Society of the Old West

From early westward expansion through the early 20th Century.

He was bold, adventurous, humorous, a first class trapper, pioneer, peace officer, and frontier politician. More, he was the wittiest, saltiest, most shameless wag and jester that ever wore moccasins in the Rockies. Joe Meek was a tall, happy go lucky Virginian, lover of practical jokes, tall tales, Jacksonian democracy and Indian women. And certainly no other mountain man has left us half so rich and full a record of his brave deeds, witty sayings and winning motives. Joe Meek was known best as a trapper, adventurer and storyteller. However, when Joe ’s trapping days were over, he settled in North Plains and transferred his energies to farming and politics. He played a major role in helping Oregon become a state. He is quoted as saying, “I want to live long enough to see Oregon securely American, so I can say that I was born in Washington County, United States, and died in Washington County, United States.” Joe Meek eventually got his wish. Born in Washington County, Va. in 1810, Joe came from what might be considered a large family, 15 by some accounts, 11 by others. His mother died early in his life, leaving Joe and his siblings a good deal of liberty to do as they pleased. Though often assigned to share in the work of the plantation slaves, Joe was more inclined to go off sporting, taking with him any bondsman who shared his inclinations. Joe’s education was minimal. Early on he developed a deep aversion to teachers and preachers, as they both were a threat to his wild and headstrong lifestyle. His school years were few and, legend has it, terminated when he grabbed the alphabet paddle, which the teacher was trying to use on him, and cracked the man over the head. In Joe ’s mind, preachers were sanctimonious moralists who turned up at the plantation Sunday after Sunday to consume large portions of the meat or chicken treats reserved for that day, leaving less and less for Joe. In addition, his pious stepmother insisted on driving the children to church to hear the preacher’s admonitions and threats of hell. While conceding that his stepmother was a good woman, Joe, 16 and 6 feet tall, tired of what he called her religious tonguing. In fact, he didn’t care much for civilization in general. (Ed. Note: The above is absolute and irrefutable proof of his relation to dirtrider.) In today’s terms, Joe hitched a ride on a neighbor’s wagon and headed west. At 19, he stood before William Sublette, hunter and trapper for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and asked to be hired and taken to The Rocky Mountains. Here is the synopsis of the interview. Sublette: “You want to go to the Rocky Mountains?” Meek: “Yes, Sir.” Sublette: “You don’t know what you’re talking about, boy. You’ll get killed before you’re half way there. Meek: “Well, if I do, then I reckon I can die.” Sublette: “That’s a game spirit. You’ll do. Be smart and keep your wits about you.” Meek: “Where else would they be?” A lot of excitement,suffering, camaraderie, tragedy and laughter would pave the path of the spunky young man who stood confidently before old-time trapper Bill Sublette. There is tragedy in the stories of his young first wife’s death, in the death and reburial of his young child, Helen Marr Meek, the heartbreak of the Whitman Massacre and loss of his close friends, Dr. & Narcissa Whitman. Bearing witness to the cruelty of many of his white companions as well as that of the Indians in the savage encounters he described had to leave a lasting mark on him. While he may not have openly displayed the depth of his feelings, it is clear that the intensity with which he lived all aspects of his life betrayed a deep and lasting sensitivity to all experiences. While at first repulsed by the sight of his companions playing cards using the dead body of a friend as a table,7 Joe developed a callousness and indifference inevitable in the life he led. He took on the total persona, became the stereotypical trapper and saw himself as nothing else. Others saw these traits in him, too. Joe chose the trapper identity. Because it represented excitement, individuality and courage, it became the profile that is most accepted and dominates the literature about him. However, Joe was much more than one-dimensional. When the opportunity arose, the courage, leadership and humor that had so prevailed in the trapper served him well in public relations, public persuasion and private negotiations. After the market for beaver hats fell out of style, Joe turned from trapper to farmer and politician. He brought his family in the mid-1800s, settling in North Plains for the rest of his years. When divisive factions threatened the establishment of the provisional government, it was Joe who stepped forth at Champoeg with his now famous clarion call: “Who is for the divide? All those favoring the report of the committee, follow me.” They followed him and won the vote. Maybe it was Joe, the famous mountain man, they followed. If so, he knew how to make it work for him. Once having assumed a leadership role in the drive for absorption into the U.S. and to statehood, Meek applied his talents and experience to completing the statehood process. His success in Washington was partially due to President Polk’s already established predisposition to absorb Oregon into the United States. However, just as important was Joe Meek’s ability to sell the proposal and override the objections of the southern opposition. His successful sojourn in the Capitol brought new attention and accolades and, ultimately, the job of Marshall for the Oregon Territory. Joe’s lack of formal education hampered any further upward mobility, but it didn’t seem to bother him when others passed him by. He loved his job and performed it skillfully, justly and with goodwill until 1852 when he was retired by Democratic President Pierce. Unprepared as he was for retirement and for settlin’ in the Tualatin Plains on a farm, Joe’s time had come. Years before, at the end of the trapping era, his long- time friend Doc Newell had persuaded Joe to adapt to a new life in farming, something that had never intrigued him as a boy and intrigued him even less as a man. However, the time had come when no other options seemed apparent. Joe’s spendthrift ways, his generosity and freehandedness had never allowed for the accumulation of any money. He had often been imposed upon and was forgiving for it, but his openness frequently cast a burden on others who suffered the financial hardships with him. He continued to socialize, visiting and entertaining neighbors, regaling them with his stories of the past. Contrary to some impressions, he was not prone to gross exaggeration. Joe was generally regarded as a good husband and father. Though his lack of interest in doing mundane work hampered family comfort, he was never known to be abusive to his wives or children. His second marriage ended when his wife, tired of Joe’s drinking, often absences and her own homesickness, left him. This was a painful experience that he overcame. His third marriage to Virginia proved to be stable and brought forth 11 children. An indication of Joe’s devotion to his family is shown when he sold a portion of his Donation Land Claim to send his daughter, Olive, to Albany, N.Y. where, he felt, more opportunities for education and social development would be available to her. In his last years, Joe Meek seemingly led a quiet life. He had a good wife, several children, a farm, and a legendary past. Seven years before he died, Joe had taken to attending church, though his attitude toward preachers had never changed. One such specimen so enraged him that Joe marched to the pulpit, lifted the preacher under his arm and walked him out of the church. Joe Meek’s indomitable spirit led him from a comfortable life on a Virginia plantation, through battles with bears and one of the first overland trips to the West, and finally to life as a farmer and politician. But Joe Meek remained intrepid no matter the occasion.

Ref: Washington County Historical Society & Museum

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