The Meek Cutoff is perhaps the most infamous of all Oregon Trail branches. Seeking a more direct middle route across OregonÕs High Desert and central Cascade Range, Stephen Meek, an experienced mountain man, led 200 wagons across the arid plains west of Vale, Oregon toward the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Unable to find water on its intended route west, the train turned north and, after a difficult search, found water at Buck Creek and the South Fork of the Crooked River. By the time MeekÕs wagon train arrived in The Dalles, at least 23 persons had died.
In later years, rumors of a gold discovery — one bright aspect of the Meek debacle — inspired many eager prospectors back onto MeekÕs trail. Although gold was never discovered along the Meek Cutoff, per se, hopeful emigrants pushed eastward into the Powder River and Baker Valleys where, in the 1860s, gold veins were indeed located. Establishing the mines and the community services necessary to support them were the first step toward permanent emigrant settlements in eastern Oregon.
Tuck what is called Meek’s Cutoff…a bad cutoff for all that tuck it. …I will just say, pen and tong will both fall short when they gow to tell of the suffering the company went throughSamuel Parker, 1845
Stephen Hall Meek was born in Virginia in 1807 to James and Spicy Meek. While in his late teens, Meek’s mother died and his father remarried quickly. Meek’s new mother, a widow with children of her own, was happy to care for the Widower Meek’s family, and in so doing, imposed a new rigor into daily life. High time, the teenage Stephen Meek thought, to branch into a new life and head west. By 1828, Meek joined the fur trade and, with William Sublette, ventured into the Rocky Mountains.
Over the next seventeen years, Meek followed wildlife trails, Indian trading trails, and Hudson’s Bay Company trails over much of the west. He joined the great trappers rendezvous and wintered with the Flatheads and “Napercies.” He traveled many of the West’s significant rivers: the Platte, Salmon, Snake, American, Greybull, Yellowstone, Humboldt, the John Day, Malheur, Owyhee, Columbia, Klamath, and Shasta. He traveled in the company of the great mountain men and explorers of the American West including Jim Bridger, Captain Benjamin Bonneville, and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Tom McKay.
In 1842, the fur trade was in its closing years, and Meek found himself in Independence, Missouri. Alone, and with no particular direction to follow, Meek joined an emigrant wagon train bound for the Oregon Country. Under his guidance, the few emigrants who crossed overland that year arrived at Willamette Falls early in October.
At Oregon City, Meek and several of his associates were employed by Dr. John McLoughlin surveying and selling lots along the Willamette and Clackamas rivers. Never one to settle for long, Meek was traveling again the following spring. Subsidized by McLoughlin and the Hudson’s Bay Company, Meek and his friend, Loren W. Hastings, lead a party of fifty-three men, women, and children from the Willamette River to Sutter’s Fort on the American River in California. Although a number of those who were California-bound turned back midway, Meek saw the remaining travelers to Sutter’s Fort and then continued alone to Monterey. After a brief stay in Monterey, Meek continued north to Bodega Bay. There he boarded a ship with intentions to travel the world, but only got as far as New York, via Panama, before a change of heart took him home to Virginia.
By May, 1845, Meek was back in Independence, Missouri, where an unprecedented group of Americans was gathering together to travel to the Oregon Country. Stephen Meek’s experience (and perhaps his low bid for services) inspired his companions to select him as guide for the train of nearly 500 wagons.
The Wagon Train of 1845
When the wagons rumbled west from Independence, Meek was accompanied by his new bride Elizabeth. Travel was tedious and difficult. At Fort Hall, promoters encouraged emigrants to travel south to California, taking advantage of Captain Sutter’s offer of free land.
While Sutter’s promoters encouraged the emigrants, others warned them of the potential of Indian attack along the main stem of the Oregon Trail and of the dangers of crossing the Blue Mountains. Elijah White, returning to Washington DC from the Willamette Valley encouraged the emigrants to try a “new” route. Several turned south toward California, the rest continued west to Oregon.
During this time [after crossing the Snake near Fort Boise] a man whose name was Steven Meeks came along with a company of [Parkers] for Oregon; he said he had traveled the country between his point and Oregon many times and was quite familiar with the route; and that he would pilot us a near way that would save us a number of days’ travel, provided that we would pay him for this service five dollars for each wagon on out trail. We consulted with the Manager [Mr. Craigie] at Fort Boise, in relation to this and he informed us that Mr. Meeks had passed the Fort three times to his knowledge, and also that he knew that there was a pack trail, through the country that Mr. Meeks designed going, so the most of us decided to follow him; after going down the river for a few miles we turned up a creek, leaving the old road that was traveled by the trappers.Samuel Hancock, emigrant of 1845
Nathaniel Olney, a merchant from The Dalles who originally traveled the Trail in 1843 and was among those gathered at Fort Hall, also tried to convince the emigrants of the dangers on the old road. Meek and Olney devised a plan that would save time and bypass the dangers ahead. By traveling directly west from the Oregon Trail’s junction with the Malheur River, Meek, Olney and others were convinced that they could connect a route through central Oregon, over the Cascades and into the Willamette Valley. Meek made a rough map of the routes he had taken when he crossed over the Malheur, Owyhee, and the John Day Rivers in 1834 with Bonneville. It was enough to convince about 40% of the emigrants to break from the main wagon train.
While others continued on the main stem of the Oregon Trail, Meek — with between 750 and 1000 emigrants, 200 or so wagons, and thousands of head of livestock — set out across the Malheur River, convinced that this was indeed a safer and shorter route for all concerned.
September 3, 1845…At this place are two trails; the fork is in the bottom above the crossing of the creek, and there is a possibility of emigrants pursuing the wrong route. I do not deem it amiss to give some particulars in relation to this road. Mr. Meek, who had been previously engaged as our pilot, but had previously went in advance of the companies who had employed him, and who after reaching Fort Hall fitted up a party to pilot through to Oregon, informed the emigrants that he could, by taking up this stream to near its source, and then striking across the plains, so as to intersect the old road near to the mouth of Deschutes or Falls river, save about one hundred and fifty miles travel; also that he was perfectly familiar with the country through which the proposed route lay, as he had traveled it; that no difficulty or danger attended its travel. He succeeded in inducing about two hundred families to pursue this route; they accordingly directed their course to the left, up this creek, about ten days previous to our arrival at the forks.Joel Palmer, 1845
The group broke into companies. Within those companies were parties, small groups of families helping each other through the trip. Among those following Meek were diarists James Field, Jesse Harritt, John Herren, John Howell, Samuel Parker, and Solomon Tetherow.
Here we left the former route, bearing a little south of west; we steered our course over a tolerable good road thirteen miles and encamped on the same stream, found grass and fine willows.Jesse Harritt, August 25, 1845
Meek led the wagon train along the rocky banks of the Malheur River, then up and over rocky and rough bluffs. The wagons at this point were proving very maneuverable (inspiring James Field to wonder if they could be driven anywhere). The oxen and emigrants had a very difficult time with the route, however, and some of the parties moved more quickly than did others. The miles stretched between small groups following Meek’s route; in some cases the companies followed just a day behind the lead, others followed several days behind.
Meek led the straggling train through Harper Valley and the Malheur Mountains, then on to the north fork of the Malheur River near Beulah Reservoir. From Castle Rock, a prominent feature of the area’s landscape north of the reservoir, the group moved west only as fast as the oxen could go. The rocky ground cut and bruised the animals’ feet. Historian Donna Wojick noted that, “Stones frequently broken by a forward company, iron-stained by wagon wheels and bloodstained by cattle’s feet, left a vivid trail for companies behind to follow.”
Just south of Castle Rock, Sarah Chambers (an emigrant in the party) succumbed to “camp fever.” Her husband Rowland and the rest of the party marked her passing on a large stone, inscribed “Mrs. S. Chambers Sept. 3rd 1845” Hers was the first death among those following Meek; Many others succumbed in the weeks that followed.
Travel became ever more difficult as the emigrants worked through the area near Drewsey, over Stinkingwater Mountain, and on toward the Harney Valley. Grasses grew drier and water became more scarce. The emigrants had been following Meek for ten days and were growing suspicious of his claims about the route.
The route Meek described and the route followed to date were vastly different. There was speculation around the evening campfires that Meek had lied, had been paid by the HBC or by the Indians to lose the Americans. Some decided he should be hanged (and went so far as to arrange their wagons to make a gallows from a tripod of wagon tongues). Others argued that Meek was their only hope for escape; he was the only man among them who had been in this region of the country before.
Matters worsened (as described by Wojick) when Meek and the wagon train crested the rim of Harney Valley and the broad lake (Malheur) he expected to see was gone — a large, marshy and stagnant pool stood in its place. The water was unsuitable for both the animals and the people so dependent on them. September’s first week was ending and the groups were concerned that their situation would worsen. Rumor and frustration mounted within the camps and the group painfully realized that they were indeed “lost.”
It was his [Meek’s] intention to follow down Crooked river to the Deschutes and down it to the old road, but when he came to the marshy lake spoken of last Sunday, the company refused to follow him if he made the circuit necessary to get around it upon Crooked River again so he struck off in a westerly direction in order to get upon the main Deschutes river. He well knew that there was a scarcity of grass and water across here and so informed them, but it was near and they would have him go it, and now blame him for coming the route they obliged him to.James Field, September 11, 1845
The emigrants did find small diversions from their angst at Malheur Lake. Along the dried lake banks were large deposits of alkali which could be used as baking powder. Emigrants eagerly collected the crystals for making bread.
While camped in the valley, the wagon train also met Paiutes living on the shores of the Malheur lake. Although the emigrants often saw Indians in small groups at a distance, this was the emigrants’ first direct encounter with a tribal group since leaving the main stem of the Oregon Trail.
The companies found that the valley was a haven for game birds. Even so, the water was too brackish for human or animal consumption and the companies wandered miles out of the way searching for fresh spring water. The lead parties of the wagon train camped on the north edge of Harney Lake.
After another day’s travel to Silver Lake, the emigrants again held a camp meeting. Meek thought it would be best to stay on the Hudson’s Bay Company trapper’s trail and cross through the central Cascades into the Willamette Valley.
However, having lost all faith in Meek’s abilities and suspicious of his motives, the emigrants argued that it would be better to abandon the trappers’ trail and head straight for the Deschutes, cross it and work toward the Cascades; then, if they couldn’t find a pass through the mountains, they could still travel up the Deschutes to The Dalles — and safety. Meek’s authority and protestations about the lack of water in the region were perhaps dulled by recent events. The emigrants dismissed his opinions and set out on a slow, dry pull to Wagontire Mountain.
En route, a toddler succumbed to whooping cough, and on September 8, the wagon train marked its second death and buried 21-month-old Elkanah Packwood. Concerned about humans (or animals) stealing from the boy’s grave, the emigrants took care the following morning to roll their wagon wheels over the small burial mound, smoothing the ground so that there would be no hint of the child’s body within. Illness increased throughout the wagon train.
It took the entire group three days to travel the 25 miles from Silver Lake to Wagontire Mountain. They set up camp just after midnight.
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 the mountainous wilderness we had to remain for vie days.as remembered by Betsy Bayley in 1849
With several hundred emigrants and several thousand head of livestock milling around the watering hole, the water was quickly stirred to mud. In the days that followed, the spring’s flow was nearly depleted.
For days, men rode out into the desert looking for the next watering hole; each night they returned unsuccessful. Scouts finally found a spring September 13 and carried water back to camp, but it was not enough to last long, nor was Lost Hollow a suitable place to stay. Daytime temperatures soared and the little water in camp froze at night. Fall was close a hand.
According to Wojick, scouts had traveled up to 40 miles west of Lost Hollow and still found no water. The crisis was closing in on Meek. The company captains, the emigrants, and the livestock, now numbering more than 4000 cattle, oxen and sheep were in an extremely dangerous condition.
On the night of September 15, the emigrants held another camp meeting. Meek was out with the water scouts when the meeting convened. When Meek came back into camp he was asked why he guided the wagon train so far south when The Dalles was north and west. Meek recounted the dilemmas, discussions, and decisions that led to the present situation.
Meek had yielded to the will of the people rather than rely on his own good judgement and was now being blamed for the present crisis.Solomon Tetherow
Meek set out again to find water in the rocky hills north of camp. While absent from camp, threats were again made against his life. Several persons reported the discontent and threat to Meek, but his commitment to the emigrants held strong — he again affirmed that since, essentially, he had gotten them into this mess, he would lead them out of it. Meek’s friends convinced him to hide away in a wagon, a safe place where he could still put his instincts and experience to good use and remain hidden.
While camped at Lost Hollow, the wagon train reorganized. Several of Tetherow’s wagons joined several of Ownbey’s. They filled beef hides (and anything else they could) with water and headed out of the hollow mid-afternoon on September 15. They proceeded north into the darkness, guided through the night by wagon trails and mounted men.
Tetherow and those who remained with him followed northward, too, along a line of small fires set by the advance group (and Meek) as they plotted the course. As Tetherow’s party traveled, they listened intently; those blazing the route agreed to fire three shots when water was found. In the early hours of September 16 the forward wagon heard the shots.
Not all chose to follow the wagons into the night. Some, because of weakened animals, illness, or broken spirits, decided to wait at the Hollow until they were sure that water was ahead. Riders came into camp on the 16th to report that a source had been found 30 miles north. Over the next several days, wagons pulled out of camp, again following wagon tracks and bonfires.
198 wagons, 2299 head of cattle, 811 head of oxen, 1051 souls all consume a heap of water.Samuel Parker
There was considerable sickness in our company. Not withstanding this we traveled all the afternoon and night succeeding our departure from the rest of the emigration, and turned our cattle out to feed upon all they could get, and to obtain the dew that had fallen the night before; after this we started again and traveled all day; towards evening we gave our oxen a little of the water we brought from the Springs [at Wagontire Mountain], then continued traveling all night, allowing our animals to graze and avail themselves of the dew; as we did the day before and then started on the third day’s drive from the Springs, first giving our teams a little water to enable them to proceed. Just before sunset of this day we heard a number of shots fired in the direction we were going and afterwards firing was renewed much nearer to us; looking forward we discovered a man coming a full speed on horseback — our guide had found water!
The campsite north of Lost Hollow is near the present G.I. Ranch on the south fork of the Crooked River. As they moved out of the Hollow, some in the group wanted to go directly to The Dalles; others however, wanted to go west to the Deschutes and, if there was no pass into the Cascades, simply follow the river north to The Dalles. The captains decided to divide the groups; the wagon train split just south of the Maury Mountains. One group followed Tetherow’s (and Meek’s) trail northwest toward the Deschutes; the other followed the North Star and the sun’s shadows, north toward the Columbia.
Many of us thought that at all events, the company had better separate as nothing was being accomplished by remaining together except greater distress…Samuel Hancock
Toward the Deschutes: Meek and Tetherow
About 40 wagons and two hundred persons followed Meek and Tetherow west from the watering hole on Crooked River. After a long night’s travel, the group pulled to rest along Bear Creek, stopping along the way to bury another child. As the wagons moved on, scouts ventured out each day to find water. In camps, folks looked for water, too. Legend holds that on September 17th or 18th a child found lumps of gold mixed into the sand in the bottom of a blue water bucket. Legend or not, gold would be of little use to the desperately thirsty emigrants.
A few miles past the camp, the wagon train faced a steep slope, and again, Meek was nowhere to be found. Some tried to find a way up the long hill; others sat and cursed Meek.
One of the men that happened to be just ahead of us said: “When I get to the top of this hill, if I ever do, I am going to hunt for Stephen Meek and if I find him, I’ll kill him!” Meek was sitting just above us, back of a big sagebrush. He stepped out with his gun in his hand and said, awful slow and cool, “Well, you’ve found me, go ahead with the killing!” The man wilted down and didn’t have spunk enough to kill a prairie dog. He was like a lot of other bad men — just a bad man with his mouth.Mrs. Asa Peterson
Once they reached the long hill’s summit, the exhausted groups set up camp for the night and prepared supper. During mealtime, an Indian walked into camp. The Indian and the emigrants eyed each other warily before someone presented the guest with food. After eating hurriedly, Meek and Tetherow, using jargon and hand signals, asked the Indian where they were and how best to get to the Crooked River and on to The Dalles. The Indian, a member of the Warm Springs tribe, showed them where water was and how to get to the Deschutes River.
An Indian came to us, pointed out the course to [The Dalles] to which he said it was 5 days journey, and so far from refusing to follow the advise of the Indian, at my request he was employed by Mr. Meek to pilot us to Crooked river, which he did for a blanket.Solomon Tetherow
When they reached the summit of the mountains they camped on a meadow, and while there some Warm Springs Indians came to camp. One of the Indians could speak a little English. He told them that if some of them would go with him to a high ridge near by they could see down into the Deschutes and Crooked River valleys. He showed them some buttes that lay south of Prineville and said that they would find water there, but no water between there and the Deschutes. He also showed them what is now called Pilot butte, and told them if they would steer straight for that butte they would find a place in the bend of the river where a man could cross it, go down on the west side, through by way of the Metolius and Tygh valley and that they would eventually reach The Dalles.W. H. Herren
While plans were made to follow the route described, a relief party went ahead to The Dalles following the Indian’s instructions and several riders, a scouting party, continued west looking for a pass through the Central Cascades. The following day, September 19, the emigrants started out, following the Indian’s lead. They traveled across Bear Creek Buttes, camping on the edge of Bear Creek. The next day, the groups traveled another twelve miles to present Alfalfa. Wojick indicates that the group buried one, if not two, person(s) there.
The group turned northwest from Alfalfa, and at what appears to be a nooning place, someone carved “Lost Meeks 1845” into the lower limb of a large juniper. Continuing toward the Deschutes River, in line with where they expected to find a mountain pass, they made camp a little south of Cline’s Falls. While here, the scouts returned, unable to find a route through the Cascades in the prescribed time. The group decided to put off finding a pass through the mountains and instead to make haste toward The Dalles, and then head west on the main stem of the Oregon Trail.
The emigrants stayed their northward course until they reached the Crooked River’s deep canyons. They followed the river’s south rim eastward to a crossing within sight of Smith Rocks. Several of the emigrant families were using the last of their flour and meat. They shared as much as they could afford to, still hoping that they would be in The Dalles soon, but not entirely sure when they would arrive.
Once across the Crooked River, the group returned to a north-northwesterly course over the plateaus and Juniper Ridge, through Madras, to Sagebrush Springs, setting up camp there on September 25. They were in territory familiar to Meek (and others) at last, and in fact, when they set up camp, it was too dark to see the worn path created by the other faction of lost emigrants just a few hours earlier. Although Wojick notes that one, perhaps two, died among those following Tetherow and Meek, she adds that at Sagebrush Springs that night, a baby was born.
Parker and Riggs: The Northbound Group
From their camp on the south fork of the Crooked River, the other faction straggled onto a northbound path on September 17 and 18th (the same day the other group found gold). Some traveled a dozen miles, some only half a dozen. A number of their party were sick; camp fever, lack of water, and limited rations of rancid beef were compounding the difficulties of already difficult travel.
The widespread group traveled along the south fork of the Crooked River to Cold Springs. They turned northwest from Crooked River to the top of Stein’s Ridge. Working together, the emigrants slowly eased wagons down the slope before moving into the Camp Creek Valley, another dozen miles from the previous camp site. From there, they worked across the sagebrush plain at the east end of the Maury Mountains before again joining the Crooked River just west of the mouth of Camp Creek.
For two more days, the emigrant group struggled through hills, valleys, and even through the waters of the Crooked River, moving northwest toward the center of Oregon near the present town of Post. After resting overnight, the group struggled over rocky ledges and through thick timber before reaching Wikiup Creek. They crossed the Crooked River again at Wikiup Creek, then moved north onto a plateau that was dry and sparsely timbered. After they crossed Combs Flat and Dixie Meadow, the group slowly moved into the Ochoco Creek watershed. Once at the creek, they continued west on their course back to the Crooked River. The next day, the company moved on through Prineville northwesterly to Lytle Creek.
As September’s days grew shorter and the group neared the Cascades, the emigrants noted the beautiful mountains to the west. Against that magnificent backdrop, an ever increasing number of people fell ill with camp fever. There was water enough and plenty of grass for the livestock, but food for the humans was ever-diminishing. Hurrying to The Dalles was essential, but nearly impossible. Parker kept a record of the sick and dying and noted on September 23: “Beried 4 persons heare.” They were camped just beyond Willow Creek, northwest of Lytle Creek.
The emigrants packed up and continued the next day, working their way northward, knowing that the Deschutes was just to the west and that to get to The Dalles, they would eventually have to descend the steep canyon and cross the river. While the main body of emigrants continued on their parallel course to the river, several scouts were sent ahead to locate a crossing. The Deschutes was daunting and unyielding — there seemed no easy way down to the river’s water and no safe place to ferry the wagons and animals across the water.
On to The Dalles
The group was joined on September 26 by Tetherow and Meek’s companies. The wagon train had split up for nearly ten days, and still arrived at Sagebrush Springs at the same time. They convened to camp and proceeded on again as one wagon train. As before, the wagon train took hours to get started. Families packed and left when they could. Camp fever, hunger, and illness took lives. For those who left family members behind, the departure must have been agonizing.
many codent get to water and water was taken to them 32 in number heare we beried 6 persons.Samuel Parker
Slowly the emigrants pulled east through Lyle Gap, up Bull Mountain and across the Shaniko Flats before camping at Criterion Summit. The wagon train took days to pass and on Bull Mountain (a dry camp for one group) on September 29, Parker again noted “beried 3 heare.”
The next day, Parker’s group continued for another 30 miles before camping on Booten Creek, where, according to Parker’s diary: “5 beried heare.”
The advance members of the wagon train reached Buck Hollow Ridge on September 28. From there, scouts went out again to look for a way down the deep canyon and across the river. They found the smoothest path down a very steep slope and working together, as they had done so many times before, set up drag teams to move the wagons to the bottom of the canyon.
The place at which we struck the Deschutes river presented the most unfavorable place for crossing that could be imagined. The river is, at that point, four rods wide, flowing between perpendicular walls of basalt, the water very deep and the current very rapid.William A. Goulder
At the canyon floor (a narrow rim along either side of the river), the emigrants watched Indians fish from platforms. Drying racks were set up at intervals, providing plenty of room for the trickle of wagons to park before being ferried across the river. The first persons in the canyon, Meek, Olney, and Elizabeth Meek, began working immediately to devise a system of ropes across the river. Once across, Meek estimated that they were 30 miles from The Dalles. The Meeks and Olney hurried to secure supplies and alert the Mission and the community that the 200 families and their wagons were coming in. The Meeks and Olney bought food, axes, ropes, and pulleys and tried to get help from the mission, only to learn that the missionaries’ work was for the Indians, not, according to Wojick, the emigrants, and help was denied.
At this place they met an old mountaineer, usually called Black Harris, who volunteered his services as a pilot. He in company with several others, started in search of the lost company, whom they found reduced to great extremities; their provisions nearly exhausted, and the company weakened by exertion, and despairing of ever reaching the settlements.
Supplies were moved as fast as possible and were welcomed by all at the crossing. The emigrants set to work caulking the wagons and converting them into ferries. With the Indians’ help, the livestock, people, and wagons were moved over the river.
Our friends, white and red, are on the opposite bank of the river having arrived from The Dalles, bringing axes and ropes and other implements and materials to assist in the task of crossing. They are led by a brave old mountaineer, one of the noblest…who was known to everybody as “Black Harris.” They are soon at work improvising temporary floating structures and suspension bridges. Pretty soon an Indian is seen to plump into the river with the end of a long rope in his mouth, and swim over to our side. Now it is necessary for some of our party to be on the other side to look out for the running gear of the wagons that are fastened to the ropes and thus dragged through the water. In order to test the strength of the rope and the safety of this method of transit, the rope was passed around my body, just under my arms, and I was dragged through the raging torrent to the other side. I could but feel that I was in the hands of my friends, nor could I be insensible to the fact that the water was of icy coldness, just being lately arrived from the snowy brow of Mt. Hood. It has been my good fortune to enjoy some very cool and refreshing baths, but nothing in my experience every equalled this one. Several of the young men followed my example, while the main body of the company waited for more elaborate contrivances.
William A. Goulder
Crossing the Deschutes took two weeks. Wagon by wagon they maneuvered the entire wagon train over the river. Those who were the most ill were ferried across first. Parker’s diary notes that Mrs. Butts died on October 2 and her body was carried until October 5 when, finally out of the steep river canyon, they were able to bury her and three others on an open prairie. The last of Meek’s wagon train arrived in The Dalles in mid-October.
After crossing the river we had everything made ready for starting in the direction of Waller’s mission [at The Dalles], which we had reached the following day; here Mr. Waller had wheat, peas and potatoes, which he sold to the half famished emigrants, who were too hungry to cook their food more than half done, before eating it, in consequence of which, before morning many of them were very sick, and my most intimate companion on this journey had died from the effects: the others all recovered but I felt the loss of my friend most sensibly.Samuel Hancock
Parker arrived in The Dalles on October 7. He wrote: “got in A house with my family got something to eat this was the first day we had done without something to eat But some of the Company had been with out bread fore 15 days and had to live on pore beef with out any thing else.” A week later, Parker buried his wife and newborn baby; just days later his young daughter died from mountain fever.
Sarah Cummings, whose family followed the Oregon Trail’s main stem, watched as the first members of the Meek wagon train struggled into town:
One day shortly after our arrival in The Dalles a man was seen approaching…he told us that his wife, and five other mothers had died. The children and the remainder of the party were in camp about a day’s travel up the river. They were dying of starvation… One woman whose death occurred in this party was Mrs. Sam Parker. She left a large family of children…Sarah Cummings
Once at The Dalles, many of the emigrants who followed Meek recuperated and, with strength restored, continued on to the Willamette Valley. A number of others died at The Dalles, but specific information is difficult to obtain.
Emigrants’ animosity and mistrust of Stephen Meek was sustained for years following the cutoff disaster of 1845. The emigrants’ bewilderment, anger, and losses stigmatized Meek and all who participated.
On August 8, 1848 (almost exactly three years after Meek led the unfortunate wagon train west), Riley Root, an emigrant who later crossed the Cutoff to the Barlow Road, wrote:
16 miles [from the Owyhee River], over a good road, on Malheur (pron. malare) river. Grass plenty. No firewood but willows. At this place, Mr Meek attempted a cut-off to Oregon city, by following up the course of the river south, for some distance, and then directed his course westward, till he should arrive at the Willamet valley, south a considerable distance from Oregon city. His attempt proved a failure, with the loss of considerable property and the lives of some of his company. It is said there were nearly 200 wagons in his train.
Although the first effort across the high desert was permeated with loss and fury, Meek’s route served as a conduit for permanent roads. In later years, rumors of the gold discovery inspired many eager prospectors back onto Meek’s trail in the 1860s.
Beckham, Stephen Dow. “In Their Own Words: Diaries and Reminiscences of the Oregon Trail in Oregon,” Vol. 1, a report prepared for the Oregon Trail Coordinating Council, 1991.
Clark, Keith and Lowell Tiller. Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff. Bend, OR: Maverick Publications, 1966.
Eide, Ingvard Henry. Oregon Trail. Chicago, New York, San Francisco: Rand McNally & Company, 1972.
Goulder, William A. Reminiscences: Incidents in the Life of a Pioneer in Oregon and Idaho. Boise, ID: Timothy Regan, 1909; reprint edition Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, 1989.
Hoffman, Charles S. with Bert Webber. The Search for OregonÕs Lost Blue Bucket Mine, The Stephen Meek Wagon Train of 1845 — An Oregon Documentary. Medford, OR: Webb Research Group, 1992.
Montgomery, Donna Wojick. The Brazen Overlanders of 1845. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 1992.
Reitz, Eowyn. “Paiute Wadatika Ma-Ni-Pu-Neen” The History and Cultural Background of the Burns Paiute Tribe. Pamphlet, 1995.
Tobie, Harvey E. “Stephen Hall Meek,” in The Mountain Men and Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. II, ed. LeRoy R. Hafen. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1965.
Government and management documents
Oregon and Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trails: Management and Use Plan Update. USDI National Park Service, 1998.