America’s overland emigration trails in the 1840s and 1850s were rife with danger. Families moving to California or Oregon fell victim to disease, injury, weather and Indian attacks. Thirty-six of the 81 people in the Donner Party wagon company lost their lives at Donner Lake and Alder Creek due to starvation during the harsh winter of 1846-47. Twenty-five of them resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Casual observers of 19th Century American West history may be forgiven if they think the Donner Party tragedy was unprecedented or the worst loss of life by a wagon train — but they would be dead wrong. In the autumn of 1845 — the year before the Donner incident — about 200 families on the Oregon Trail followed a fur-trade veteran named Stephen Hall Meek on a disastrous shortcut to the Willamette Valley.
In 1845 there were only two choices for wagons and stock animals on the southern route into Oregon Country. When settlers reached The Dalles on the Columbia River, their wagons, supplies and livestock had to be floated down river through turbulent rapids by raft or flat-bottomed riverboats rented by the Hudson Bay Company. The alternative was around the north flank of perpetually snow-capped Mount Hood via a linkage of difficult trails. This arduous route had been surveyed by none other than Lansford Hastings, an attorney and land promoter, who in 1846, would hype his disastrous Hasting’s Cutoff in the Utah Desert that contributed to the Donner Party’s demise.
After two weeks struggling through rugged, waterless terrain, it became obvious to the pioneers that mountain man Meek had no idea where he was going. Some began to talk about stoning or hanging him.
Meek claimed he knew a third way. During the summer of 1845, he had been paid to pilot a huge Oregon-bound wagon train comprised of nearly 500 wagons accompanied by vast herds of domestic livestock. His contract required only that he get the emigrants to the Fort Hall fur-trading station on the Snake River, which Meek did successfully. From Fort Hall, Meek traveled by horseback with his new bride up the Snake toward Oregon Country. Meek and Elizabeth Schoonover had married a week after first meeting each other at the beginning of the overland journey.
On reaching Fort Boise at the junction of the Snake and Boise rivers, Meek began pitching to westbound emigrants a “shortcut that would save hundreds of miles.” It was a tempting proposition. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York City Tribune, described this final section of the trail well: “It is palpable homicide to tempt or send women and children over miles of precipice and volcanic sterility to Oregon. This migration wears an aspect of insanity.”
Meek apparently had some trapping experience in the region, but he had never personally traveled his proposed route. One pioneer recorded: “Meek was engaged to pilot the leading company to the Columbia River by a new and near route, cutting off between 100 and 200 miles travel.”
Meek claimed his new route reached the Willamette River in just 20 days. The company voted to hire Meek and signed a contract to pay him. Emigrant Lucy Burnett later wrote, “Meek agreed to pilot the company safely through in 30 days, or, as was written in his own words, give his head for a football.” It would take the company nearly two months of grueling travel, pushing their wagons over sand, rocks and desolate hills.
Starting on Aug. 25, more than 1,200 people followed Meek into the desert. After two weeks struggling through rugged, waterless terrain, it became obvious to the pioneers that mountain man Meek had no idea where he was going. Some began to talk about stoning or hanging him. Water was scarce and families were running out of food. Several children had died. The wagon train continued to push west through the desiccated volcanic tablelands with the women and children walking most of the way. When scouts finally found water, Meek proclaimed, “We are saved, we are saved! Thank God, for now I know the way.” After an Indian led them to the Crooked River, the company split up into smaller groups, all intent on finding their way to safety.
On reaching the roaring Deschutes River with its treacherous crossing, a messenger from the main body of wagons rode up and told Meek that he should run for his life. A father whose two young sons had just died was coming to kill him to avenge their deaths.
Desperate, Meek asked an Indian to get him and his young wife across the river. The native swam to the other side with a rope in his mouth and then pulled Meek and Elizabeth through the turbulent rapids to safety. Once on dry land, the couple quickly took off toward the Willamette Valley still days away. It took the wagons another week to reach The Dalles. In her journal, survivor Mariah King wrote, “A lingering fever prevailed during the journey and sickness and death attended us the whole way. Upwards of 50 people died on the new route, mostly children.”
William Barlow noted, “Meek said he knew every trail from Fort Laramie to Vancouver, west of the Cascade Mountains. But he proved himself to be a reckless humbug from start to finish.” Like Hastings, Meek was never punished for his lethal deceit that led to the deaths of so many. And similar to the fate of the Donner Party, those who traveled the old road got in well and in good time.
After learning about the Donner Party and Meek tragedies, it may seem as though there couldn’t be a worse calamity on the overland trail. But there is and it wasn’t through deceit, ignorance or underestimating the challenges of the terrain. The worst incident of all was a brutal mass murder that occurred 160 years ago, conducted by Mormon settlers along with Southern Paiute warriors.
On Sept. 11, 1957, the Baker-Fancher party from Arkansas was headed to California when it was ambushed by Mormon militiamen and Indian allies at remote Mountain Meadows, Utah Territory. After the first attack, the emigrants overturned their wagons to form a barricade. They fought for five days before they surrendered to false promises of safe passage and protection from Indians. Once they had given up their guns, however, they were summarily shot to death. There were 140 men, women and children in the Fancher Party; 123 were slaughtered by Mormon militia members and the Paiute. Only 17 children were spared, all younger than age 6, because “they could tell no tales.”
Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition or at TheTahoeWeekly.com.