Famed Pioneer Stephen Meek Arrived in Northern California in the 1800’s. He Was Probably Just Lost.

When Christopher Columbus discovered the “New World,” (Cuba and the Bahamas, really) he was convinced he had landed on the coast of China. Like Columbus, mountain man and historic wagon train guide Stephen Meek also became famous for his inability to navigate his way out of a paper bag.

OK, so what business do we have poking fun at some old dead guy with a reputation for famously getting lost in Oregon in 1845? Well, like so many wanderers, it turns out he was one of us. He ended up in Northern California, plus we may never know how much of a screw up he was, or wasn’t.

When I first viewed the movie “Meek’s Cutoff,” I had no idea I was learning about yet another notorious pioneer who ended up in NorCal. In 1845 Stephen Meek led over a thousand immigrants over an untested wagon train “trail” across Oregon’s High Desert. They got lost and 23 settlers died along the way, plus another 25 after arriving back in civilization. 

Even before John Sutter struck gold on the American River in 1848, immigrants were already flooding into the West, especially to Oregon and California. The trail began in Independence, Missouri and ran over 2,000 miles through prairies, along rivers and through mountain passes. Starting in the early 1830s, as many as 400,000 pioneers would eventually join wagon trains heading West. 

The California Trail broke off at Fort Hall in Idaho and headed southwest toward Reno, NV and eventually to the northern California gold fields. The Oregon Trail continued due west through southern Idaho to Fort Boise, then northwest up to the Columbia River. Pioneers in search of homesteads in the fertile Willamette Valley then had to hang a left on the far side of the Cascade Range and turn south. 

Though it was an untested route, it made some sense that if there were a way across the Oregon desert and through the Cascade Range, hundreds of miles and much hardship could be avoided. Pioneers were always interested in finding shorter, easier routes across the vast, unexplored landscape, and money could be made by leading wagon trains over the newest supposedly “shorter, easier” trails. Enter Stephen Meek. 

The question comes down to this: did Stephen Meek (who was unemployed at the time) con over a thousand people and hundreds of wagons into leaving the established trail to cross the unexplored Oregon desert? History seems to think so. 

There was an April 2011 article in The New Yorker magazine about the film “Meek’s Cutoff” which describes Meek as a “crude, mythomaniac con man.”

Now, in fairness to Meek, there were rumors of danger and potential attacks by the Walla Walla and/or Cayuse Indians in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, so there might have been some motivation to try the untested route. Meek was generally considered familiar with eastern Oregon because he claimed to have done some trapping there, but likely not in the waterless no-man’s land where they ended up. A good number of pioneers in the group had also contracted what they called “camp fever” (Typhoid Fever), and some did not survive.

It didn’t take long for the pioneers to begin questioning Meek’s integrity and competence. First, the trip took much longer than he had predicted and water was in very short supply, (especially for over a thousand people and hundreds of livestock). Many more thirsty oxen than people died along the way.

Wagon train survivor Betsy Bayley later wrote the following in a letter to her sister:

We camped at a spring which we gave the name of “The Lost Hollow” because there was very little water there. We had men out in every direction in search of water. They traveled 40 or 50 miles in search of water but found none. You cannot imagine how we all felt. Go back, we could not and we knew not what was before us. Our provisions were failing us. There was sorrow and dismay depicted on every countenance. We were like mariners lost at sea and in this mountainous wilderness we had to remain for five days. At last we concluded to take a Northwesterly direction . . . . After we got in the right direction, people began to get sick.

It became obvious Meek was not as familiar with the territory as he’d let on. He had been through some of the area ten years before, and there had been lots of standing water at that time. Unfortunately, 1845 was a drought year. There was speculation that Meek was really working for the British (who wanted possession of the Oregon Territory) to lead them to their deaths. There was some talk of lynching Meek, so it was lucky for him that very few trees grow in the Oregon desert. 

Trying to find water and their way in the desert, the group split and reunited several times. One of the groups encountered a lone Native American man who guided them to water in exchange for a blanket. Meek traveled ahead and was first to arrive at Sherars Falls (north of present-day Maupin), one of the few places where the Deschutes River could be crossed. 

Meek had been tipped off that a man in the wagon train (who had lost two sons on the trip) intended to kill him. Fearing for his life, Meek used his head start and the Sherars Falls crossing to make his getaway. Helped by some Native Americans, Meek and his wife crossed the swift currents of the Deschutes tethered to ropes. Then they headed north to The Dalles (on the Columbia River) where they convinced mountain man Black Harris to return and take their place getting the wagon train across the Deschutes River, which he did. This bought the Meeks another two weeks to disappear for a while, which they did, before the immigrants started arriving at The Dalles. 

After the disastrous trip, Meek and his wife actually lived in Oregon’s Willamette Valley for another three years, but his reputation had followed them. When the gold rush started Meek moved his family to California where he worked the mines before settling in what is now Siskiyou County. After his wife passed away in 1865, Meek went back to guiding and trapping until his death in 1889. He is buried in the Etna, California Cemetery.

It’s impossible to know what Meek was thinking when he agreed to guide that wagon train across the Oregon desert, but orienteering was clearly not his thing. Did he intentionally mislead all those people because he happened to need a job at that time? Did the pioneers themselves convince Meek to take the untested route because they feared potential Indian trouble? We may never know for sure.

Though history judges Meek rather harshly, he was not held accountable at the time for getting the wagon train lost or leading them into the unexplored Oregon desert. Maybe his most redeeming quality is that he had sense enough to find Northern California, even if it might have been by accident.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

One Comment

  1. My great great grandmother died on the Meek Cutoff. She died in Tygh Valley just before the Deshutes River. My great grandfather was 5 years old at the time. He walked most of the way. When he got older he was able to get on a plane and fly the route.

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