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Joseph Lafayette Meek

In office
1846 – 1847
Constituency Tuality District

In office
1848 – 1853
Appointed by James K. Polk
Preceded by position created
Succeeded by James W. Nesmith

Born 1810
Washington County, Virginia
Died June 20, 1875
Hillsboro, Oregon
Spouse(s) Virginia (3rd wife)
Relations James K. Polk (cousin)
Occupation trapper, politician

Joseph Lafayette "Joe" Meek (1810–1875) 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 served in the Provisional Legislature of Oregon before being selected as the United States Marshal for the Oregon Territory.


Early life

Joe Meek was born in Washington County, Virginia, United States, near the Cumberland Gap in 1810. 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. In a later account included in author Frances Fuller Victor's 1870 biography of Meek, The River of the West, he 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] In Idaho in 1838, he married the daughter of Nez Perce chief Kowesota. Her true name is unknown, but Meek called her "Virginia".

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 Walla Walla. 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.

Oregon Country

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 Québécois 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. 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.[2]

When, in the late fall of 1847, some Cayuse and Umatilla Indians killed Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and 12 others at the Whitman Mission, 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 and George W. Ebbert made the difficult winter trip, arriving in Saint Joseph, Missouri on May 11 and proceeding to Washington by steamboat and then by 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.[2] Meek served as Territorial Marshal for five years. In this position in 1850, he supervised the execution of five Cayuse Indians found guilty of the Whitman massacre.[2] He 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

In June 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."[3]

His older brother Stephen Meek was also a trapper, and became known for his role in the ill-fated Meek Cutoff.[2]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ a b c d Corning, Howard M. Dictionary of Oregon History. Binfords & Mort Publishing, 1956.
  3. ^ "Empire Upon the Trails: Hats". The West: Episode Two (1806-1848). PBS. Retrieved 2007-03-15.  

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