Ezra Meeker, pioneer trailblazer, author and salesman extraordinaire of the Pacific Northwest, is probably best known for his unparalleled twenty-five year struggle to interest the nation and especially Congress, in the marking of the Old Oregon Trail, over which more than three hundred thousand immigrants traveled in search of a fresh start in the West.
Long before this epic undertaking Mr. Meeker had lived a full three score and ten years of vigorous and purposeful life of leadership and pioneering which brought him renown locally, nationally and internationally. Few men have accomplished so many things in a lifetime.
Born near Huntsville, Ohio, December 29, 1830, in a log cabin, his life spanned a period of almost a century in which he lived to see a nation of thirteen million spread to the far Pacific and the population increased ten-fold. He took a prominent part in that expansion and development.
In 1851, he married Eliza Jane Sumner and in April 1852, when their son, Marion, was only seven weeks old, they joined the westward trek with total possessions of one wagon, two yoke of oxen, three cows, provisions for the trail and high hopes.
Five long, hot, dusty, fatiguing months later they reached Portland, Oregon, on October 1st, with three dollars in their pockets.
Though they first settled in Kalama, the formation of Washington territory centered on the Puget Sound, and they relocated nearer the center of power, eventually settling in today’s Puyallup. There Mr. Meeker staked a claim, cleared the land, and became one of the richest, influential men in the state, as well as nationally and internationally famous in commercial circles.
In the next thirty years or so he cornered the hop market of the world, amassed a large fortune, became a merchant, bank president, promoter of the Northwest, lecturer and proponent of roads and railroads.
After he produced a promotional pamphlet, Washington Territory, West of the Cascade Mountains, and traveled to the east coast to encourage immigration to the new territory, he made the acquaintance of Jay Cooke, who not only put Meeker on his payroll, but took over the work of distributing this pamphlet, the first of Mr. Meeker’s many writings and the first comprehensive account of the area.
In 1865, Mr. Meeker, with his father and brother, planted a few rows of hops and started an industry that was soon to affect the entire commercial world, bringing millions of dollars into the Puyallup Valley and the Northwest. Realizing that the best market was in England, Meeker spent several months each year 1884 – 1887 in London in the interests of the hop growers of the Northwest.
When the failure of the hop industry (due to an infestation of lice) and the hard times and financial panics of the 1890s brought him financial ruin, Mr. Meeker turned his attention to supplying vegetables to miners in the Yukon and Klondike gold fields. This story has been told in Dennis Larsen’s book, Slick as a Mitten (WSU press, 2009).
In the early 1900s Mr. Meeker was being lionized as an early pioneer, and decided that in order to preserve the history of the westward movement, the Old Oregon Trail needed to be marked and preserved. This was a tremendous task to which he dedicated himself during the last twenty or more years of his life. During this time he met, and was encouraged by, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. In an effort to interest the nation and raise funds for his project, he crossed the country by ox-team in 1906, again in 1910; in an airplane with Lt. Oakley Kelley in 1915; and at the time of his death in 1928 at the age of 97, he was beginning a trip in a Ford automobile with a covered wagon on the back.
In addition, his activities included surveying, gold mining, platting the town of Puyallup, and acting as its first mayor. He was at one time president of the Washington Historical Association and at the time of his death, he was the founder and president of the Oregon Trail Monument Association, the predecessor of today’s Oregon –California Trails Association (OCTA)
Even more important, perhaps, than his many activities and achievements, was his urge to write about them, to chronicle the events of his day and thus provide a contemporary record of that time. Besides books for both adults and children, he contributed prolifically to newspapers, magazine pamphlets and agricultural journals. A partial list of his publications follows:
- Washington Territory West of the Cascade Mountains, Containing a Description of Puget Sound and Rivers Emptying into it (1870) (the first such book printed in Washington Territory).
- Hop culture in the United States being a practical treatise on hop growing in Washington territory, from cutting to the bale (1883)
- Pioneer Reminiscences on Puget Sound, The Tragedy of Leschi (1905)(reprinted recently as two separate books).
- The Ox Team or the Old Oregon Trail, 1852-1906 (1906), (reprinted about 6 times. The most readable for young people is the so-called Driggs edition, published in 1925 in collaboration with Howard Driggs as Ox Team Days on the Oregon Trail).
- Ventures and Adventures (1910)
- Uncle Ezra’s Short Stories for Children (1912)
- A Busy Life of 85 Years (1915)
- Seventy Years of Progress in Washington (1921)