A skilled practitioner of the frontier art of the tall tale, the mountain man Joe Meek dies on his farm in Oregon. His life was nearly as adventurous as his stories claimed.
Born in Virginia in 1810, Meek was a friendly and relentlessly good-humored young man, but he had too much rambunctious energy to do well in school. At 16 years old, the illiterate Meek moved west to join two of his brothers in Missouri. In subsequent years, he taught himself to read and write, but his spelling and grammar remained highly original throughout his life.
In early 1829, Meek joined William Sublette’s ambitious expedition to begin fur trading in the Far West. For the next decade, Meek traveled throughout the West, reveling in the adventure and independence of the mountain man life. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, the heavily bearded Meek became a favorite character at the annual mountain-men rendezvous, where he regaled his companions with humorous and often exaggerated stories of his wilderness adventures. A renowned grizzly hunter, Meek claimed he liked to “count coup” on the dangerous animals before killing them, a variation on a Native American practice in which they shamed a live human enemy by tapping them with a long stick. Meek also told a story in which he claimed to have wrestled an attacking grizzly with his bare hands before finally sinking a tomahawk into its brain.
Over the years, Meek established good relations with many Native Americans, and he married three Native American women, including the daughter of a Nez Perce chief. Nonetheless, he also frequently fought with tribes who were hostile to the incursion of the mountain men into their territories. In the spring of 1837, Meek was nearly killed by a Blackfeet warrior who was taking aim with his bow while Meek tried to reload his Hawken rifle. Luckily for Meek, the warrior dropped his first arrow while drawing the bow, and the mountain man had time to reload and shoot.
In 1840, Meek recognized that the golden era of the free trappers was ending. Joining with another mountain man, Meek and his third wife guided one of the first wagon trains to cross the Rockies on the Oregon Trail. Meek settled in the lush Willamette Valley of western Oregon, became a farmer, and actively encouraged other Americans to join him. In 1847, Meek led a delegation to Washington, D.C., asking for military protection from Native American attacks and territorial status for Oregon. Though he arrived “ragged, dirty, and lousy,” Meek became something of a celebrity in the capitol. Easterners relished the boisterous good humor Meek showed in proclaiming himself the “envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from the Republic of Oregon to the Court of the United States.” Congress responded by making Oregon an official American territory and Meek became a U.S. marshal.
Meek returned to Oregon and became heavily involved in politics, eventually helping to found the Oregon Republican Party. He later retired to his farm, where he died on this day in 1875 at the age of 65.