Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Meeker than Moses: More about Ezra (Part 2)

This is a continuation of yesterday's post entitled "Ezra Meeker, Chariton & the Oregon Trail" --- a little more about Meeker's epic journey east by ox-drawn covered wagon during 1906-7, when he was 76, retracing the route west to the Pacific Northwest that he had taken during 1852, when he was 22.

There's a great deal of material out there about Meeker, both in book form and just waiting to be Googled, so there's no need to do anything in depth here. Ezra was a native of Butler County, Ohio, who moved as a boy with his family to a rural area near Indianapolis. He married Eliza Jane Sumner in Indiana during May of 1851.

During October of that year, they headed west to find a new home in Iowa. They rented a farm near Eddyville and settled down for the winter --- but neither Ezra nor Eliza enjoyed Iowa's winter of 1851-1852, so during April of 1852, they outfitted themselves and set out to cross the Plains and mountains to the Pacific Northwest.

The opening days of their journey took them southwest on the ridge road from Eddyville to Albia, then west on the new (and minimally developed) state road linking Albia and Chariton. Meeker apparently had no memory of Chariton or any of the other little towns then scattered along the old Mormon Trail in south central and southwest Iowa. But then there wasn't much to remember. Chariton didn't take off until 1853, when the federal land office moved here from Fairfield.

The Meekers reached Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 1, 1852, but moved on into what became Washington Territory, settling eventually at the site of the current town of Puyallup, which he founded, He made a fortune there cultivating hops, becoming the wealthiest man in the territory. A blight, however, cost him his fortune and he resolved to make his fortune anew in the Yukon gold fields, but that never quite worked out. By 1906, when he hatched the idea of calling attention to the Oregon Trail (and himself) by retracing his journey of 1852, his major asset was the Meeker mansion, built during the glory days in Puyallup and still standing (below).

As noted yesterday, Ezra's epic 1906 expedition reached Chariton on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 1906 --- a bad time for the city's newspaper editors who were scurrying to finish up their Thursday editions and really didn't have time to do any reporting. Henry Gittinger, of the Leader, chose instead to pick up and publish a story published Oct. 30 in The Mills County Tribune along with a notice that Ezra had indeed arrived in town. Here's the Tribune story that Gittinger pubished under the headline, "Meeker is on his way."

Ezra Meeker and his now famous ox team passed through Mills County the past week and tarried in Glenwood from Friday afternoon till early Sunday morning. 

He arrived in Malvern Sunday afternoon and remained over night, taking up his journey eastward and passing through Hastings and Emerson Monday.

His passage through Mills County was unheralded. Many people had not read of his unusual undertaking and of course could not appreciate the full meaning of his coming.


He has officially styled it: "The Ox Team Monument Expedition." This needs explanation.

He is a man 76 years old next December. He was born in Huntsville, Butler County, Ohio. When a young man he lived near Indianapolis in Indiana. In 1851 he came to Iowa and in the spring of 1852 went with the thousands of others across the plains and settled on Puget Sound near Seattle, Wash.

Meeker is now retracing the course, in as nearly the same manner as possible that he took in 1852, 54 years ago.

He disclaims that it is a "fad." He says his purpose is a serious one. Truly, there is a romance, a sentiment, interwoven about his long and toilsome journey that places him beyond the ordinary "freaks" who now and then attract public attention.


Mr. Meeker seeks to perpetuate by means of monuments erected along the route the memory of the old Oregon Trail and in addition the historic highway over which the thousands of people passed in the early 50s on their way to California.

In Southern Idaho the great caravans of covered wagons in that early day divided. The majority pushed southwest through Nevada into California. Others, among them Meeker, went to the northwest.

In his book he says: "The ox team was chosen as a typical reminder of pioneer days, an effective instrument to attract attention, arouse enthusiasm, and a help to secure aid to forward the work of marking the old Trail, and erecting monuments in centers of population."


Meeker arrived in Glenwood about 5 o'clock last Friday afternoon. He had started out bright and early from Council Bluffs.

A few miles out he got helplessly tangled up with genuine Missouri bottom gumbo. His ox team was stalled and he was compelled to phone to Liveryman Al Marshall to come and relieve him of a part of his load.

He declares that the stretch of bottom road out of Council Bluffs was the very worst he had encountered in his entire journey of 2,000 miles.

He will probably devote a page or so in his book telling of this road and it will not be a very flattering advertisement of Iowa roads.


In Glenwood Meeker was given permission to halt with his ox team and to pitch his tent on the Wickham lot on the southeast corner of the square to the rear of the Bromley & Lewis real estate office.

Saturday afternoon his wagon was pulled up in front of the Lamb bank and attracted much attention.

It called to the minds of our older citizens the early days when ox teams were common. The wagon was also of the old prairie schooner style, resembling the wagons used in the civil war. It was painted blue and covered with canvas.

The wheels were held on by the old style "lynch pin." Underneath the wagon dangled the "tar bucket," tar being used to "grease" the wheels as in the old days.

The wagon box was "dished" or canoe-shaped, with slanting ends. In crossing the plains these wagon boxes were, in the early days, made use of to cross streams too deep to ford.

Both the wagon box and cover were thickly inscribed with names, attesting the long journey it had taken.


Although 76 years old, Meeker is remarkably spry and active. He is spare built, has white thin hair and beard, and possesses clear-cut features.

A Tribune man interviewed him in his wigwam-shaped tent and found him a very interesting talker. That he is possessed of a fine vein of humor was attested by a casual remark: "Moses was meek but I am Meeker."

He presented the Tribune a copy of his book, written and published since he started on his journey last January.

This book is entitled "The Ox Team, or the Old Oregon Trail." It gives an interesting account of his present trip, also much about his trip in 1852.

A copy of his book, also another one written by him, entitled, "Pioneer Reminiscenses of Puget Sound," was purchased and will be found in the Glenwood public library.


Meeker's expedition was nearly broken up by the death of one of his oxen (the best one) near Kearney, Neb. He was unable to secure another till he arrived at Omaha, when he purchased a big Short-horn steer at the stock yards and after some delay broke him into the "yoke."

The ox that has made the entire trip thus far is the one on the right hand side with the twisted horn.


As MEEKER's "horseless carriage" stood on the square Saturday afternoon in Glenwood a little instrument attached to the wooden axle near the hub of the left hind wheel read: "17411."

This instrument is called an "odometer." Each revolution of the wheel is recorded by means of a clutch on the hub. The figures indicate the number of miles traveled since March 14, when the instrument was purchased at The Dalles, In Oregon, located only a few miles up the Columbia River from Hood River where W.F. Laraway resides.

Before reaching The Dalles he had come some 300 miles from his home at Puyallup near Seattle, leaving there the 29th of last January.


In the States of Washington, Oregon and Idaho great interest was taken in the ox team man and modest granite monuments were erected in the principal cities along the route.

The interest was not quite so great through Wyoming and Nebraska. In all 20 monuments were erected and dedicated as he went along. Arrangements at other points were made to raise funds and dedicate at a later date.

He took a number of views as he came along the old Trail and has had them printed on souvenir postal cards. These he and his two assistants sell at their various stopping places.


In a brief address on the street at Glenwood he advocated for the first time in public the making of the old Oregon Trail into a national road, to be called the "Pioneer Way."

He says the government should take hold of it, combining a practical use with the preservation of a historic route. He points out that the public roads are getting to be more and more important with the coming of the automobile.

He thinks the making of the old Trail into the fine thoroughfare would help towards solving the railroad question.


Meeker names Omaha as the official end of the Trail. Plattsmouth would have been more appropriate, as it was along the Platte River from its mouth to the intersection of the Sweetriver River in the Wyoming that long emigrant trains used to pass.

No definite route has been mapped out by Meeker through Iowa. He is not certain of his bearings, except for a short distance.

In the fall of 1851 he arrived at Burlington and passed through Mt. Pleasant and Fairfield and stopped for the winter at Eddyville in Wapello County near Ottumwa.

He had intended locating in Iowa but the severe winter of 1851-2 determined him to go to the milder climate of Puget Sound.

After leaving Eddyville in April, 1852, he passed through Albia and does not remember any point till he reached Council Bluffs, the intervening territory being a vast prairie with only small towns along the route.


It is possible Meeker passed through Mills County and striking the old north and south government road went through Glenwood to Council Bluffs.

It is rather more likely, however, that he struck the road further to the north and came through old Macedonia and Taylor Station.

At any rate, he was on Mills County soil when he started across the Missouri River, crossing at the old ferry operated by Col. Peter A. Sarpy at Traders Point in the northwest corner of the county.

Meeker gives an interesting chapter in his book about crossing the "Big Muddy." At the time there was no ferry at council Bluffs and he and others arriving at that point were compelled to come south into Mills County to cross.

Shortly after this time Sarpy moved his ferry a few miles south to the old town of St. Mary. He also operated a ferry at East Plattsmouth.


Meeker says it was a wonderful sight as he approached this ferry, upwards of a thousand covered wagons were converged at that point waiting to cross with only two small flat boats in operation.

Shortly afterwards a large steamboat came up the river and by working day and night soon had the "prairie schooners" landed on the Nebraska side.

The older residents of Mills County recall the days of the California gold excitement in the 50s and the Pike's Peak rush in the 60s. Thousands of covered wagons in those days passed this way, many of them getting their supplies at Glenwood for the long journey across the plains.
--- Mills County Tribune


After leaving Chariton, Ezra moved on through Albia to Eddyville, where the trek had begun; then continued on to Indianapolis. He left there on March 1, 1907, and continued east through Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Meeker ran into a little trouble in New York City, where he was ticketed for driving cattle on the public streets. Once that difficulty was resolved, however, he obtained permission to drive his ox-drawn wagon the entire length of Broadway --- a six-hour trek.

By Nov. 29, 1907, Meeker, his wagon and oxen were on the grounds of the White House in Washington, D.C., to meet President Theodore Roosevelt. He finally finished this journey in Seattle on July 18, 1908, traveling by train and riverboat across much of the country, but driving his team across Missouri and then from Portland to Seattle.

Promoting the Oregon Trail remained his principal occupation for the remainder of his life. During 1916, he made the trek from Washington, D.C., to Olympia, Washington, in a Pathfinder automobile. In 1924, he flew the Oregon Trail route with Army pilot Oakley G. Kelly, with the Dayton, Ohio, International Air Races their destination.

As a result, he became the only known pioneer to have crossed the prairie on the Oregon Trail by ox-drawn wagon, automobile --- and airplane.

As noted last time, Ezra died just short of his 98th birthday on Dec. 23, 1928, in Seattle, and was taken home to Puyallup for burial beside Eliza Jane, who had died during 1909, in Woodbine Cemetery.

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