Excitement stirred as settlers looking to start a new life in unknown lands started the first wagon train across 2,170 miles from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon, in 1836. The five-month journey known as the Oregon Trail intrigued American citizens with opportunities of gold, land, and rich untouched soils laying on the other side of the trek. They would soon learn the journey itself would be the least of their worries, as disease, hunger, animal attacks, and harsh weather would create a brutal environment for those making the trip. Despite all of the obstacles, many made it to the Pacific Ocean, but only Erza Meeker would be brave enough to follow the Oregon Trail several times over.
Who is Ezra Meeker?
Born on a small family farm near Huntsville, Ohio in 1830, Ezra Meeker was a smart young man, despite only six months of real schooling. He was born into a large family of six brothers and sisters. At nine years old the Meeker family moved to Indiana, where Ezra would meet the love of his life, Eliza, who happened to be his new neighbor. In 1851 the two married in Indiana and quickly headed to Iowa, where the spent the winter before beginning their new lives as pioneers. As the news of a trail that allowed oxen-drawn covered wagons to reach the West coast, Easterners were drawn to the life of adventure, including the newly-weds. After the harsh Midwestern winter passed and the ground thawed, the couple, along with their 7-week old son Marion, met some family and friends at the Missouri River, which they would cross to begin the start of their new lives out West in 1852. According to the National Parks Service, travelers of the trail faced six main dangers that caused death: disease, accidents, gunshot wounds, drownings, river crossings, and weather. Poor hygiene and sanitary actions caused disease to outweigh the others by a wide margin, but strong currents, encounters with others and heavy rains caused many to perish in Western territories. Scholars have estimated that around 20,000-30,000 people perished due to these causes. This would make one think that the large group Meeker traveled with would have someone meet an unfortunate end, but luckily every traveler survived, although Erza did lose 20 pounds over the five months.
Once in Oregon, Ezra spent the next 50 years of his life following several business ideas. First settling in St. Helens, the Meeker’s started a boarding house, which they ran until they found an uninhabited island off the coast to settle on. Ezra then traveled back to Ohio via the Panama Canal to help his parents make it to the West coast. Upon arrival, he received word that his family had stalled on the trail, making him rush to find them on what was his second trip across the West. Meeker managed to reach his family, where he found his father who informed him his mother had passed in the Platte Valley. The tragedy later continued as his brother would drown later on in Sweetwater River. Once reaching Oregon for the second time, Meeker began his life as a trader, opening Meeker and Sons General Store where he made a good profit off of traveling miners headed to Canada. From here Ezra made an extravagant amount of money farming hops and built the Meeker Mansion, which you can still visit today. Once at the age of 76 and a very full life, he began his real life’s work.
The Old Traveler Begins
As time passed by many people began to forget about the Oregon Trail and those who traveled it. Once the first intercontinental railroad was built in 1869, the era of using oxen or horse-drawn carriages for long distances was mostly over, as it was no longer efficient. As the historic trail began to be overtaken by nature, Ezra Meeker began his life’s work to restore it. The man, now 76 years old, headed east across the country in order to save history. While following the historic path, he started placing signs showing the way he crossed over 50 years earlier, now called Meeker Markers. In order to fund these 22 markers, he would stop in nearby communities and lecture about the Oregon Trail, raising money from citizens in order to create awareness in the location of which they lived. As Meeker continued across the land, for now the third time, he began to receive national attention for his actions. After quickly rising to stardom, and nearing the end of another successful journey, he extended his course to cross the Brooklyn Bridge where all traffic was stopped for his team of oxen to cross. Next, he headed South to Washington D.C., as President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House to end his travels. At this point, Meeker had become a national hero, and he used his newfound stardom to spread awareness for the protection of the Oregon Trail. Throughout the rest of his 70’s and 80’s, Erza Meeker made 3 more trips across the American West. In 1910, he began his next trip very similar to the last, promoting awareness directly to the communities along the pathway. Six years later, in a campaign promoting an international highway system, he rode in a touring car from West to East. Meeker made his final trip in another way, by flying an airplane across the Western skyline in October of 1924. The man, now into his 90’s, had brought a tremendous amount of attention to the Oregon Trail and historical landmarks in general. He then created the Oregon Trail Memorial Association in 1926, promoting the protection of the path and recognition to those who perished along the way. That same year the group lobbied for the creation of a 50 cent commemorative coin piece that sold for $1, giving all profits to trail monuments. The bill was proposed, passed, and signed by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926. In the end, Erza Meeker passed away at 98 years old in a Seattle hotel. While he was upon his deathbed, two planes dropped hundreds of coastal rhododendrons upon the building as a touching tribute. Ultimately, Meeker was an excellent man who brought attention to the Oregon Trail and other historical landmarks nationwide.
Becker, Paula. “Meeker, Ezra. (1830-1928). HistoryLink. https://www.historylink.org/File/7737
Meeker, Ezra. The Busy Life of Eighty-Five Years of Ezra Meeker. Project Gutenberg, 2016.