“Old Joe” Meek set for very few photographs, but when he did he was decked out in his finest clothes.
By all other accounts Joe Meek was typically ragged and dirty. It was said that he made up for the “lack of soap” with infallible good humor and charisma.
Experience 1800s frontier history at The Museum of the Mountain Man located in the small rural town of Pinedale, Wyoming.
On a stage of colorful characters Joe Meek has to be near the top of the heap. Humorous and good natured, Meek was a trapper and mountain man, a teller of tall tales and a shameless brag. He fought many Indian braves and loved many of their women. Later, he drove the first wagons over the Oregon Trail and played a key role in bringing Oregon to statehood. In his life he would serve as a territorial marshal, a census taker and coroner to name just a few. He saw the American west in its untouched state, one beaver pond at a time, swooned high society Washington and charmed a president.
Born in Washington County, Virginia, in 1810, Meek had little use for book learning or anything resembling manual labor. A middle child in a large plantation family, he was free to spend his time prowling the woods with a rifle or cane pole. A new stepmother and the preacher sought to change all that, but not for long. At 17, Joe hopped on a westbound wagon and left for Missouri. Joe had two brothers there and had heard of the goings on with the fur trade in St. Louis. By spring of ’29 he had signed on with William Sublette and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and was headed for the rendezvous in the fat grass along the Sweetwater River.
Meek’s 18th summer was spent amid trappers, traders, Indians and the wild party that ensued. He was a long way from the church house now. He took it all in with terrified amazement but walked away beginning to understand the world he had stepped into.
Once the whiskey and credit ran out, the fall hunt was on. That first season, led by Sublette, Meek trapped in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming and west to Idaho, on the headwaters of the Snake River. He proved his worth in a couple tight scraps, found a lost Jedediah Smith, and at one point was separated from his party during a Blackfoot raid. He spent nearly a week wandering south through Yellowstone’s Geyser Basin evading hostiles. He was found in a nice warm spot near a thermal vent, feasting on sheep meat, top knot intact, certain the preacher was right and he had landed in hell. When the brigade retired to winter quarters on the Wind River, at barely 19, Meek was now “Old Joe.” The tenderfoot was wearing off quick; he had a stack of furs to trade and stories of his own to tell come rondy. Camp moved that winter onto the Powder River, where living was easy and buffalo were plenty. Meek even learned to read and write a little that winter; his grammar and spelling would remain as colorful as he was for all his days.
The next season, Meek followed mountain legends Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger into the heart of Blackfoot country on the Musselshell River. The large force of trappers with Meek endured minor Blackfoot run-ins but otherwise reaped a bounty. They rode into rondy at Popo Agie that summer with creaking pack saddles lashed on tired mules, all heavy with beaver. That summer, Sublette brought the first wagons across the Great Plains. After the trading was done, David Jackson, Smith and Sublette sold out to other “Ashley Men” Tom Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger. Meek’s new booshways owed no debt to the British in the west. The Americans planned to break the Hudson Bay Company’s hold on the Oregon Territory, and this suited Old Joe’s patriotic heart just fine.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company moved over the Continental Divide, working in what’s now northern Utah. While there, tensions flared with Hudson Bay trappers in nearby Ogden’s Hole, but little came of it, and they again made the long overland voyage to the confluence of the Powder and Yellowstone Rivers for the winter.
Meek’s credibility had grown quickly. There would be no rest for him this winter. At the Powder River, Meek was dispatched to carry an express to St. Louis. Along the way he met up with another express courier headed for the settlements and turned over his papers. He returned just as camp was breaking for the springtime hunting jaunts.
Just three days out, the men were attacked by a large mounted party of Crow that ran off with the party’s horses and mules. Again, Meek was sent into the breach. Along with Robert Newell and George Ebbert, Meek tracked the horse thieves on foot for three days and nights. When they found them camped along the Big Horn River, they waited for nightfall. Robert Newell slipped into camp, released the horses and road out on one of the bell mares with the rest of the remuda following. The braves awoke and gave chase, just as the boys had planned. From the rim rocks above, Meek and company sent a volley into the war party. Afterward, they regrouped with Newell and rode home, leaving the surviving Crow as they had been left, on foot.
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With the horses returned, the brigade set out once more. Fitzpatrick had returned to the settlements to bring in supplies for the pending rendezvous on the Green River that summer. With Bridger at the helm, the men pushed deeper into British territory, trapping the Snake, Salt and Bear Rivers. Running low on provisions, they returned to the Green, but Fitzpatrick was nowhere to be found. Impatient, they called upon a Cree medicine man in their group. After performing a ritual, the medicine man told Bridger his partner was alive but on the wrong trail. Meek was handpicked to lead the search. After searching along Sweet Grass Creek and through the Black Hills, Fitzpatrick was found cursing his luck on the North Platte River. By this time the brigade was already in winter quarters on the Powder River.
When the brigade set out on the spring hunt in ’32, Meek was not among them. His booshway and friend Milton Sublette (brother of William) had been stabbed in a fight over a young Indian woman. Sublette asked Meek to stay behind to care for him and give him his last rights. Meek obliged. For weeks Sublette languished but didn’t die. Slowly, with Meek’s care, he improved. When Milton’s complaints shifted from pain to boredom, Old Joe strapped him on a horse and the pair set out to find the brigade.
On the Green River, Milton’s prayers for some excitement were answered. The two rode upon a group of Snake braves dismounted near the river. Caught red-handed out in the open, with Milton unable to ride hard to escape, Meek saw only one way out. The pair spurred their horses full tilt, right through the middle of the braves trying to catch their own ponies. With the warriors hot on their heels, Meek and Sublette raced straight into the middle of the Snake camp. They slid to a stop in front of the biggest lodge in the camp, leapt off, rushed inside and sat down to await their fate. Meek knew no harm would come to them inside the Indian version of a church. He hoped the chief would hold back the braves and allow them to pass, but that remained to be seen. All day the pair waited as their fate was debated inside the big lodge, their chances looking increasingly grim. As evening fell, a large ruckus kicked up south of camp, sending their jury running to investigate. The old chief, Bad Left Hand, then skirted them out of the village where their saddled horses waited. “Ride,” the chief said, “ride and don’t look back.” Meek was never one to argue good advice.
In The Rockies
The rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole in ’32 was the largest to date. Fur was booming with three separate companies competing for trade. A large company of slack-jawed New Englanders were in attendance, and the trappers pulled out all the stops. Without a doubt, Old Joe was the biggest duck in the puddle. Just as the gathering broke up, Meek was among the first to spot a large group of Blackfoot. The Battle of Pierre’s Hole was on, and Joe was in the thick of it. At one point he rushed forward, braving arrows and dodging bullets, to retrieve his fallen friend and old booshway, William Sublette. Meek would go on that season to follow Milton Sublette on a starvation voyage through the high desert while exploring the Humboldt River. Reunited on the Snake River, the full brigade marched north, sweeping through the rich Montana fur country the Blackfoot guarded so fiercely. Here, he pulled greenhorn Kit Carson’s fat out of the fire in a couple tight spots.
Despite being a hopeless spendthrift, by the next rendezvous Meek was an independent, free trapper. He kept close company with his old trapping partners but was now free to do as he pleased. He took three Indian wives (at separate times), the last of which, Virginia Meek, stood by him to his dying day. Joe also spent a winter preaching the gospel to a Nez Perce chief to win her hand.
When trade in beaver furs slowed, Joe hunted bears. A bear of a man himself, Meek once crawled in a den and whacked one over the nose with a ram rod, getting the bear to chase him out where he could get a good shot. Another he fought hand-to-hand and finally killed it with a tomahawk.
Joe would spend another five years in the Rockies trapping beaver, hunting grizzlies and traveling the wide-open west at his leisure. By the 1840s the fur trade had seen its heyday. His old friend Robert Newell sought him out with a proposition. Newell intended to settle in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Once again Meek picked up and hopped in that westbound wagon, telling Newell, “If it tickles you, it suits me just fine.” Meek and Newell are credited with taking the first wagons into the Oregon territory.
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Newell and Meek settled on the Tualatin Plains, near modern-day Hillsboro. The group, mostly other trappers, hunkered down that first winter in their trusted hide lodges, but the incessant soggy weather made for miserable conditions. Newell would write, “This Oregon country is not all it was said to be. The climate is the worst I’ve seen.” Ever cheerful, Meek’s only comment was, “Well, a feller sure never go thirsty here.” They lived that winter only on boiled wheat, on loan from old rivals at the Hudson Bay Company.
Meek was one of the first Americans to settle the valley. At the time, the area south of Fort Vancouver, Oregon Territory was sparsely settled by retired Hudson Bay men and their Indian wives. As more and more Americans followed Meek’s lead, some form of government was needed. Meek traveled the territory as a lobbyist and spokesman for the U.S. During the “Wolf meetings” at Champoeg, Joe stood up before the stalemated British and American delegations and exclaimed, “Who’s for a divide?” His actions led to a vote to approve a provisional government. Year after year, the bill to appoint a U.S. territorial government failed in Congress.
A New Territory
In December of 1847 came the tragic news of the Whitman Massacre, where a group of 13 missionaries were killed by local Indian tribes. Close friends with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Meek also had a daughter at their mission. The small provisional government desperately needed to get word to Washington. Joe was once again hand-selected for the dangerous trip over the Rockies in the dead of winter.
Meek stopped off at the Waiilaptu Mission, where the massacre occurred, to give the remains a proper burial. In a gesture that speaks of his big, kind heart, he saved locks of Narcissa Whitman’s golden hair for her family in the settlements. Joe made one of the fastest overland trips on record, from The Dalles, Oregon to Independence, Missouri in just over 60 days. He arrived in Washington in grandiose style. Ragged and dirty in greasy buckskins, he proclaimed himself “envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the people’s republic of Oregon.” Following his visit, Congress approved the territorial government and Meek became a territorial marshal for the area.
Meek returned to Oregon to see justice brought to the Whitman family’s killers and the United States stretch from coast to coast. Joe 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.” Joe died in 1875. Due in part to his actions, he got his final wish. He is buried at the Old Scotch Church, in Washington County, Oregon, USA.
This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® 2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® magazine are available here.
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