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Photo of Joseph Lafayette MeekJoseph Lafayette Meek

(1810-1875)

Acclaimed as a storyteller and intrepid adventurer during his lifetime, Joe Meek was a witness to the West's transformation from a wilderness for mountain men into a region where social conformity was increasingly the rule.

Born in Washington County, Virginia, Meek was propelled westward at an early age by a disagreeable stepmother, traveling first to Missouri where he joined two of his brothers. By 1829, however, Meek had signed on with William Sublette as a Rocky Mountain trapper, and for the next eleven years he lived the strenuous life of a mountain man.

Meek's stories of these years included a hand-to-paw encounter with a grizzly bear, a narrow escape in a confrontation with a Blackfoot warrior, the death of his first Indian wife in an attack by a Bannock raiding party, and his second marriage to the daughter of a Nez PercÚ chief. Early in his mountain man career, Meek had also been among the first Americans to travel overland to California, accompanying Joseph Walker on his 1833 expedition across the Sierras to the Yosemite Valley.

By 1840, the year of the last rendezvous, the decline of the fur trade had forced Meek to come in from the mountains, and he partnered with another ex-trapper, Robert Newell, to take a wagon train up the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley, one of the first wagon trains to make the trip. Meek settled in Oregon with his third Indian wife and their family, becoming a farmer and an activist in the effort to make Oregon part of the United States. In 1843, he served as sheriff under the newly formed provisional government, and he was elected to the legislature in 1846 and 1847.

Following the Whitman Massacre in November of 1847, Meek led a delegation across the continent to Washington, D. C., to ask for protection and urge formal organization of Oregon as a territory. On this trip Meek met with President James K. Polk, whose wife was Meek's cousin, and demonstrated for Washington society his remarkable talent for roistering tall tales. When Congress approved Oregon's territorial status on August 14, 1848, Polk appointed Meek the territory's federal marshal, a post he held for the next five years.

As marshal, Meek officiated at the 1850 execution of the five Cayuse Indians found guilty of the Whitman Massacre. Later, in 1855, he played a leading part in the Yakima War, organizing the Oregon Volunteers and winning the rank of major for his service. Toward the end of the decade, as the nation moved closer to civil war, Meek became an avid Unionist and helped organize the Republican Party in Oregon.

In his passage from bear slayer to party organizer, Meek provides a stark measure of the tremendous change that swept over the West in just one generation. And in his later years, Meek suffered one of the more unpleasant consequences of this process of change, watching helplessly as his half-Indian children were systematically ostracized by the white Oregonian society he had helped to create. By the time of his death in 1875, Meek had survived into an era when even his true experiences sounded like tall tales and where there was increasingly little room for those, like Joe Meek and his children, who didn't fit the mold.


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