Marissa and I originally started this blog because we kept finding cool things in our research for our stories that we had to share! As I’m researching my Frontier Bachelors series set in early Seattle, Washington Territory, I’m coming across a number of interesting real-life characters that I know you’ll love. This post starts an ongoing series on some of these men and women who made the Pacific Northwest what it is today.
The Oregon Trail is a legend unto itself. Thousands of men, women, and children traversed the country to claim land on the West Coast. Ezra Meeker and his wife Eliza were among them. Ezra eventually settled in the Puyallup area south of Seattle, where his hop raising made him rich enough to build his wife a mansion that still stands today. He later lost all his money and tried to recoup it by selling supplies in the Klondike Gold Rush. But that’s not the most intriguing part of the story.
You see, when Ezra was up in years (70 to be exact, in 1900), he became concerned that people didn’t know or appreciate what the pioneers had accomplished in traveling the trail. Farmers were plowing over the land once crossed by wagon wheels, merchants were building businesses where campfires had kept away the night. He became obsessed with preserving the trail, wanting to see granite monuments erected all along the route. After careful planning, he decided to travel backwards along the trail, by ox-drawn covered wagon, to raise awareness and funds to purchase the markers. He set out in 1906 with his trusty oxen Dave and Twist, an amiable collie named Jim, and, eventually, a driver and cook named William Mardon, to speak about the trail and convince towns to place his markers.
The way wasn’t easy. Some towns refused to support him, unwilling to help an “old man” die out on the Plains or in the mountains. Twist did die along the way, and no other cow or ox would pull with Dave until Ezra lucked into a similarly sized ox named Dandy. When speaking fees failed to pay for his travels, he started selling postcards of pictures taken on the journey. Some towns put in markers while he was there; others put them in after he’d left.
It took him nearly two years to make it across the country, traveling beyond the start of the trail into Pennsylvania and New York. Though he was nearly arrested in New York City, he ended up getting his picture taken on Wall Street and driving across the Brooklyn Bridge. He then headed to Washington D.C. where his state congressional delegation had arranged a meeting with President Roosevelt, who was pleased to discuss Meeker’s vision. At that point, Meeker had earned enough money after his expenses to send the wagon and team home by boat and train, with only a few miles of pulling across land.
But that wasn’t his last trip along the trail. When Congress began discussing appropriating money for markers in 1910, Ezra spent another two years charting the path so the markers could be placed accurately. He continued promoting the trail at every major event along the Pacific Coast for another decade. When Dave and then Dandy passed away, he had them stuffed and donated them to the Washington State History Museum. He traveled the trail again by automobile in 1916 and met with President Wilson and again in 1924 by airplane and met with President Coolidge. In 1925, he spent some months driving an ox team for a wild west show. He even published a romance novel about the Oregon Trail. He was on his way once more along the trail, in an automobile designed for him by Henry Ford, when, in 1928, he died of pneumonia just short of his 98th birthday.
I grew up hearing stories of Ezra Meeker’s exploits. Every year in elementary school, we would tour the Washington History Museum and gaze in awe at Dave and Dandy. Although I understand the wagon is no longer strong enough for display, the valiant oxen remain standing, teaching new generations about the triumphs of the Oregon Trail.
I think Ezra Meeker would be pleased.