EZRA and ELIZA JANE MEEKER

Ezra Manning Meeker (December 29, 1830 – December 3, 1928) was an American pioneer who traveled the Oregon Trail by ox-drawn wagon as a young man, migrating from Iowa to the Pacific Coast. Late in life he worked to memorialize the Trail, repeatedly retracing the trip of his youth. Once known as the "Hop King of the World", he was the first mayor of Puyallup, Washington.

Meeker was born in Butler County, Ohio, to Jacob and Phoebe Meeker. His family relocated to Indiana when he was a boy. He married Eliza Jane Sumner in 1851; the following year the couple, with Ezra's brother and with their newborn son, set out for the Oregon Territory, where land could be claimed and settled on. Although they endured hardships on the Trail in the journey of nearly six months, the entire party survived the trek. Meeker and his family briefly stayed near Portland, then journeyed north to live in the Puget Sound region. They settled at what is now Puyallup in 1862, where Meeker grew hops for use in brewing beer. By 1887, his business had made him wealthy, and his wife built a large mansion for the family. In 1891 an infestation of hop aphids destroyed his crops and took much of his fortune. He later tried his hand at a number of ventures, and made four largely unsuccessful trips to the Klondike, taking groceries and hoping to profit from the gold rush.

Meeker became convinced that the Oregon Trail was being forgotten, and he determined to bring it publicity so it could be marked and monuments erected. In 1906–1908, although in his late 70s, he retraced his steps along the Oregon Trail by wagon, seeking to build monuments in communities along the way. His trek reached New York, and in Washington, D.C. he met President Theodore Roosevelt. He traveled the Trail again several times in the final two decades of this life, including by oxcart in 1910–1912 and by airplane in 1924. During another such trip, in 1928, Meeker fell ill but was succored by Henry Ford. On his return to Washington state, Meeker became ill again and died there on December 3, 1928 at age 97. Meeker wrote several books; his work has continued through the activities of such groups as the Oregon-California Trails Association.

EARLY LIFE

Ezra Manning Meeker was born in Butler County, Ohio, near Huntsville, on December 29, 1830,[1] the son of Jacob (1804–1869) and Phoebe (Baker) Meeker (1801–1854). His paternal ancestors had been among the early settlers of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where their ancestral home was located. In the American Revolutionary War, about twenty Meekers fought for the new nation. Ezra was the fourth of the six children Jacob and Phoebe had together, with older brothers John, Manning (died at age one week) and Oliver, and a younger sister Hannah and brother Clark.[2][3]

Jacob was a miller and farmer. In 1839, the family moved from Ohio to Indiana, close to Indianapolis—Ezra and his older brother Oliver walked behind the family wagon for 200 miles (320 km). Ezra had little formal education; he later estimated a total of six months. Phoebe, seeing that her son's mind was not well adapted to formal learning, allowed him to earn money through odd jobs. He obtained work as printer's devil at the Indianapolis Journal, where his duties involved delivering the newspaper to subscribers, among them local pastor Henry Ward Beecher. In 1845, Phoebe's father, a Cincinnati merchant, gave his daughter $1,000, enough to buy the family a farm. As both Jacob and Ezra Meeker realized the boy enjoyed the outdoor life more than inside work, Jacob placed Ezra in charge of the farm, allowing the elder Meeker to work as a miller.[1][4]

Drawing of Meeker delivering a paper to Henry Ward Beecher

MIGRATION TO OREGON TERRITORY

Ezra Meeker married his childhood sweetheart, Eliza Jane Sumner, in May 1851.[5] The Sumners lived about four miles from Indianapolis, and like the Meekers were family farmers who did not hire help. When he asked her for her hand, he told her he wanted to farm, which she accepted as long as it was on their own property. In October 1851, the couple set out for Eddyville, Iowa, where they rented a farm. They had heard that land in Eddyville would be free, but this was not the case. Ezra, working in a surveyor's camp, decided that he did not like Iowa's winters—a prejudice shared by his pregnant wife. Reports were circulating through the prairies about the Oregon Territory's free land and mild climate. Also influencing the decision was the urging of Oliver Meeker who, with friends, had outfitted for the trip to Oregon near Indianapolis, and had come to Eddyville to recruit his brother. Ezra and Eliza Jane Meeker vacillated on the decision, and it was not until early April 1852, more than a month after the birth of their son Marion, that they decided to travel the Oregon Trail.[5][6][7][8][9]

 

The eastern half of Meeker's migration, as far as Fort Laramie

That April, Ezra, Eliza Jane, Oliver, and Marion Meeker set out to journey to Oregon, some 2,000 miles (3,200 km) in all.[10] With their wagon, they had two yokes of oxen, one of cows and an extra cow. They were accompanied by William Buck, who would remain with them much of the way before separating from them to go to California.[8] Buck outfitted the wagon, Meeker selected the animals, and with his wife carefully prepared food supplies.[11] The wagons of Meeker's grouping traveled together by informal agreement; there was no wagon master in overall charge.[12]

A number of Oliver Meeker's friends from Indianapolis joined the group before the party left Iowa.[9] They crossed the Missouri River at the small Mormon settlement of Kanesville (today Council Bluffs, Iowa). Meeker recounted that, as he stood on the far side of the Missouri, he felt as if he had left the United States. As they journeyed westward along the Platte River in Nebraska Territory, there were such large numbers traveling that they were never out of sight of the tens of thousands of other pioneers journeying west that year.[13] Sometimes several wagons advanced side by side.[14] The Meekers chose a slow, steady pace, unlike many who sought to rush along as quickly as possible. Piles of abandoned possessions lined the way, cast aside to lighten loads. As the party went further west, they passed some of those who had hurried past them, and whose wagons had broken down or whose oxen had died as a result of failure to care for them properly. Disease was an ever-present risk; at the present site of Kearney, Nebraska, Oliver Meeker was stricken with illness. This led to a division of the group when most of Oliver's friends, including later Idaho Territory governor David W. Ballard, refused to wait. Oliver recovered after four days, and was one of the lucky ones—his brother later estimated that one in ten of those who took the Trail perished during the journey. Ezra Meeker remembered meeting one wagon train, slowly moving east against the flow of traffic. That group had made it as far as Fort Laramie (today in Wyoming) before losing the last of its menfolk, and the women and children turned back, hoping to regain their homes in the East. He never learned if they made it.[9][13] According to local historians Bert and Margie Webber, "all of these deaths made a great impression on the young man".[14]

 

The western half of Meeker's migration

They encountered Native Americans, who would sometimes demand provisions for passage, but none were given and none of the incidents ended with violence. The travelers' stores were supplemented by shooting bison, which roamed the Great Plains in huge numbers. Despite being a source of food, the bison were a danger as their stampedes could destroy property and kill irreplaceable stock. In southeastern Idaho, the California Trail separated from the Oregon, and Buck and some of the rest of the party split off there; they settled in California and remained friends with Meeker until their deaths.[15]

Meeker found that the final stretch between Fort Boise (now Boise, Idaho) and The Dalles was the most difficult. The section is filled with mountains and deserts, and there was little chance of supplementing stores. Those who entered this 350-mile (560 km) segment with exhausted teams or minimal supplies often died along it. Others shed baggage brought across half a continent, saving only provisions. Parties who feared this part of the journey sometimes tried to float down the Snake and Columbia Rivers; many were wrecked in the rapids and died. At The Dalles, where river passage was available to Portland, the Meeker party found a motley crowd of emigrants. With the money earned at the ferry, they booked passage downriver. Oliver Meeker brought the livestock ahead overland, and met Ezra and his family on their arrival in Portland on October 1, 1852, where they slept inside a house for the first time since leaving Iowa.[16] Ezra Meeker had lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and possessed $2.75 in cash.[17] All of the party survived, although Jacob Davenport, one of Oliver Meeker's friends from Indiana, became ill on the final part of the trip and died some weeks after reaching Portland. All but one of the livestock completed the trip—a cow was lost while crossing the Missouri River.[18] Ezra Meeker considered his journey over the Oregon Trail to have been the making of him as a man.[19]

TERRITORIAL PIONEER

Early Days

Meeker's first employment in the Pacific Northwest was unloading a ship that had docked at Portland. He moved to the nearby town of St. Helens, where construction of a wharf in competition with Portland's was under way—Oliver rented a house to lodge workers in, and Ezra went to help his brother. By this time, Ezra Meeker and his wife were determined to fulfill their original plan to farm, and when work was abandoned on the wharf, he went to find land which could be cultivated.[20]

Meeker first made a claim in January 1853 about 40 miles (64 km) downriver from Portland, on the current site of Kalama, Washington. There, he built a log cabin and began his first farm. He did not build close to the water, which proved fortunate as there was a major flood on the Columbia soon after he claimed the land. Instead, he profited from the incident, selling logs the river left on his claim, together with trees he chopped down, for lumber.[21]

In April 1853, Meeker heard that the lands north of the Columbia would become a separate territory (named Washington Territory), with its capital on Puget Sound, an inlet of the Pacific. He decided to travel north with his brother to scout for lands to claim around the waterway. There were as yet only about 500 European-descended inhabitants in the Puget Sound region, of which 100 were in the village of Olympia, which would become the territorial (and later state) capital. Despite there only being a few settlers, there was considerable activity in the area—the lumber of Puget Sound fueled San Francisco's building boom.[22] The Meekers' first view of Puget Sound was unprepossessing; the tide was out, exposing mud flats. Nevertheless, they pressed on, building a skiff to travel by water. They were met by friendly Indians, who sold them clams and taught them how to cook the shellfish. Engaging one of the Native Americans as guide, they explored the area, looking for good, well-located farmland. At one point, they entered the Puyallup River, in a region where no white settlers lived, and camped on the present site of Puyallup, but were deterred by the large number of huge trees, which would make it difficult to clear land for farming. They decided on tracts on McNeil Island, not far from the thriving town of Steilacoom, where the farm's produce could be sold. Oliver remained on the island to build a cabin while his brother went back to fetch family and possessions, and sell their old claims at Kalama. He returned to a cabin in which they installed a glass window that looked over the water to Steilacoom, with a view of Mount Rainier.[23][24] The Meeker claim was later the site of McNeil Island Corrections Center.[6]

 

Meeker at age 23 in 1854

Later in 1853, Ezra and Oliver Meeker received a three-month-old letter from their father, stating that he and other family members wanted to emigrate, and would do so if Oliver Meeker could return to assist them. They immediately responded that Oliver would return to Indiana by early the following year, and put their plans on hold to prepare for and finance his journey by steamship and rail. In August 1854, Ezra Meeker received word that his relatives were en route, but were delayed and short on provisions. He quickly went to their aid, intending to guide them through the Naches Pass into the Puget Sound area. When he found his family's party close to the first Fort Walla Walla (near Richland, Washington), he learned that his mother and a younger brother had died along the Trail. He guided the survivors through the pass and to his claim on McNeil Island.[25][26]

Jacob Meeker saw only limited prospects on the island, and the family took claims near Tacoma, where they operated a general store in Steilacoom.[27] On November 5, 1855, Ezra Meeker claimed 325.21 acres (131.61 ha) of land called Swamp Place, near Fern Hill, southeast of Tacoma. He began to improve the land, planting a garden and an orchard.[28]

Pursuant to the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, settlers purchased lands from the Indians. The agreement, signed under duress, restricted the Native Americans to inadequate reservations, and in 1855, the Puget Sound War broke out, bringing unrest to the region over the following two years. Ezra Meeker had maintained good relations with the Native Americans, and did not fight in the conflict, though he accompanied one expedition to recover possessions captured by the Indians. A controversial aspect of the war was the trials and hanging of Chief Leschi, deemed responsible for killing during the conflict. Meeker sat on the jury in the first trial, which resulted in a hung jury, with Meeker and another man holding out for acquittal on the grounds that Leschi was a combatant in wartime. A second trial convicted Leschi, and he was hanged. Meeker described the execution as wrongful, and in later years wrote of the incident. In 1895, Meeker chartered a special train to bring whites to Leschi's reburial on tribal land, and in 2004 the Washington State Senate passed a resolution that Leschi had been unjustly treated; a special historical tribunal made up of past and present justices of the Washington Supreme Court also exonerated Leschi as both he and the man he was said to have killed were combatants.[28][29][30]

Puyallup Historical Society at Meeker Mansion

312 Spring Street | Puyallup, WA  98372

Phone: (253) 848-1770   Email: Ezra@meekermansion.org

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