Joe and Virginia Meek And Families Lead The Oregon Territory Settlement

Post by Ginny Mapes- March 2018

Mountain men, missionaries, and sailors from ships at sea, their lives all connect. . . . here's part of the story starting in 1840.

Joesph L. Meek, Robert Newell, Caleb Wilkins, George Ebbert, William Craig, and William Doty were friends, having trapped together over the years. They were well-known fur traders, trailblazers, and explorers. They had all indigenous women for wives. The men trapped while the women tended camp, cooked, cared for the children, and helped with the pelts.

In the summer of 1840, when they met at the Summer Rendezvous in Green River, Wyoming, Joe Meek and his trapper friends were planning on leaving the fur trade business behind and becoming farmers in Oregon Country. Three independent missionary couples hired the trappers to pilot them on their way west. Harvey Clarke, Philo Littlejohn, Alvin T. Smith, were headed west with their wives to the Whitman Mission. They needed the trappers to lead the way.

Joe Meek and Robert Newell wondered if it was possible to open a wagon road from the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River? They decided to try. From Fort Hall, they packed up the wagons filled with their worldly goods, topped with their wives and children, and started for Walla Walla. It was late, the 27th of September, 1840. With their young families en-tow, pioneers Meek, Newell, and the others, including the missionaries, headed west.

The journey was difficult extending over vast lava beds, round impassable canyons, and over rapid unbridged rivers. This was the most difficult part of the journey.

“In a few days we began to realize the difficult task before us, and found that the continual crashing of the sage under our wagons which in many places was higher the mules backs was no joke and seeing our animals began to fail we began to lighten up finally threw away our Wagon beds and were quite sorry we had undertaken the job. . .” Robert Newell

The going was very rough with weather cold and disagreeable, but they finally made it. Joe Meek and Robert Newell were some of the first families to pave the way for the original Oregon Trail route to the Willamette Valley along the Columbia. At Waiilatpu, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman gave them a warm welcome. Meek and Newell decided to press on. They arrived at old Fort Nez Perce [Walla Walla] in November 1840. Chief Trader, Pierre Pambrun noted “Newell and Meek visited the Fort on the way west. They left their wagons and took to the river.” They transferred their goods to pack horses. Source: Sixty Years on the Frontier of the Pacific Northwest by Pambrun.

Finally arriving weary, dirty, and hungry, in December 1840, they camped overlooking “The Falls” (Hyas Tyee Tumchuck, Indian name)now Willamette Falls. Here they were joined by Doty, Ebbert, and Wilkins. "They resolved to push out into the Plains to the west of them, and see what could be done in the matter of selecting homes."

“Accordingly camp was raised, and the party proceeded to the Plains, where they arrived on Christmas and went into camp again. The hardships of mountain life were light compared to the hardships of this winter. For in the mountains, when the individual's resources were exhausted, there was always the Company to go to, which was practically inexhaustible. Should it be necessary, the Company was always willing to become the creditor of a good mountain-man. And the debtor gave himself no uneasiness because he knew that if he lived he could discharge his indebtedness. But everything was different now. There was no way of paying debts, even if there had been a company willing to give them credit, which there was not, at least among Americans. Hard times they had seen in the mountains; harder times they were likely to see in the valley; indeed were already experiencing.” River of the West by Frances Fuller Victor

[ From Virginia Meek 1820-1900] On Courtney’s Birthday, December 25th, they camped on a creek near where Glencoe was founded, about one-half mile northeast of North Plains. “Oh, but it was cold and lonesome. Mr. Meek hurried and built a bark house and had a nice fire and made it nice and warm, but I couldn’t help it, I was lonesome for my people.”


Joe Meke Plaque at teh Old Scotch Church