Have you ever wondered who the first true Oregonian was?
Neither have I.
However, this thought crossed my mind on a day I was bored out of my mind. So, after a dollop of thoughtlessness, I concluded who this person is. I’m sure were he alive today he’s hunt me down and arrest me – he was a deputy U.S. Marshall for the Oregon Territory – and was known to look askance at anyone who wasn’t him. He was big and gnarly but nice. And the person he wanted talking about himself was, of course, himself.
So, what makes for a true Oregonian? Let’s get this settled up front. First, I’d say that a love of the outdoors is vital. I’ve yet to meet an Oregonian who doesn’t have an unbridled love of nature. Some even have a bridled love. I love the outdoors, and used to spend hours, days, weeks out walking the trails of the Northwest. Eagle Creek in the Gorge. Oy. Finest kind. The trails around Mt. Jefferson. Wonder-freaking-ful.
Our candidate meets this requirement in spades: He spent just over ten years working in the Northern Rocky Mountains year-round, playing hide and seek with some Native Americans and consorting intensely with others. He traveled from the Cascades to Montana, even venturing into California on several occasions for some unknown reason. All the while living outdoors, catching his food in the wild, building fires over which to cook it, (ask for his recipe for grilled beaver tail.) running white water, skiing Timberline, mountain biking in the mountains and all that sort of stuff. (Not really, some of these activities were yet to be invented.)
Oregonians are reputed to have a certain weird aura permuting the air about them. This weirdness expresses itself in hair style, clothing or lack thereof, language and other modes of expression, opinions, hobbies, past times, and activities that qualify under the First Amendment of the Oregon Constitution. Which includes nudity in public. Our candidate meets this criteria in that for some years of his career he rarely bathed and wore the same clothing day after day after odiferous day. For something like ten years. Yike. To describe his personality in a sentence: Picture Huckleberry Finn as an adult. Frightening thought, ain’t it? This man has been described as an adult Huck Finn by various authors over the years. Having read his biographies several times, I must agree. A barefoot loafer indeed.
And he was involved in many firsts of Oregon. The basic Oregon Trail was known from 1813 when several Americans traveled backwards on the Trail from Astoria to St. Louis. The main problem other than the trail being backwards on some maps, was that no one could figure out how to get a four-wheeled wagon across the Blue Mountains from Fort Hall, Idaho to the Willamette Valley in either direction. So, the first groups to venture west such as the Whitmans and the Lees, took wagons as far as Fort Hall then schlepped all the belongings they could schlep on their backs the last 300 or so miles to what passed for civilization out here. i.e., Oregon City.
Our candidate is known to have extended the Oregon Trail from Fort Hall to The Dalles by a combination of his knowledge of the terrain – having trapped beaver and other critters in the Blue Mountains – and his ability to use a mattock and shovel to dig and create roads of a sort across this wilderness. When word got back East in 1840-41 of his accomplishment, people started to travel the Oregon Trail — once they were assured they wouldn’t have to live in Idaho any longer than necessary.
Once he and his wife, Virginia, and his children arrived in the Tualatin Vally he became a driving force in Pro-USA political activity amongst the 200 or so Europeans living out here. Half of this motley crew were Pro- Hudson’s Bay Company (the folks who pretty much owned and ruled the Oregon Territory in 1840.) In 1841, our man convinced 52 of the 100 proto-Oregonians present to “vote” to be part of the U.S.A. at a town hall held in the village of Champoeg on the Willamette River.
After the Whitman Massacre in 1846, (in which one of his daughters died) our man took it upon himself to cross North America on foot to ask help from the administration of President Polk. At the time, the U.S. Government was busy frying other fish, i.e., fighting the Mexicans for ownership of lands stolen from the American Indians by the Mexicans, (including Texas) in what is now the Southwestern United States. Oregon was an afterthought, but by 1859 we were a state with the only official two-faced flag in today’s club of fifty. Which says a lot about our standards and practices.
When our hero, who by now those in the know would realize is Joseph “Uncle Joe” Meek, he literally hitch-hiked across the whole continent to Washington, D.C., without a dime in his pockets, to arrive at the White House unbathed and wearing his leathers. There, he was greeted by President Polk with open arms (and pinched nose) – because Mr. Meek was either Polk’s second cousin or Polk’s wife’s second cousin. I’ve read both. The story of this trip would be a great script for an adventure – comedy only no one would believe it to be true.
In a spare moment between the Halls of Montezuma and the discharge of our Army, the U.S. Government – the Prez – the Congress – all them folks – decided to make Oregon an official U.S. Territory, even appointing someone to be Governor who barely knew where Oregon was. Mr. Meek agreed to the price of $10,000.00 to escort nascent Governor Lane to Salem, Oregon. While he spent the money before even leaving Washington, they still made it home by way of California. The two were just barely alive when they arrived, but, hey, they arrived.
Back in Oregon, Mr. Meek began his career as U.S. Marshall in an area from the California border, across what now passes as a state, Washington, Idaho, parts of Montana and Utah. His name and reputation carried such weight that no one resisted him in his enforcement of the law.
Meek also was a legislator and then a General in the U.S. Army during some “Injun” War. Finally, Meek became tired of all the travel his job required and retired to his homestead in the Northern Tualatin Valley where he lived with wife, Virginia, his children, and grandchildren until he died. Meek said many times that he was born in Washington County, Virginia and wanted to be buried in Washington County, Oregon. He is buried in the middle of a cloverleaf off/on ramp to the Sunset Highway – after all he was there first – and the state did put up a nifty memorial near his gravesite. That no one can read as they blast through Washington County, Oregon on their way to a weekend at the beach.
A suitable tribute to a man who played a role in the foundation of this weirdness we lovingly call Oregon.
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SinCity Portland Walking Tours
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