Ezra Meeker departs his Puyallup home to retrace the Oregon Trail on January 29, 1906.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 6/03/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7746
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On January 29, 1906, Washington pioneer hop farmer Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) departs his grand home in Puyallup on a round trip expedition retracing the old emigrant trail to Oregon. Meeker's wagon is an old-style prairie schooner of the type used by thousands of the western pioneers who made up the great overland migration to the Oregon Country/Oregon Territory between 1841 and 1870. The goal of Meeker's journey is to publicize the historical importance of the Oregon Trail and to seek federal funding for its preservation.

The Oregon Trail

Meeker, his wife Eliza Jane Sumner Meeker (1834-1909), and their infant son Marion traveled to Oregon Territory over the emigrant trail in 1852, ultimately settling in the Puyallup Valley and founding the town of Puyallup.

Travel on the Oregon Trail began in 1841. The bulk of the overland emigration came abruptly to a close when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads completed the nation's first transcontinental railroad line on May 10, 1869. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some families who could not afford train tickets continued to make the trip by wagon even up until the earliest years of the twentieth century.

By 1906 many portions of the path had been ploughed up by farmers, buried under new construction, or simply overgrown and become difficult to distinguish. Meeker planned to identify the trail's exact path and place historical markers along the way. He also hoped that one day the Oregon Trail would be commemorated by what he described in a March 18, 1906, Seattle Post-Intelligencer article as "the monument of utility, a great 'pioneer way,' a national highway where multitudes will travel in ease and comfort in the coming passenger automobile of the future, the car without rails, track without monopoly, the people's own, untrammeled by vexatious control for gain" ("Ezra Meeker Dedicates First Monument On the Old Trail At The Dalles, Oregon").


Meeker chose to travel in a replicated covered wagon. The Puyallup firm of Cline and McCoy built the wagon using mostly new wood. One wheel hub and some of the metalwork were salvaged from wagons that had originally crossed the plains in 1853. The wagon box was fashioned like a boat and could, if necessary, be detached from the wheelbase and floated across rivers. This style of wagon was known as a prairie schooner. The canvas cover was painted with a map of the Old Oregon Trail and with slogans describing Meeker's planned journey. Puyallup hardware merchant Charlie Hood supplied the wooden yoke and special ox shoes (like horse shoes but shaped for cloven hooves).

Vandalism vexed Meeker from the start. He later recounted in Ox Team Days, "First I noticed a name or two written on the wagon bed, then a dozen or more, all stealthily placed there, until the whole was so covered that there was no room for more. Finally the vandals began carving initials on the wagon bed and cutting off pieces to carry away. Eventually I put a stop to such vandalism by employing special police, posting notices, and nabbing some offenders in the very act" (Meeker and Driggs, p. 215).

Two oxen, seven-year-old Twist and four-year-old Dave, pulled the wagon. Meeker bought a scotch collie, Jim, to serve as a watchdog. Herman Goebel managed the oxen from Puyallup to The Dalles, where William Mardon replaced him. Twist died on the trail after pulling the wagon some 1,700 miles, possibly felled by eating poisonous weeds, and was replaced with another ox, Dandy.

Meeker's first camp was in the yard of his mansion in Puyallup. He took the oxen on trial jaunts to accustom them to the yoke and to pulling the wagon. With flowing beard and white hair, rangy Ezra Meeker looked the part of a pioneer, although many of his neighbors and some family members tried to dissuade him from undertaking the trip at his advanced age (76). After a few days Meeker moved his camp six blocks away to the yard of Puyallup Methodist Church, built on land he had donated. He made the first of many hundreds of speeches preaching the gospel of Oregon Trail preservation while camped at this location.

By February 4 Meeker had backtracked to Seattle to raise funds and to make photographic plates of important local structures such as the Alaska Building and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer offices. Meeker planned to have the plates made into stereopticon slides and to use these in his lectures along the trail. (A stereopticon was a handheld device for viewing images three dimensionally.)

He parked his wagon and pitched a tent in front of the First Unitarian Church at the corner of Boylston Avenue and Olive Street, remaining there for several weeks. Then Meeker made his way to Portland, and from there shipped his rig up the Columbia River to The Dalles on the steamer Bailey Gatzert.

Monuments Along The Trail

Meeker personally installed monuments in Washington at Tenino (February 21, 1906); in Oregon at The Dalles (March 12, 1906), Pendleton (March 31, 1906), Meacham (April 5, 1906), LaGrande (April 11, 1906), Ladd's Canyon (April 11, 1906), Baker City (April 19, 1906), Old Mount Pleasant (April 21, 1906), Durkee (April 1906), Huntington (April 1906), and Vale (April 30, 1906); in Idaho at Fort Boise (May 1906), Boise (May 9, 1906), and American Falls (May 1906); and in Wyoming at South Pass (June 24, 1906) and Independence Rock (July 3, 1906). He arranged for local historical societies to place markers in Washington at Tumwater, Centralia, Chehalis, Claquato, Jackson Prairie, and Toledo; in Idaho at Parma, Twin Falls, Pocatello, Soda Springs, and Montpelier; in Wyoming at Cokeville, Casper, Glen Rock, and Douglas; and in Nebraska at North Platte, Gothenburg, and Grand Island. Wherever he went, he received copious newspaper coverage.

Most of the markers cost under $100 and their dedication ceremonies attracted enormous crowds, building cumulative support for trail preservation. In Baker City, for example, 2,000 people participated in the dedication of a bronze marker on the grounds of the local high school. At nearly every Meeker appearance, crowds numbering in the thousands were commonplace.

Meeker contacted local historical societies along the route, enlisting their help and suggesting that they raise funds to place monuments in their respective communities. Meeker spent his lunchtime break (referred to during the nineteenth century and after as "nooning") writing a book that he self-published when he reached Lincoln, Nebraska as The Ox Team or the Old Oregon Trail, 1852-1906. Meeker reprinted the volume with various additions about his trip whenever stock ran low. He shipped these books and also a set of postcard images documenting his journey to drop points along the trail and sold them to help fund his travels. Meeker, Mardon, Jim, Twist, Dave, Dandy, and the wagon were all immortalized in these postcards that Meeker continued to sell for years after this first trail marking journey.

Making Good Copy

On June 25, 1906, Meeker wrote to influential newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) describing his trip so far and asking Hearst to publicize the remainder of the journey in his papers. Hearst did so. Meeker made good copy: By the time he reached the summit of South Pass in the Rocky Mountains and dedicated a monument there, 20,000 people had attended monument dedications and some 4,000 people had donated money toward monument construction. Public support for marking and preserving the trail increased rapidly.

Meeker arrived in Indianapolis on January 5, 1907, and stayed in his old hometown until March 1, 1907. He then continued his journey, no longer placing markers since he had reached the trail's end, but continuing to speak out at every opportunity in support of trail preservation. The farther east he traveled the less enthusiastic the crowds became, sometimes expecting him to reveal himself as a traveling salesman. Moving the oxen through highly populated areas was also challenging.

In New York City public officials were at first reluctant to allow Meeker to display his wagon or sell his book and postcards, even threatening to arrest him. Eventually they suspended an ordinance forbidding the driving of cattle through city streets and Meeker was allowed to enter.

While Meeker and his driver William Marden were in the upstate New York town of Gloverville, Marden met and one week later married Clara Miner, an employee at a hotel. Clara did the cooking on the return journey, staying in Ezra Meeker's employ along with her husband until ca. 1918.

Wooing Theodore Roosevelt

Meeker tried to arrange a meeting with President Roosevelt at Roosevelt's Oyster Bay, New York, home but was rebuffed. On November 29, 1907, Washington Senator Samuel Henry Piles (1858-1940) and Representative Francis Cushman (1867-1909) introduced Meeker to the president in Washington, D.C., and pled his cause. Roosevelt assured Meeker that he would sign any trail-marking bill passed by Congress, then followed Meeker onto Pennsylvania Avenue to examine the team and wagon. In 1908 House Bill 11722, also called the Humphrey Bill, earmarked $50,000 for marking the Oregon Trail and spurred Meeker on to further trail-marking plans, despite the fact that the bill failed to pass.

Meeker departed Washington, D.C., on January 8, 1908. He stabled the oxen and settled down in Pittsburgh for the winter, making a quick train trip back to Seattle in February 1908 in order to see his family and arrange his participation in the upcoming Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. From Pittsburgh he drove the wagon to St. Louis and then on to St. Joseph, Missouri. He shipped the oxen and the wagon from St. Joseph and boarded the train, arriving in Portland on June 6, 1908. He then proceeded to Seattle, arriving on July 18, 1908. He made numerous public appearances throughout the area.

Not convinced that he had accomplished his goal with just one trip, Ezra Meeker would travel over the trail once again by wagon, then by car, by airplane, and many times by train, publicizing trail preservation all the way. Meeker wrote, "Monumenting the Old Oregon Trail means more than the mere preservation in memory of that great highway; it means the building up of loyalty, of patriotism, as well as the teaching of our history in a form never to be forgotten" (Meeker and Driggs, p. 272).

Sources: Fred Lockley, "The Old Emigrant Trail: The Story of Ezra Meeker and His Ox Team," Pacific Monthly, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1907), p,13-22; "Frequently Asked Questions," The End Of The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center website accessed April 10, 2006 (http://www.endoftheoregontrail.org/faq.html); Ezra Meeker: A Brief Resume of His Life and Adventures (Puyallup: Ezra Meeker Historical Society, 1972); Bruce and Margie Webber, Ezra Meeker: Champion of the Oregon Trail (Medford, OR: Webb Research Group, 1998); Erle Howell, Methodism in the Northwest (Nashville: Pantheon Press, 1966), p. 26; Ezra Meeker and Howard Driggs for Oregon Trail Memorial Association, Covered Wagon Centennial and Ox-Team Days (Yonkers-On-Hudson: World Book Company, 1932); "Ezra Meeker To Return To East Soon," clipping, ca. February 1908, Ezra Meeker Biographical file, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections; "Will Go East By The Ox-Team Route," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ca. February 3, 1906, Ibid.; "Ezra Meeker Is Now In Seattle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 3, 1906; Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress "Piles, Henry," and "Cushman, Francis," http://bioguide.congress.gov/ (accessed May 2, 2006); "Ezra Ends His Long Trip," The Seattle Star, July 18, 1908; Ezra Meeker, "Ezra Meeker Dedicates The First Monument On The Old Trail At The Dalles, Oregon," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 18, 1906.

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