Meek Trail, (The Lost Wagon Train)

The Free Emigrant Road, a branch of the Oregon Trail through the Meek Trail, opened a middle route for emigrant travel from the Malheur River (Vale) to the southern Willamette Valley (Eugene).

At Vale Oregon in 1845 Stephen Meek talked emigrants riding on a wagon train into taking a short cut which he had never traveled.

Crossing the Oregon desert, sickness hit the train which ran out of water, and low on food, so the train turned north to The Dalles.

23 people died on that infamous trip across the Oregon desert.


Three different wagon trains attempted to cross by a middle route. The first, led by Stephen Meek in 1845, ended in disaster when the wagon train foundered in the desert before turning north on the Free Emigrant Road to reach safety at The Dalles.

The second, led by Elijah Elliott in 1853, succeeded in crossing the desert, but became stranded in the Cascade Mountains for lack of a cleared wagon road until they were rescued by a relief party from the settlements.

The third attempt, led by William Macy in 1854, was successful in crossing the desert and getting over the Cascades by using the newly completed Free Emigrant Road to Eugene.

Together, the three wagon trains that blazed the middle route brought some 2500 emigrants into Oregon. The routes they blazed, sometimes collectively called the Meek-Elliott-Macy Trail, were later used by gold seekers, freighters, the military, and settlers moving to central and eastern Oregon.

As settlers moved into the area surrounding Springfield and Eugene City in the early 1850s, residents realized that they needed a more direct route from the main Oregon Trail into the upper Willamette Valley.

Over time the settlers discovered Indian and trapper trails that crisscrossed the Cascades' foothills. So it seemed logical that the Hudson Bay trappers would have used a route somewhere across the Cascades. 

The project's supporters discussed ways to get a formal search started to find for that route. Residents of Willamette Forks took the lead first and soon recruited folks from the Coburg area, among which were John  Diamond and William Macy.

The residents petitioned the Territorial Legislature for funds to support the effort. The legislature encouraged the effort, but provided no funds. Undaunted, the settlers passed a hat around to collect contributions for a scouting effort.

With funds and seven volunteers committed to the project, scouts set out in the early summer to find a pass through the Cascades. Eight years after Stephen Meek's disastrous foray in search of a middle route across Oregon, the Road District of Benton, Lane, and Linn counties hired William Macy to lead a party of viewers to search for an established but hidden road from Eugene City in the Willamette Valley to Fort Boise.

Preliminary efforts failed, but in July, 1852, a second scouting expedition worked their way up the Cascades, climbed a mountain they christened Diamond Peak, and located a viable pass. As soon as possible, before the snow started falling, Macy and his companions set out. They traversed the new pass and followed an Indian trail toward the Deschutes River and the Bend area. From there, they continued eastward across the old Meek route. The Viewers also spent about two weeks looking for gold along the Meek Cutoff through the Maury Mountains.

Near Harney Lake, the Viewers were attacked by Snake Indians. In the skirmish, the Viewers lost their notes, four horses, and mineral specimens they collected along the way. Moreover, Macy, Diamond, and Clark were wounded. Still, they managed to reach the Oregon Trail near the Burnt River and met a physician on his way to Oregon, who treated the wounds as well as possible. The Viewers returned home along the Oregon Trail.

Although Macy thought it was reprehensible to charge poor emigrants a toll, the others joined parties traveling over the Barlow Road, paying toll charges as they went.

The Viewers quickly prepared a report for the legislature that suggested that $3000 would open the road from Eugene to the Deschutes River. After their previous attempt with the legislature, the road promoters were skeptical of receiving funding support from that body, but interest was spreading:residents of Benton and Douglas Counties all wanted the new road.

Levi Scott, among the group that opened the Applegate Trail, and J. C. Avery of Marysville lent their support. The hat was passed again, this time to a wider group, and Elijah Bristow, of Pleasant Hill, donated $240.

With seed money in hand, the promoters appointed an eight-man committee to plan the road, which would be open free to everyone. Unlike the Barlow Road, no tolls would be charged.

Macy, Cady, and Spencer were elected commissioners to oversee the project. The Road District promptly hired Dr. Robert Alexander to construct the road. It would be named The Free Emigrant Road.

Elijah Elliott, the brother-in-law of a Pleasant Hill settler, had traveled to Oregon by way of California and claimed land east of Pleasant Hill. Elliott donated $30 to the road building effort and when the organizers learned that he was traveling back on the Oregon Trail to meet his family in Idaho, they encouraged, and possibly paid him, to lead the party back over the new road.

After crossing east on the Barlow Road, Elliott traveled on the Oregon Trail to Fort Boise where his family greeted him and others listened as he told about the new road. Elliott, having never seen the new road, left Fort Boise leading 215 wagons and followed the Oregon Trail to the point where it crossed the Malheur River. From there he turned west to follow Meek's old road.

As with Meek's effort over Oregon's desert country, Elliott's party wandered and got lost and confused, and the wagon people were growing angry.

Elliott's attempt to avoid the stagnant marshes the Meek group encountered carried the group south around the Malheur and Harney lakes. They went for long days without water, 70 miles in one stretch, and their provisions dwindled steadily.

As they neared Silver Lake, arguments broke out among the emigrants and efforts were made to calm their fears of being stranded in the desert. A party of eight men was appointed to go ahead and alert settlers that a party was coming over the new road. As the advance group hurried ahead, the emigrants moved more slowly, arriving at the present location of Bend in October, 1853.

With the advance party out, Elliott still had scouting needs and formed a small contingent to locate the new road. No one knew that the road builders were working just miles away to get the road blazed on their own. Elliott's second group of scouts located the road builders' blazes near LaPine, three days after the builders turned back toward the Valley.

The emigrants had found their road, but it wasn't what they anticipated or were promised. Elliott expected the road to be cleared; instead, the trees along the road had been felled but not cleared. Dr. Alexander had defaulted on his road building effort.

Still, the emigrants pushed on, following the blazed trees over the Cascade mountains. As Elliott's group traveled, winter snows settled over the Cascades. The emigrants were slowly starving in October's freezing mountain temperatures. They were making decisions on their own. The route was littered with downed trees making any travel slow and arduous. Many wagons were left at the Pine Openings, 10 miles above Hills Creek Dam, and a grave was dug there, too, for a woman was killed in a wagon accident near the present Hills Creek Reservoir.

After several days of crawling on hands and knees through thickets, climbing over logs, wading streams, their provisions gave out and they were reduced to eating snails and mice and anything the could lay their hands on. They at last reached the cabin of a settler who took them in and got on his horse to spread the news. There was not a moment's delay in the efforts of the settlers and to furnish relief. All night they worked in getting together supplies and as soon as morning dawned a large pack train was on its way for their relief.   

Earlier, when the main body of Elliott's train crossed the Deschutes, one man in Elliott's party, Martin Blanding, rode ahead. Near where Lowell, Oregon, is today, Blanding's old gray mare went into labor and delivered a stillborn colt. Blanding prepared a fire and began roasting the colt. Settlers in the valley saw the smoke from his fire and, fearing Indians, hurried to investigate.

When they found Blanding and learned from him of the plight of the rest of the emigrants, still miles away, the settlers mounted an all-out relief effort. Ninety-four pack animals and 23 loaded wagons were sent out to help the struggling emigrants. By October 19, near the camp on the Big Marsh Creek, rescuers reached the first of Elliott's desperate party. With the support of their welcoming neighbors, the emigrants completed their journey and settled into their new homes in the southern Willamette Valley.

Meanwhile, the advance party was having problems, too. Early in their effort, they mistook Three Sisters for Diamond Peak. They had no way of knowing that they had traveled too far north. They struggled across lava beds and down the McKenzie River, living on rodents and birds.

While the relief party was making its way up the Middle Fork of the Willamette River to relieve Elliott's group, the last of the lost advance party was rescued near Springfield.

In 1854, William Macy successfully led a train of 121 wagons along the route taken by Elliott. The road continued to be used through the 1860s, when the Central Oregon Military Road was established as a supply route from the Willamette Valley to the military posts situated in eastern Oregon.

Although nearby, the Central Oregon Military Road crossed the Cascades south of the Free Emigrant Road. It angled south to the Klamath Marsh, passed Warner and Steens Mountains, and went on through the Jordan Valley to Idaho.

Altogether, Meek, Elliott, and Macy guided -- for better or worse -- nearly 500 wagons and 2500 people across the high desert and central Cascades into the Willamette Valley. In later years, the Oregon Trail cutoff they established was used by freighters, settlers, and the military.

Bibliography

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.

Grey, Edward. Lost Wagon Train, 1853. Eugene, OR: Lane County Historical Museum, 1979.

Menefee, Leah Collins, Donald F. Menefee, and Kenneth Munford. The Free Emigrant Road Over Willamette Pass. Corvallis, OR: Horner Museum, Oregon State University, 1979.

Menefee, Leah Collins, Donald F. Menefee, and Lowell Tiller. "Cutoff Fever," Oregon Historical Quarterly, December 1976 through March 1978.

Oregon and Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trails: Management and Use Plan update. USDI National Park Service, 1998.

Joseph Meek survived the bad wagon train catastrophies and lived long as a leader around  the Oregon Territory.

His last duty was as a soldier who served with volunteers in the Yakima Indian war at an advanced age.

He died in 1875 and was laid to rest on his Land Claim in Washington County.

This memorial is located on the side of highway 26 near North Plains and Hillsboro, Oregon.