Joseph Meek

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Joseph Meek
Joseph L. Meek.jpg
Legislator in the Provisional Government of Oregon
In office
Constituency Tuality District
Marshal of Oregon Territory
In office
Appointed by James K. Polk
Preceded byPosition created
Succeeded by James W. Nesmith
Personal details
Joseph Lafayette Meek

February 9, 1810
Washington County, Virginia
DiedJune 20, 1875(1875-06-20) (aged 65)
Hillsboro, Oregon
Spouse(s)Virginia (3rd wife)
Relations James K. Polk (cousin)
OccupationTrapper, politician

Joseph Lafayette "Joe" Meek (February 9, 1810 June 20, 1875) was a trapper, law enforcement official, and politician in the Oregon Country and later Oregon Territory of the United States. A pioneer involved in the fur trade before settling in the Tualatin Valley, Meek would play a prominent role at the Champoeg Meetings of 1843, where he was elected as a sheriff. Later he was elected to and served in the Provisional Legislature of Oregon before being appointed as the United States Marshal for the Oregon Territory.

Oregon Country Early 19th century US fur trade district in North America

In the nineteenth century, the Oregon Country was a disputed region of the Pacific Northwest of North America. The region was occupied by British and French Canadian fur traders from before 1810, and American settlers from the mid-1830s, with its coastal areas north from the Columbia River frequented by ships from all nations engaged in the maritime fur trade, most of these from the 1790s through 1810s being Boston-based. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 ended disputed joint occupancy pursuant to the Treaty of 1818 and established the British-American boundary at the 49th parallel.

The Territory of Oregon was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from August 14, 1848, until February 14, 1859, when the southwestern portion of the territory was admitted to the Union as the State of Oregon. Originally claimed by several countries, the region was divided between the UK and US in 1846. When established, the territory encompassed an area that included the current states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana. The capital of the territory was first Oregon City, then Salem, followed briefly by Corvallis, then back to Salem, which became the state capital upon Oregon's admission to the Union.

Fur trade Worldwide industry dealing in the acquisition and sale of animal fur

The fur trade is a worldwide industry dealing in the acquisition and sale of animal fur. Since the establishment of a world fur market in the early modern period, furs of boreal, polar and cold temperate mammalian animals have been the most valued. Historically the trade stimulated the exploration and colonization of Siberia, northern North America, and the South Shetland and South Sandwich Islands.


Early life

Meek as a young man Joseph Lafayette Meek.jpg
Meek as a young man
The young Joe Meek, as depicted in Frances Fuller Victor's Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains and a Life on the Frontier, seeks employment with William Sublette. The Enlistment, from Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains.png
The young Joe Meek, as depicted in Frances Fuller Victor's Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains and a Life on the Frontier , seeks employment with William Sublette.

Joe Meek was born on February 9, 1810 to James Meek and Spica Walker in Washington County, Virginia, near the Cumberland Gap. At the age of 18 he joined William Sublette and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and roamed the Rocky Mountains for over a decade as a fur trapper. In about 1829, the nineteen-year-old Meek traveled with a trapping party along the Yellowstone River. A band of Blackfoot scattered the trappers, leaving Meek to travel into what is today Yellowstone National Park.

Washington County, Virginia County in the United States

Washington County is a county located in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As of the 2010 census, the population was 54,876. Its county seat is Abingdon.

Cumberland Gap narrow pass through the Cumberland Mountains

The Cumberland Gap is a pass through the long ridge of the Cumberland Mountains, within the Appalachian Mountains, near the junction of the U.S. states of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.

William Sublette American mountain man

William Lewis Sublette, also spelled Sublett, was an American frontiersman, trapper, fur trader, explorer, and mountain man. With his four brothers, after 1823 he became an agent of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Later he became one of the company's co-owners, exploiting the riches of the Oregon Country. He helped settle and improve the best routes for migrants along the Oregon Trail.

In a later account included in author Frances Fuller Victor's 1870 biography of Meek, The River of the West, the explorer described the region. "The whole country beyond was smoking with the vapor from boiling springs, and burning with gasses, issuing from small craters, each of which was emitting a sharp whistling sound." [1] [2]

Frances Fuller Victor American historian, poet, novelist, and journalist

Frances Auretta Fuller (Barritt) Victor was an American historian and historical novelist. She has been described as "the first Oregon historian to gain regional and national attention." She was known for her books about the West and especially Oregon history.

In Idaho in 1838, Meek married a woman given to him by Nez Perce chief Kowesota; it was customary for trappers to make what were called "country marriages". [3] Her Nez Perce name is not recorded, but Meek called her "Virginia". He had previously been married to a different Nez Perce woman. [3]

Idaho U.S. state in the United States

Idaho is a state in the northwestern region of the United States. It borders the state of Montana to the east and northeast, Wyoming to the east, Nevada and Utah to the south, and Washington and Oregon to the west. To the north, it shares a small portion of the Canadian border with the province of British Columbia. With a population of approximately 1.7 million and an area of 83,569 square miles (216,440 km2), Idaho is the 14th largest, the 12th least populous and the 7th least densely populated of the 50 U.S. states. The state's capital and largest city is Boise.

By 1840, as it was becoming clear that the fur trade was dying due both to a change in fashion preferences and the overtrapping of beaver, Meek decided to join fellow trappers Caleb Wilkins and Robert Newell in Oregon. On their way there, they met a small group of emigrants at Fort Hall who were also headed to Oregon. The trappers agreed to guide them to the Whitman Mission near Fort Nez Percés. The single wagon that the group brought became the first ever to make it as far west as the mission on the Oregon Trail, although to get it there they ended up leaving the load behind.

Fort Hall United States historic place

Fort Hall was a fort that was built in 1834 as a fur trading post by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth. It was located on the Snake River in the eastern Oregon Country, now part of present-day Bannock County in southeastern Idaho, United States. Mr. Wyeth was an inventor and businessman from Boston, Massachusetts, who also founded a post at Fort William, in present-day Portland, Oregon, as part of a plan for a new trading and fisheries company. Unable to compete with the powerful British Hudson's Bay Company, based at Fort Vancouver, in 1837 Wyeth sold both posts to it. Great Britain and the United States both operated in the Oregon Country in these years.

Whitman Mission National Historic Site United States historic place

Whitman Mission National Historic Site is a United States National Historic Site located just west of Walla Walla, Washington, at the site of the former Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu. On November 29, 1847, Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa Whitman, and 11 others were slain by Native Americans of the Cayuse. The site commemorates the Whitmans, their role in establishing the Oregon Trail, and the challenges encountered when two cultures meet.

Fort Nez Percés

Fort Nez Percés, later known as (Old) Fort Walla Walla, was a fortified fur trading post on the Columbia River on the territory of modern-day Wallula, Washington. Despite being named after the Nez Perce people, the fort was in the traditional lands of the Walla Walla. Founded in 1818 by the North-West Company, after 1821 it was run by the Hudson's Bay Company until its closure in 1857.

Oregon Country

Joe Meek appeals for the American flag, at Champoeg, May 2, 1843. Joseph Meek from Centennial History of Oregon.png
Joe Meek appeals for the American flag, at Champoeg, May 2, 1843.

In Oregon Country, Meek took to wearing a bright red sash in imitation of the French Canadian trappers employed by the Hudson's Bay Company. As the French trappers enjoyed good relations with most of the Indian tribes in the area, Meek seems to have hoped that the Indians would take him for a French Canadian or "Canadien" and leave him alone. In 1841, Meek settled in the Tualatin Valley, northwest of Oregon City, and entered into the political life of the area. In the spring of 1841, Meek served as guide in Oregon for the United States Exploring Expedition. In 1843, at meetings in Champoeg, Oregon called to form a provisional government, his was one of the foremost voices on the side of the American settlers. In 1843, when the provisional government was formed, Meek was appointed sheriff, and he was elected to the legislature in 1846 and 1847. [4]

Hudsons Bay Company Canadian retail business group

The Hudson's Bay Company is a Canadian retail business group. A fur trading business for much of its existence, HBC now owns and operates retail stores in Canada and the United States. The company had sold most if its European operations by August 2019 and its remaining stores, in the Netherlands, were to be closed by the end of the year. HBC owns the Saks stores in the US; most other US operations had been sold by mid-2019 and the last remaining stores were to be sold prior to the end of 2019.

Tualatin Valley a farming and suburban region southwest of Portland, Oregon

The Tualatin Valley is a farming and suburban region southwest of Portland, Oregon in the United States. The valley is formed by the meandering Tualatin River, a tributary of the Willamette River at the northwest corner of the Willamette Valley, east of the Northern Oregon Coast Range. Most of the valley is located within Washington County, separated from Portland by the Tualatin Mountains. Communities in the Tualatin Valley include Banks, Forest Grove, Cornelius, Hillsboro, Aloha, Beaverton, Sherwood, Tigard, and Tualatin.

Oregon City, Oregon City in Oregon, United States

Oregon City is the county seat of Clackamas County, Oregon, United States, located on the Willamette River near the southern limits of the Portland metropolitan area. Established in 1829 by the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1844 it became the first U.S. city west of the Rocky Mountains to be incorporated.

In the late fall of 1847, some Cayuse and Umatilla Indians killed Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and 12 others at the Whitman Mission. Among the dead was Meek’s daughter by his first wife, Helen Mar Meek, age 10, who died in captivity. [5] Meek traveled to Washington, D.C. with the news of the killings (known as the Whitman massacre) and the ensuing Cayuse War. Leaving in early January, Meek, George W. Ebbert, and John Owens made the difficult winter trip, arriving in Saint Joseph, Missouri on May 4 and proceeding to Washington by steamboat and rail.

While in Washington, where he met with President James K. Polk (whose wife Sarah Childress Polk, was Meek's cousin), he argued forcefully for making the Oregon Country a federal territory. The following spring, Joseph Lane was appointed Territorial Governor and Meek was made Territorial Federal Marshal. [4] Meek served as Territorial Marshal for five years. His account with the Hudson's Bay Company was often in debt, the mountain man owing the company over $300 in 1849, [6] equivalent to $9,000in 2018. [7] In 1850 as Marshal, he supervised the execution of five Cayuse Indians found guilty of the Whitman massacre, [4] despite Archbishop François Norbert Blanchet defending the men as innocent. [8] Meek organized the Oregon Volunteers and led them in the Yakima Indian War and was promoted to the rank of major for his service.

Later years and family

On June 20, 1875 Meek died at his home on the land he settled on the Tualatin Plains just north of Hillsboro, Oregon, at the age of 65. His wife survived him by almost 25 years. Virginia Meek died on March 3, 1900. They are buried at the cemetery of the Tualatin Plains Presbyterian Church ("Old Scotch") north of Hillsboro, in Washington County, Oregon. As Meek said "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." [9]

His older brother Stephen Meek was also a trapper, and became known for his role in the ill-fated Meek Cutoff. [4]

The actor Peter Whitney was cast as Meek in the 1961 episode, "Who's Fer Divide?", on the syndicated television anthology series, Death Valley Days , hosted by Stanley Andrews. The episode focuses on the annexation of the Oregon Territory. [10] John Alderson played Meek in the 1964 Death Valley Days episode, "From the Earth, a Heritage." In that segment, a rival trapper, Nat Halper, played by Peter Whitney, pressures Meek to sell his beautiful Indian wife, Tula (Marianna Hill). [11]

Related Research Articles

Nez Perce people ethnic group

The Nez Perce are an Indigenous people of the Plateau who have lived on the Columbia River Plateau in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States for at least 11,500 years.

Cayuse people ethnic group

The Cayuse are a Native American tribe in what is now the state of Oregon in the United States. The Cayuse tribe shares a reservation and government in northeastern Oregon with the Umatilla and the Walla Walla tribes as part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The reservation is located near Pendleton, Oregon, at the base of the Blue Mountains.

The Oregon missionaries were pioneers who settled in the Oregon Country of North America starting in the 1830s dedicated to bringing Christianity to local Native Americans. The Foreign Mission movement was already 15 years underway by 1820, but it was difficult to find missionaries willing to go to Oregon, as many wanted to go to the east, to India or China. It was not until the 1830s, when a schoolmaster from Connecticut, Hall Jackson Kelley, created his "American Society for the Settlement of the Oregon Country," that more interest and support for Oregon missionaries grew. Oregon missionaries played a political role, as well as a religious one, as their missions established US political power in an area in which the Hudson’s Bay Company, operating under the British government, maintained a political interest in the Oregon country. Such missionaries had an influential impact on the early settlement of the region, establishing institutions that became the foundation of United States settlement of the Pacific Northwest.

Marcus Whitman American physician and Oregon missionary

Marcus Whitman was an American physician. In 1836, Marcus Whitman led an overland party by wagon to the West. He and his wife, Narcissa, along with Reverend Henry Spalding and his wife, Eliza, and William Gray, founded a mission at present day Walla Walla, Washington in an effort to convert local Indians to Christianity. In the winter of 1842 Whitman returned east, returning the following summer with the first large wagon train across the Oregon Trail. The new settlers encroached on the Cayuse Indians living near the Whitman Mission and were unsuccessful in their efforts to Christianize the Tribe. Following the deaths of a large number of nearby Cayuse from an outbreak of measles, some remaining Cayuse accused Whitman of murder, suggesting that he had administered poison and was a failed shaman. In retaliation, a group of Cayuse killed the Whitmans and twelve other settlers on November 29, 1847, an event that came to be known as the Whitman Massacre. Continuing warfare between settlers and Indians reduced the Cayuse numbers further.

Peter Skene Ogden Fur trader and a Canadian explorer

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Whitman massacre The murder of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and 11 other missionaries, in 1847 marked the beginning of the Indian Wars of the Pacific Northwest region of North America.

The Whitman massacre was the murder of Oregon missionaries Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa, along with eleven others, on November 30th, 1847. They were killed by members of the Cayuse tribe who accused him of having poisoned 200 Cayuse in his medical care. The incident began the Cayuse War. It took place in southeastern Washington state near the town of Walla Walla, Washington and was one of the most notorious episodes in the U.S. settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Whitman had helped lead the first wagon train to cross Oregon's Blue Mountains and reach the Columbia River via the Oregon Trail, and this incident was the climax of several years of complex interaction between him and the local Indians. The story of the massacre shocked the United States Congress into action concerning the future territorial status of the Oregon Country, and the Oregon Territory was established on August 14, 1848.

Henry H. Spalding American pioneer minister

Henry Harmon Spalding (1803–1874), and his wife Eliza Hart Spalding (1807–1851) were prominent Presbyterian missionaries and educators working primarily with the Nez Perce in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The Spaldings and their fellow missionaries were among the earliest Americans to travel across the western plains, through the Rocky Mountains and into the lands of the Pacific Northwest to their religious missions in what would become the states of Idaho and Washington. Their missionary party of five, including Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa and William H. Gray, joined with a group of fur traders to create the first wagon train along the Oregon Trail.

Joseph Gale American pioneer

Joseph Goff Gale was an American pioneer, trapper, entrepreneur, and politician who contributed to the early settlement of the Oregon Country. There he assisted in the construction of the first sailing vessel built in what would become the state of Oregon, sailed the ship to California to trade for cattle, and later served as one of three co-executives ("governors") in the Provisional Government of Oregon. Originally a sailor, he also spent time in the fur trade, as a farmer, and a gold miner in the California Gold Rush.

François Norbert Blanchet Catholic bishop

François Norbert Blanchet was a French Canadian-born missionary priest and prelate of the Roman Catholic Church who was instrumental in establishing the Catholic Church presence in the Pacific Northwest. He was one of the first Catholic priests to arrive in what was then known as the Oregon Country and subsequently became the first bishop and archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oregon City.

Champoeg Meetings constituent assemblies of European settlers in the southern Oregon Country

The Champoeg Meetings were the first attempts at formal governance by European-American and French Canadian pioneers in the Oregon Country on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. Between 1841 and 1843, a series of public councils was held at Champoeg, a settlement on the French Prairie of the Willamette River valley in present-day Marion County, Oregon, and at surrounding settlements. The meetings were organized by newly arrived settlers as well as Protestant missionaries from the Methodist Mission and Catholic Jesuit priests from Canada.

Osborne Russell was a mountain man and politician who helped form the government of the U.S. state of Oregon. He was born in Maine.

John Smith Griffin American missionary

John Smith Griffin (1807–1899) was an American missionary in Oregon Country who participated at the Champoeg Meetings that created the Provisional Government of Oregon in 1843. In Oregon he served as a tutor at Fort Vancouver and later organized a church on the Tualatin Plains in the Tualatin Valley.

Robert Newell (politician) American politician and fur trapper

Robert "Doc" Newell, was an American politician and fur trapper in the Oregon Country. He was a frontier doctor in what would become the U.S. state of Oregon. A native of Ohio, he served in the Provisional Government of Oregon and later was a member of the Oregon State Legislature. The Newell House Museum, his reconstructed former home on the French Prairie in Champoeg, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

George W. Ebbert Oregon pioneer

George Wood "Squire" Ebbert (1810–1890) was a mountain man and early settler in the Oregon Country. Born in Kentucky, he settled on the Tualatin Plains in what would become Oregon and participated in the Champoeg Meetings that created a government prior to the formation of the Oregon Territory. During the Cayuse War he traveled with Joseph Meek across the Rocky Mountains to ask Congress for assistance with the war.

Harvey L. Clark American missionary

Harvey L. Clarke was an educator, missionary, and settler first on the North Tualatin Plains which would become Glencoe, Oregon and then on the West Tualatin Plains that would become Forest Grove, Oregon, United States. A native of Vermont, he moved to Oregon Country in 1840 where he participated at the Champoeg Meetings May2, 1843, and helped to found Tualatin Academy that later became Pacific University. Clarke also worked for the Methodist Mission and was a chaplain for the Provisional Legislature of Oregon in 1845.

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Alvin T. Smith American judge

Alvin Thompson Smith was an American missionary and politician in what became the state of Oregon. A native of Connecticut, he lived in Illinois before moving to the Oregon Country to preach to the Native Americans in the Tualatin Valley. There he served in both the Provisional Government of Oregon and the government of the Oregon Territory, as well as helping to establish Tualatin Academy, later becoming Pacific University. Smith’s former home, the Alvin T. Smith House in Forest Grove, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

William Craig was an American frontiersman and trapper. He left his Virginia home as a young man and headed west, after allegedly killing a man in self-defense. He trapped with the Sublettes and Jedediah Smith in the Blackfoot country until he joined Joe Walker's California Expedition of 1833–34.

Pierre-Chrysologue Pambrun was a French Canadian militia officer and later a fur trader in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. Pambrun fought against the United States in the War of 1812, in particular the Battle of the Châteauguay. He joined the HBC during a time of turmoil with its competitors, the North West Company. After the Battle of Seven Oaks, he was among those held captive by men employed by the NWC.

The Walla Walla expeditions were two movements of Indigenous from the Columbian Plateau to Alta California during the mid-nineteenth century. The original expedition was organised to gain sizable populations of cattle for native peoples that lived on Columbian Plateau. Among the prominent members was Walla Walla leader Piupiumaksmaks, his son Toayahnu, Garry of the Spokanes and Cayuse headman Tawatoy. The first expedition arrived at New Helvetia in 1844. Several hundred cattle were secured from American and Mexican settlers, however a confrontation erupted with Toayahnu being killed by an American. The Plateau natives then escaped from the colony, losing all of their purchased livestock.


  1. Also quoted in the later edition of The River of the West, Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains, Chapter 3.
  2. Breining, Greg, Super Volcano: The Ticking Time Bomb beneath Yellowstone National Park (St. Paul, MN: Voyageur Press, 2007). Popularized scientific look at the Yellowstone area's geological and historical past and potential future. ISBN   978-0-7603-2925-2. pp. 69-70.
  3. 1 2 Victor, Frances Fuller (1877). "XX"  . Eleven years in the Rocky Mountains and a life on the frontier .
  4. 1 2 3 4 Corning, Howard M. Dictionary of Oregon History. Binfords & Mort Publishing, 1956.
  5. Vestal, S. (1967). Joe Meek. Lincoln: University Of Nebraska Pr. ISBN   0803252064
  6. Galbraith, John S. The Hudson's Bay Company as an Imperial Factor, 1821 - 1869. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1857, p. 263.
  7. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  8. Blanchet, François N. Historical Sketches of the Catholic Church in Oregon. Portland: 1878. pp. 182-184
  9. "Empire Upon the Trails: Hats". The West: Episode Two (1806-1848). PBS . Retrieved 2007-03-15.
  10. "Who's Fer Divide? on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Database . Retrieved January 16, 2019.
  11. "From the Earth, a Heritage on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Databse. Retrieved April 3, 2019.