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



The Tualatin Plains History Revealed

Part of what we are doing with the Tualatin Valley Tales website is teaching people about our amazing Valley and the State we now live in.  To understand a place you had better understand the history.  Below you will find an in-depth read on that history written by a noted Archaeologist for the Port of Portland as they were filing permits for the runway expansion of the Hillsboro Airport in 2008.  One can learn so much by reading this report.  Please enjoy.

Direct contact between Oregon Native Americans and Euro-Americans began in 1792, when American Robert Gray located the mouth of the Columbia River and British Royal Navy parties under the command of George Vancouver sailed up the river into the Portland Basin (Dodds, 1986). Most interactions were limited to coastal fur trading ships until the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the Portland Basin in 1805 and 1806. Fur trappers and adventurers soon began entering the region. Astoria was founded in 1811 by American fur entrepreneur John Jacob Astor, and the British North West Company (NWC) sent overland trapping expeditions from Canada. Several parties explored and worked the northern Willamette Valley, including Donald McKenzie, who traveled the length of the valley in 1812. NWC trading posts were first established in 1812-1813, probably near Salem, and then near Champoeg on the bank of the Willamette River in 1813 (Hussey, 1967; Minor et al., 1980). The valley soon became a primary source of meat and other foods for Astoria (which was sold to NWC and renamed Fort George). Furs and meat from the valley continued to be important after Fort Vancouver was established by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC, successor to NWC) in 1825.

Meek-Zuercher Farm.JPG

In 1834, the John Work HBC party traveled over the Tualatin Plains, through the Wapato Lake region, and down the Chehalem Creek drainage to the Champoeg area on the Willamette River (Work, 1923). As noted above, he was struck by the rich soils and fine pasture lands in the grassy “Faladin” plains, as well as the large size of the conifers in the neighboring wooded regions. In addition to beaver trapping, the Tualatin Plains were also being used for horse pasturing, as Work noted that 170 horses had been grazing on the plains for the preceding two months (Work, 1923). By this time, men leaving HBC employment were settling and farming in the Champoeg area. American missionaries, exploring parties, and other visitors began returning to the United States in the 1830s with stories of the moderate climate, rich soils, and economic opportunities of the Willamette Valley.

By the early 1840s American emigrants were arriving via the Oregon Trail. In 1844, frontiersman Charles Clyman noted that about 200 “mostly American” families were already settled on the “Twallata” Plains (Camp, 1960). Joel Palmer, future Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon (1853-1857), visited Oregon in 1845 and described the “Quality” Plains in terms similar to Work, also noting that “these plains are all claimed, settled, and mostly improved” (Palmer, 1906).

Joseph Meek, a famous American fur trapper “mountain man” and several other retiring mountain men had settled on the eastern Tualatin Plains in late 1840, followed in 1841 and 1842 by emigrant families fresh from the Oregon Trail (Ellis and Chapman, 2000). Meek’s land claim was just north of the Hillsboro Airport. As emigrants continued to arrive, two settlement clusters arose on the plains; first referred to as East Tualatin Plains and West Tualatin Plains, these evolving communities became known respectively as Columbia (or Columbus) and Forest Grove. By the late 1840s, Columbia had been renamed Hillsborough, in honor of local pioneer David Hill, who had served in the provisional legislature and sold part of his claim to be used for the developing town (McArthur, 1974). The United States acquired control of the Oregon and Washington region through a treaty with Great Britain in 1846 and the U.S. Oregon Territory was created in 1848 (Dodds, 1986). The many American emigrants to Oregon, however, had already established a Provisional Government along American lines in 1843, with a constitution, property rights, and other laws. Meek, Hill, and many others participated in creating and serving in this government. In 1850, the U.S. Congress enacted the Donation Land Act, providing free land to Oregon emigrants. Settlers already present were able to register their lands. Donation Land Claim (DLC) farms covered the Tualatin Plains.

Columbia River and Willamette Valley Native American groups, including the Tualatin Kalapuya, had been devastated by successive waves of European-introduced epidemic diseases. A large epidemic in the early 1830s, thought to be malaria, resulted in mortality rates as high as 90 percent (Boyd, 1990). Few families or larger groups remained intact as the influx of Euro-American emigrants increased steadily through the 1840s. Raiding and sporadic organized warfare flared throughout Oregon in the 1840s and 1850s, spurring the United States government to secure treaties after acquiring control of the Oregon territory. Treaties with many Willamette Valley groups were negotiated in 1851 and most of these provided for reservations in the Willamette Valley, including one surrounding Wapato Lake for the Tualatin (Beckham, 1977; Gibbs and Starling, 1978). These treaties, however, were not ratified by the U.S. Senate, in part due to pressure from settlers demanding that Indians be removed from the valley. In 1855, Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, negotiated a new treaty with the Kalapuya bands, signed in 1855 as the Dayton Treaty and ratified by the Senate. These bands ceded their lands to the United States for specified annuities and agreed to be removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation in the foothills west of the Willamette Valley.

The community of Hillsborough (soon shortened to Hillsboro’ [McArthur, 1974]) developed as a market town hub for the surrounding farms. It became the county seat of Washington County in 1850. The Tualatin Plains and Hillsboro were connected with Portland by the Oregon Central Railroad in 1870. The line initially ran south of the community due to a dispute between the city and the railroad, but Hillsboro slowly grew to the railroad. The city was further tied to the growing Portland metropolitan area with the spread of interurban railroad lines in the early twentieth century. The Oregon Electric Railroad connected Hillsboro and Forest Grove to Portland in 1908 and Southern Pacific (on the Oregon Central line) converted to electricity and began interurban service in 1914. These lines were soon superseded by motor vehicle improvements, but these improving modes of transportation opened the rural Tualatin Plains to suburban development, a trend that still continues. The population of Hillsboro increased steadily through the twentieth century.

After World War II, Hillsboro sought to attract companies and jobs to the city, rather than remain a suburban bedroom community. This effort has proved successful over the last 60 years, with a variety of industrial, electronics, computer, and other high technology firms developing plants in Hillsboro. The population of the city nearly doubled between 1960 and 1970, doubled again between 1970 and 1980, and doubled yet again between 1990 and 2000 (Oregon Blue Book, 2008). Hillsboro is currently the fifth largest city in the state. Hillsboro Airport began as a private airport in 1925 (Coffman Associates et al., 2005). Dr. Elmer Smith purchased 100 acres in north Hillsboro and constructed two crossing turf runways with the assistance of the Hillsboro American Legion. The City of Hillsboro leased and then, in 1935, purchased the airport. Two larger crossing runways were constructed as WPA projects between 1933 and 1938, one 2,800 feet long (oriented northwest-southeast) and one 3,000 feet long (northeast-southwest). The federal government invested over $600,000 in additional land and other improvements to the airport during World War II, using it as a satellite airfield for the Portland Air Base (now part of Portland International Airport). The airport remained in city control from 1945 to 1966, when the Port of Portland assumed ownership. Runway 12/30, the northwest-southeast runway, was enlarged in 1976 and 1977 to a length of 6,600 feet. Runway 2/20 is currently 4,049 feet long. Although the airport does not have scheduled commercial air service, it is heavily used for general aviation and by regional companies for business aviation. It is currently the second busiest airport in Oregon behind Portland International Airport (Port of Portland, 2008).