Book Review:
The Meek Cutoff: Tracing the Oregon Trail's Lost Wagon Train of 1845

  • Posted 2/18/2014
  • Essay 10727
By Brooks Geer Ragen
Hardcover, 176 pages
Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index
University of Washington Press, 2013
ISBN 978-0-295-99309-6

The Meek Cutoff recounts the perilous trek endured by 1,200 overland emigrants who -- in 1845 -- paid mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them across the desert of Eastern Oregon, bound for The Dalles on the Columbia River. Meek, who had promised the group that he knew a shortcut that would spare them possible encounters with Indians and avoid difficult topography, evidently lost his way, and with it, theirs. The group suffered terribly, and some of them -- exhausted and malnourished -- died. 

William Barlow, one of the emigrants who followed Meek, later recalled, "[Meek] proved himself to be a reckless humbug from start to finish. All he had in view was to get the money and a white woman for a wife before he got through" (p.10).  

The Meek Cutoff is the first book to identify and retrace the emigrants' exact course. Author Brooks Greer Ragen accomplished this feat in 2006, walking the trail he had identified by using diaries and other first-hand accounts written by the emigrants, accompanied by a team of experts. One of this book's great strengths lies in its use of beautiful color photographs that illustrate each area the text describes. Forty-four detailed maps complement the photographs. 

The subplot of the Meek Cutoff ordeal is the persistent rumor that -- while wandering lost -- the emigrants found gold in some of the creeks they passed. None of these emigrants was subsequently able to relocate these supposed gold creeks, although many people have searched for them during the intervening 17 decades. 

The Meek Cutoff is a highly readable, exciting example of the ability of primary source materials -- in this case, letters and diaries -- to reveal the past -- in this case the Meek Cutoff's trajectory.  Ragen brings multiple contemporary accounts together, organizes them day by day, and supplements them with maps and photographs. Using these historical clues, Ragen and his team (dubbed the Meek Research Expedition) -- and with them, this book's readers -- solve the mystery of the Meek emigrants' route. Documents, explanations of the Meek Research Expedition's detailed methodology, maps, and photographs combine to make this book a vivid reading experience.  Highly recommended for all ages.

By Paula Becker, February 18, 2014

Submitted: 2/18/2014

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You