Detroit, working with Henry Ford and the Ford Company to travel the Trail once more, this time in a converted Model-A. Sadly, Meeker fell ill and spent two months at a Detroit hospital. In late November he had recovered enough to travel and, using rail passage purchased for him by Mr. Ford, Meeker returned home to Washington State. He passed away four days later, on December 3, 1928, just weeks shy of his 98th birthday.[2][10][11] On his gravestone is a large medallion, the design is the obverse of the half-dollar coin Meeker fought for to honor the legacy of those who walked the Trail.

Meeker_grave
The tombstone of Ezra and wife Eliza Jane Meeker in Puyallup, WA.  The medallion is the reverse of the Oregon Trail Commemorative Half-Dollar which Meeker lobbied Congress to create.  (Image: Wehwalt/Wikicommons CC A-SA 3.0)

Others would take up Meeker’s cause. Today people are still fighting to preserve the Oregon Trail, most notably the Oregon-California Trails Association, a successor to Meeker’s Oregon Trail Memorial Association. A national highway wouldn’t come about until after World War II, with the passage of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act in 1956, portions of which follow old sections of the Trail. Many of the original stone Meeker Markers are still standing as well, a testament to the man who set out to preserve the Trail for future generations.

 

 

Images from original Ezra Meeker postcards, except where noted.

Sources:

      1. “Ox-Team Days on the Oregon Trail” by Ezra Meeker
      2. “Ezra Meeker; Champion of the Oregon Trails” by Bert and Margie Webber
      3. New York Tribune, June 12, 1907
      4. New York Tribune, August 21, 1907
      5. New York Tribune, September 19, 1907
      6. New York Tribune, November 30, 1907
      7. New York Tribune, October 5, 1924
      8. Washington Post-Dispatch, November 2, 1924
      9. Washington Post-Dispatch, April 21, 1926
      10. Washington Post-Dispatch, December 4, 1928
      11. New York Evening Sun, December 3, 1928

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