Transactions of the Third Annual Re-Union of the
Oregon Pioneer Association 1875
by Mrs. F.F. Victor
Joseph L. Meek was born in Washington county, Virginia. He was the son of a planter, and his mother was of good Virginia family - one of the Walker's - and aunt to the wife of President Polk. But unfortunately for her son, this lady died early, and young Joseph was left very much to his own devices, on a plantation where there was nothing for him to do, and little to learn, except such out-door sports as boys delight in. These he enjoyed in the most unrestrained liberty, having for his companions only the children of his father's slaves, towards whom he stood in the relation of master.
Such circumstances would be inimical to habits of mental industry in any case; and the lad found his temptations to a busy idleness so many and strong, that he refused even to avail himself of the little elementary teaching that he might have had on the plantation. His stepmother, for whom he seems to have felt a dislike, either did not, or could not influence him in the direction of study; and it fell out that when he arrived at the age of sixteen years, he was a tall, merry, active boy, who knew hardly as much of spelling and reading as is contained in the child's first primer. Why it was that his father neglected him in so culpable a manner does not appear; but what is evident is, that young Meek was not happy at home, and that his not being so was the cause of his abandoning the plantation when between sixteen and seventeen years of age, and undertaking to enter upon a career for himself. This he did by going to Kentucky, where some relations of his father resided; and, on finding things not to his mind in the new place, finally pushing on to St. Louis, then a mere trading-post on the Missouri frontier, where he arrived in the fall of 1828.
This was the decisive step that colored all his after life. St. Louis was the rendezvous of fur traders, who yearly enlisted new men for service in trapping beaver in the Rocky Mountains. Young Meek offered himself, and though younger than the other recruits, was accepted, on his assurance that he would not shrink from duty, even if that duty should be to fight Indians. The spring of 1829 accordingly found him in the employ of Mr. William Sublette, one of the most enterprising and successful of the fur traders, who annually led a company of men to the mountains, and through them, from summer to winter rendezvous; leaving them the following spring to go to St. Louis for the necessary Indian goods and fresh recruits.
Little did the boy of eighteen realize the fateful step he was taking; that for eleven years he should roam the mountains and plains like an Indian, carrying his life in his hand at every step; that he should marry an Indian woman; and leave a family of half-Indian children in the valley of that far off Oregon, of which then he had hardly ever heard the name. But as man once entered into the service of the fur companies found it nearly impossible to abandon the service, unless he had shown himself cowardly and unfit - in which case he was permitted to return when the trading partner went to St. Louis for goods. A brave and active man was sure to be kept in the Company's debt, or in some other way in its power; so that no opportunity should be afforded of leaving the life he had entered upon however thoughtlessly. Letters were even forbidden to be written or received; lest hearing from home should produce homesickness and disaffection. The service was so full of dangers, that it was estimated fully one-fifth if not one-fourth of the trappers were killed by the Indians, or died by accident and exposure each year.
Yet, with all these chances against him, Meek lived eleven years in the mountains, fighting Indians and wild beasts, with never in all that time a serious wound from Indian arrow or paw of grizzly bear; a fact that illustrates better than any words, the address, quickness and courage of the man. Though often sportively alluding to his own subterfuges to escape from danger, it still remained evident that an awkward, slow or cowardly man could never have resorted to such means. An unusually fine physic, a sunny temper and ready wit, made him a favorite with both comrades and employers, and gave him influence with such Indian tribes as the mountain-men held in friendly relations.
There are certain seasons of the year when either the beaver cannot be taken on account of cold, or when its fur is worth little on account of hot weather. At these seasons, the men had their semi-annual rendezvous - that of winter season being the longest - all of the men going into camp in some part of the country where they could best subsist themselves and their horses. During some of these winter vacations, Meek applied himself to acquiring some knowledge of reading; and as the only authors carried about with the Company's goods, were of the very best - the Bible, Shakespeare, and the standard poets - the effect was to store a mind otherwise empty of learning with some of the finest literature in the English language.
Besides this advantage, Meek had for companions men who had in their youth been educated for a very different life from that they were leading, but who, for one cause and another, had become embittered against society and voluntarily exiled themselves. Others, from a love of adventure had come to the mountains. Only a small proportion were really illiterate men. Besides his companions in camp, Meek quite often was brought into contact with the traveling parties of English noblemen, or of painters and naturalists, who attached themselves for greater safety to the caravan of the fur companies. In this way he was enabled to pick up a fund of miscellaneous knowledge that went far to cover the deficiency of his early education.
About 1839, the beaver had become so scarce from being so long and steadily hunted by the several companies, that it was thought best to disband them. Here was a new phase of the life into which Meek had so thoughlessly been drawn. At twenty-nine, in the very flush of young manhood, to be deserted in the mountains by his employers, was something he had not foreseen. To return to Virginia with an Indian wife and children, was not to be thought of, even if it were possible, as it was not. To remain in the mountains, except by relinquishing forever all thoughts of civilized associations, was equally impossible.
At this juncture, Meek, with several more mountain-men, determined to cast their lot with that of the almost unknown Oregon, then virtually in possession of the Hudson Bay Company; and in 1840, did remove with their families to the Wallamet valley, where at that time very few Americans were living except those connected with the Methodist Mission - few indeed, in all.
In the winter of 1840, Meek selected a land claim in the Tualatin Plains, where he began to farm, the same he afterwards lived upon and where he died, in June, 1875.
From the time that he came to Oregon, until Oregon became a State, Meek was always more or less actively concerned in her affairs. Well acquainted with Indian character, he was useful in maintaining peace with the native tribes. A staunch American, he resisted the encroachments of British authority during the period of joint occupancy of the country. When it was at last thought best to move for the organization of a Provisional Government, he was conspicuously active in calling for an expression of sentiment, heading the American column in his own person. Being made Sheriff under the new government, he performed his duties, not always light ones, with promptitude and spirit. He was twice elected Assemblyman from Washington county, performing his duties with propriety and patriotism, dashed sometimes with the wild humor for which, whether as a mountaineer or a legislator, he was celebrated.
When the massacre of the missionaries and emigrants at Wailatpu, startled all Oregon in 1847, he accepted the toilsome and dangerous duty of messenger to Congress; having to perform the journey overland in the depth of winter, with only two companions, one of whom gave out upon the way. He arrived after much hardship, on the Missouri frontier early in March, without money or decent habiliments, and by his address won his way wherever he appeared until he presented himself, a forlorn messenger indeed, at the door of the White House. During all his subsequent life, he delighted to recall the sensation he was able to produce on being presented to President Polk. No other man in the United States would have thought of standing so entirely on the merits of his cause; or of making his wretchedness a subject of such self-railery as to divert attention from its pitifulness and make it seem only a very good jest. Such was the temperament of the man, that when he chose to be merry - and at his own expense - there was universal enjoyment in beholding it.
Meek remained in Washington, a guest of President Polk, until the passage of the Organic Act, August 14th, 1848. Oregon was by this Act, constituted a Territory of the United States, and it became necessary to appoint its officers as quickly as possible in order that they might reach their field of action before the expiration of Polk's term of office. A commission was given Meek of U.S. Marshal; and he was entrusted with the duty of conveying to Gen. Joseph Lane, his commission as Governor of Oregon, with authority to take an escort of U.S. dragoons from Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory, for their safe conduct across the plains. This was a very different order of travel from that he had pursued six months previous, when he had skulked through a thousand miles of Indian country almost alone, poor, ragged and often in danger of starving, to carry news to the government of the awful straight in which the little American colony in Oregon found itself.
By taking the southern route, or Sante Fe trail, the Oregon Governor and Marshal arrived in California in February, 1849, and in Oregon on the 2d of March, just in time for Lane to be proclaimed Governor of the new territory before the expiration of Polk's term. They found the Indians in a state of armed tranquility, waiting to see what the whites would do further to avenge the murders of Wailatpu. Lane demanded the principal murderers from their thribe, and had them hanged, Meek officiating as executioner - a duty which he performed with less reluctance since one of his own children had been among the victims.
Meek was now at his prime, being about forty years of age; gay, handsome, and of a dignified carriage. He might have been wealthy, had he possessed either the avariciousness or the business acumen necessary to the accumulation of money. But not having either, the money that came into his hands slipped easily away. When the Territory became a State, offices passed into other hands, and the Pioneers rarely conducted its affairs. Meek thenceforth lived quietly upon his farm near Hillsboro, laboring little, and finding occupation in riding about the country or visiting the towns that he had seen grow up throughout the valley of the Wallamet. Wherever he went, a crowd of curious listeners were wont to gather, eager to hear, over and over, the tales of mountain adventure, or stories of pioneer times, that he so well knew how to make interesting or diverting. To those who knew him only in this character, he appeared simply as a humorist who could paint a scene as broadly as his audience demanded. But there was another side to his character not so well understood - that, had his mother lived to cultivate it, or had he married a refined woman of his own race, who would have developed it, would have been conspicuous for its gentleness, generosity and courtesy. In the presence of women he was courtly and gallant to a degree very remarkable in a man who had lived so adventurous a life. Not-withstanding his lively temperament, personal beauty, and uncongenial domestic relations, it was never reported of him that he was untrue to his marriage-bond. The blame of his position he took upon himself; though in reviewing the circumstances of his life there seems not much real blame attaching to it. It was unfortunate rather than blameworthy.
Many are the humorours sayings that will long be remembered in Oregon of which Meek was the author; one of the best known of which probably is his reply to a young Englishman, who in rather an affected manner, was inquiring of him concerning the changes which he, still a young man, and only a few years a resident in the country, had seen in Oregon. "Changes?" said Meek, with great animation, "Why, when I came to Oregon, Mount Hood was ahole in the ground!"
Concerning his indifference to money, and his love of reputation, Hon. Jesse Applegate relates that there being two offices at his disposal under the Provisional Government, one with some emoluments, and the other with only glory, the choice was ofered Meek, who quickly responded - "Give me the one with the glory!"
I, myself, once asked why he brought his Nez Perce wife to the white settlements - why he did not leave her with her people? "I couldn't do it," he replied, "she had children, and I could not take them away from her." On my suggesting that he could have left them with her, and cut loose entirely from his mountain life, he replied, tapping his breast in the region of the heart, "I could not do that, it hurt here."
He was a kind husband and father; proud of his children and ready to sacrifice himself for them. His family, seven in number, resided with the mother, near Hillsboro, until recently, when two of the daughters married and removed to other States. Of his three sons, all remain upon the farm, with the elder and younger sister, and all are devoted to the Nez Perce mother, who sincerely mourns her widowhood.
The title of "Colonel" which attached to Meek, was altogether honorary, he never having held a commission. But his military air, and the willingness with which he performed military duty when called upon, his Marshal's costume, decorated with the U.S. buttons, and similar causes, led to the adoption of the title that seemed so naturally to belong to him. His horsemanship was perfect, and his appearance upon horseback in his office of Marshal extremely imposing; circumstances that inevitably suggested a title.
Such are some of the characteristics, and such some of the circumstances belonging to the subject of this sketch. In the "River of the West," the future historian will find preserved many details too voluminous for the purposes of this Association.
Colonel Meek died of inflammation of the stomach, June 20th, 1875, after an illness of two weeks, exhibiting in his suffering and death the same patience and self-abnegation which had always distinguished him. Mourned by his family, and regretted by hundreds of neighbors and friends, as well as by the members of the Association.
Return to "A Place Called Oregon"