American history is filled with men and women whose incredible strength, vision, determination, courage and character carved a 3.7 million-square mile nation out of a huge unknown wilderness.
About 3,000 of them were mountain men.
Most of them lived far from civilization and before the advent of photography in 1839, so we don’t know much about them. But we do know about some, because they kept journals of their high-adventure lives, and were sometimes written about in frontier newspapers and paperbacks.
When beaver trapping ended in the 1840s, Joe Meek retired from being a trapper-mountain man to become a leader in Oregon Country at a time when settlers were moving in.
Montain men Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger and Benjamin Bonneville were three of his friends who also roamed the American West in those days.
The movie “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio told the story of Hugh Glass — one of the West’s most compelling mountain characters.
In 1823, he and several companions were on a trapping foray when Glass was badly mauled by a huge grizzly bear and left to die alone.
He survived and despite the severe injuries traveled 250 miles across South Dakota to safety, and then vowed to avenge the abandonment by his companions. One of them was a young Jim Bridger.
Glass forgave the young trapper who later became one of America’s greatest frontiersmen.
Jim Bridger (1804-1881) was an American trapper, fur trader, merchant, Indian interpreter, army officer and wilderness guide; credited with discovering the Great Salt Lake and among the first to explore Yellowstone.
He married Indian women three times, but also had to fight Indians while scouting for the army in the infamous Powder River Expedition — called a massacre.
His first wife Cora was Flathead Chief Insula’s daughter, and his second a Ute woman — both wives dying in childbirth. His third wife Mary was the daughter of Shoshone Chief Washakie.
Though he had little formal education, Bridger had a sharp mind — learning conversational French, Spanish and several native languages. He also had a keen memory for geographical features.
Seeing the flood of wagons heading west on the Oregon Trail, he built Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming as a supply station for emigrants. It was also one of the last fur-trading posts before beaver trapping ended.
Mormon settlers resented his commercial competition and tried to arrest him as an outlaw, but he and Mary escaped to the mountains. Then the Mormons burned the fort to the ground, destroying his supplies.
Later while scouting for the army, Jim Bridger was asked about a possible route across the Rockies shorter than South Pass, and he showed them today’s Bridger’s Pass, now used by Union Pacific Railroad and Interstate 80.
No one knew the territory better than Jim Bridger.
Born in France, Benjamin Bonneville came to America with his family at age 7, graduated from West Point and served in the army, reaching the rank of brigadier general in the Civil War.
Taking leave from the army in 1832, he formed an expedition of 110 men to explore the Northwest for possible future national growth. That would have been in keeping with Thomas Jefferson’s letter to James Monroe: “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.”
(The “Manifest Destiny” concept originated by journalist John L. O’Sullivan didn’t emerge until years later in the context of annexing Texas and Oregon. It was supported by the Democrats but not Lincoln or Grant.)
Those concepts were probably too esoteric for those rough-and-tumble early mountain men — but not Joe Meek. He retired from hunting, trapping and surviving in the wilderness for the loftier goal of making Oregon part of the United States — and not Canada.
Starting in 1841, a series of Oregon settler gatherings called the Champoeg Meetings took place over a five-year span in the Willamette Valley — the primary destination of many emigrants on the Oregon Trail.
They met to form a provisional government for the territory until the expected annexation by the United States.
The need for some kind of law and order in Oregon Country was triggered with the death of prominent pioneer rancher Ewing Young, who became wealthy herding some 600 cattle from California to Oregon. He died without a will or heirs, and two competing groups were worried who would get his wealth.
Would it be the powerful and historic Hudson’s Bay Company and Canadian Catholic Jesuit priests, or the Methodist Mission from the United States?
The need for a probate function to deal with his estate, which had many debtors and creditors, led to a need for overall governance.
The settlers were also concerned about predatory animals killing their livestock, and wanted bounty hunting laws enacted, including how to pay for it.
The territorial governance matter was finally settled in 1843 with the Organic Laws of Oregon.
The vote on the new laws was close. Joe Meek favored Oregon becoming part of the U.S., and at a meeting of 101 men at Champoeg on the banks of the Willamette River between Salem and Portland, he called out “Divide! Divide! Who’s for a divide? All in favor of the American flag — follow me!”
Fifty-one supported him. Fifty opposed and left the scene. Some historical accounts say several French-Canadian trappers switched sides and joined Joe Meek because their wives were Native Americans and they had children.
Regretfully, the Organic Laws showed little concern for local Native Americans who were still considered “savages;” and according to a message from the government in 1844, were “the chief obstruction to the entrance of civilization” in a land of “ignorance and idolatry.”
On Nov. 29, 1847, a band of renegade Cayuse Indians murdered Methodist missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa and 11 others at their Waiilatpu Mission and school near Walla Walla, Wash., taking 49 others as captives for ransom — mostly women and children.
Sadly, two of them were Jim Bridger’s 11-year-old daughter Mary Ann — who died shortly after the captivity — and Joe Meek’s daughter Helen.
Whitman was accused by the Cayuse of being responsible for the deaths of some 200 Indians from an epidemic of measles — the “white man’s disease” — against which Native Americans had no natural immunity.
The Whitman Massacre started the Cayuse War.
The story of the massacre shocked Congress into action,
The following year, Meek and some companions went to Washington, D.C., to push for making Oregon part of the U.S. The effort paid off.
Congress and President James Polk made Oregon a territory in August 1848, and Meek was appointed U.S. Marshall — occasionally also serving as unofficial territorial governor.
While in the capital, Meek entertained the president and first lady Sarah — his second cousin — with funny stories about the Rockies.
Oregon statehood would have to wait another 10 and a half years.
In 1850, the Cayuse handed over five members of the tribe to face trial for the murders at Waiilatpu Mission. All five Cayuse were convicted by a military commission and hanged on June 3.
The hangman was U.S. Marshal Joseph L. Meek.
Lewis and Clark professor Ronald B. Lansing wrote about the execution: “U.S. Marshal Meek hanged the prisoners before a large crowd of Oregon City spectators. They were buried at the outskirts of Oregon City in unmarked graves.”
Joe Meek farmed wheat for a few years in Champoeg and stayed active in politics, serving as sheriff, U.S. Marshal, militiaman, legislator, court officer and state coroner.
After the Civil War, Meek met writer Francis Fuller Victor and the two worked on the aging frontiersman’s biography, “The River of the West,” published in 1870 — his stories “delivered in the unvarnished jargon of the mountain men.”
Joe Meek said, “I want to live long enough to see Oregon securely American … so I can say that I was born in Washington County, United States, and died in Washington County, United States.”
He got his wish.
Worn out by his book tours and beset with the legal problems, the great frontiersman Joe Meek died on June 20, 1875, at his home in Hillsboro west of Portland at age 65.
His wife, Virginia, lived another 25 years.
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The great Jim Bridger…
Jim Bridger’s “life spanned most of the 19th century, and his story weaves together the most persistent themes of the frontier: the pioneer spirit, the self-made man, the quest for adventure, the struggle for survival, the clashing and blending of European and Native American cultures, and the rugged individualism of one who lives by his own rules. A man to match our mountains, he was surely not meant to be lost to history.”
— Frederick J. Chiaventone, Cowboys and Indians
Bridger in good company…
James Felix Bridger was born in Richmond, Va., and left home as a teenager in 1822. His mountain man career started when he joined Gen. William Ashley’s Upper Missouri Exploration Expedition. Also joining Ashley’s 100-man exploration party were notable mountain men Jim Beckwourth, Jedediah Smith and the incredible Hugh Glass — all of whom would leave their marks on history.
The dark side of Joe Meek…
“Like many trappers, Meek entered sequential marriages with three Native women and had mixed-blood children. His beloved Nez Perce wife, Umentucken (Mountain Lamb), was killed by enemy Indians. A second wife left Meek because he was often drunk. In 1838, he married a Nez Perce woman whom he called Virginia; they stayed together until Meek died decades later. In 1856, the Meek family included three daughters and four sons.”
— Oregon Encyclopedia
On board a steamboat promoting Oregon: “This way, gentlemen, if you please. Come right on board the Declaration. I am the man from Oregon, with dispatches to the President of these United States, that you all read about in this morning’s paper. Come on board, ladies and gentlemen, if you want to hear the news from Oregon. I’ve just come across the plains, two months from the Columbia River, where the Injuns are killing your missionaries. Those passengers who come aboard the Declaration shall hear all about it before they get to Pittsburg. Don’t stop thar, looking at my old wolf-skin cap, but just come aboard, and hear what I’ve got to tell!”
— Joseph L. Meek, “Eleven years in the Rocky Mountains and a life on the frontier”
On a trip to the East, Benjamin Bonneville visited with John Jacob Astor in New York and met author Washington Irving, who was regaled listening to the Frenchman’s stories about his adventures. The two met later in Washington, D.C., where for $1,000 Bonneville turned over his maps and notes so that Irving could use them as the basis for his third “Western” book. The result was “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville,” published in 1837.
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