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Ezra Meeker in 1921

Ezra Meeker (December 29, 1830–December 3, 1928) was an early pioneer who traveled the Oregon Trail by ox cart as a young man. Beginning in his 70s, he worked tirelessly to memorialize the trail, repeatedly retracing the trip of his youth. He was the principal founder of Puyallup, Washington.

Meeker was born in Huntsville, Ohio, to Jacob and Phoebe Meeker; his family relocated to Indiana in 1840. Married in 1851 to Eliza Jane Summner, in 1852, with his wife and his newborn son Marian, he headed to the Oregon Territory during the era of the donation land claims, ending up near Puget Sound. They settled permanently in Puyallup in 1862, where Meeker began growing hops for brewing beer.

By 1885 his business had made him wealthy. His wife Eliza Jane convinced him to allow her to build a mansion similar to those she had seen in Europe. Three years and $26,000 later, her mansion was finished. However, in 1891 an infestation of hops aphids destroyed his crops and nearly ruined him. He subsequently tried a number of ventures, including dehydrating fruits and vegetables, working on packaging milk in paper containers, and four largely unsuccessful trips to the Klondike looking for gold. He also wrote a novel about his experiences on the trip west.

Meeker is an important figure in what is now the southern portion of King County and the eastern parts of Pierce County. A statue to Meeker was erected near the Puyallup Library in 1926.

Contents

Commemorating the Trail

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1906 trek

Meeker in Kearney, Nebraska, ca. 1906.
Meeker with ox cart and dog on Oregon Trail, ca. 1910.
Ezra Meeker promoted the Oregon Trail as a patriotic pathway of pioneers. He spent much of his later years seeking to commemorate the trail with markers such as this one he erected in 1906 at South Pass, Wyo., (elevation 7,550 ft).

In 1906, at the age of 76, Ezra Meeker decided that the nation had forgotten the Oregon Trail. He assembled a covered wagon and a team of oxen and, stemming the tide of western migration, traveled east over the route, raising money for his trek as he went.

Meeker's rough appearance and his gaudy, painted wagon featuring slogans, advertisements, and a prominent portrait of himself caused some to receive him as a "corn doctor," as he charged admission to see his wagon -- 10 cents for adults, 5 cents for children.[1]

Clearly Meeker was a traveling salesman. He depended upon selling the Oregon Trail as a patriotic pathway of Manifest Destiny as much as he relied upon selling post cards and trinkets to meet expenses. For he sought with his 1906 trek to "kindle in the breasts of the rising generation a flame of patriotic sentiment."[2]

At each town along the way the white-haired, bearded pioneer stopped and made speeches. He became a modern day Johnny Appleseed, traveling the western rangeland planting monuments and sewing seeds of patriotism and nostalgia to mark the Oregon Trail. As the trip progressed, publicity started to build, so that he began to find that towns had raised funds and organized memorials in advance of his arrival.

After reaching the start of the Oregon Trail, he decided to extend his trip all the way to Washington, DC via New York City where he dutifully applied for a permit to drive his team and wagon down Fifth Avenue. The permit was not forthcoming but the stalwart pioneer continued his trek. Everything went fine until Meeker and his wagon reached 161st on Amsterdam Avene where he left his oxen and driver in search of a place to "camp."

Meeker's writings recount that he returned to discover that his driver had been arrested for driving cattle on a New-York street. City officials decided nothing short of an edict would resolve the situation. Yet 30 days later the situation remained unresolved. Officials reportedly looked the other way as Meeker sailed his prairie schooner down Broadway and across the Brooklyn Bridge, leaving behind what must have been a host of startled New Yorkers.[2]

On November 29, 1907, Meeker's frontier troupe reached Washington, where he met with President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt expressed interest in the trail. Congress subsequently considered but did not appropriate a $50,000 request spearheaded by Meeker to mark the trail.

Dave and Dandy, the oxen that pulled his wagon thousands of miles, became artifacts of Meeker's relentless promotion when he had them slaughtered and mounted by a taxidermist. Meeker claimed their carcasses to be an "honorable shrine" so that they could "do their part in the perpetuating of history."[2] Even death did not free the beasts. Meeker, the mounted oxen, and his covered wagon traveled cross country by rail to Washington D.C. in 1915 and later appeared at the Washington State Building during San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exposition. Today the oxen, still hitched to their wagon, are housed at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, Washington.

From covered wagon to open-cockpit plane

Ezra Meeker repeated his trip by ox team in 1910 and again in 1916 driving an 80 horsepower (60 kW) automobile with a prairie-schooner top. Finally, in 1924, at the age of 94, Meeker flew from Vancouver, Washington over the trail to Dayton, Ohio in an open-cockpit army plane. The next day, he rode in a parade with Orville Wright, and then flew to Washington, DC and met with President Calvin Coolidge, presenting him with a plan to designate a national highway honoring the Oregon Trail. Meeker's vision of commemorating the trail, albeit unrealized, included erecting 100-foot-tall beacons to light the way for transcontinental airplanes, according to a book that he and Howard Driggs of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association published in 1932, Covered Wagon Centennial and Ox-Team Days.

Meeker finally gained traction with the U.S. Congress in 1926 when the House of Representatives passed a bill subsequently signed by Pres. Coolidge to mint a special edition of not more than 6,000,000 50-cent coins. The U.S. Mint issued the coins to the Oregon Trail Memorial Association, which sold the coins to raise funds for trail markers. Ultimately, the U.S. government only struck 264,419 coins, with the final issue in 1939.

James Earle and Laura Gardin Fraser, a husband and wife team, each designed a side of the coin. Laura's side featured a facsimile of Meeker's 1852 ox-drawn covered wagon and pioneer family marching into a blazing western sun. The reverse showed an American Indian man clad only in a loin cloth facing eastward with an outstretched arm, palm raised as if to stem westering emigrants. Earle also created two more well-known works. His sculpture End of the Trail (1918) showed a dejected Indian, head deeply bowed, his lance pointed to the ground astride a horse. Moreover Earle produced the design for Indian head/buffalo nickel.

At the time of his death on December 3, 1928, Meeker was planning a final drive across the trail, with the support of Henry Ford. On July 4, 1930, a bronze plaque bearing Ezra Meeker's likeness was unveiled at Independence Rock. The programmers of the mid-1980s version MECC computer game "The Oregon Trail" paid tribute to Meeker by listing his name alongside a fifth-place score of 2052 on the default version of the high-score list known as the "Oregon Top Ten."

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Ezra Meeker Treasure Revealed After 47 Years," by Lucile McDonald. Seattle Times 1963.
  2. ^ a b c "Covered Wagon Centennial and Ox-Team Days," by Howard Driggs and Ezra Meeker. Oregon Trail Memorial Edition. World Book Company 1932.

Bibliography

  • The Tragedy of Leschi (a book about the plight of the Indians)
  • Ox-Team Days
  • Pioneer Reminiscences
  • The Ox Team; or the Old Oregon Trail, 1852–1906
  • Uncle Ezra's pioneer short stories for children: To point a moral or teach a lesson

References

  • Driggs, Howard and Meeker, Ezra; Covered Wagon Centennial and Ox-Team Days. New York: World Book Co., 1932.
  • Weber, Bert; The Oregon Trail Memorial Half Dollar. Seattle: Webb Research Group, 1986. Pg. 21.
  • History Ink
  • Meeker Mansion Website

External link and reference


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