“The Meek Cutoff: Tracing the Oregon Trail’s Lost Wagon Train of 1845”
By Brooks Geer Ragen, 2013
By Linda Driskill
For the Blue Mountain Eagle
Some 50,000 people developed “Oregon Fever” from 1840 to 1860 and embarked by wagon train to the “promised land.”
In 1837 two small groups formed to establish “the Oregon Trail” from Fort Boise and the number increased each year thereafter. In 1845 some 2,500 hopeful of making the trip tied in with an upstart named Stephen Meek, who convinced 200 wagons to take a shortcut eliminating 150 miles from the journey to the Willamette Valley.
Although Meek was a trapper and had made a trip through the Harney Valley before, it turned out for the unfortunate wagon train that either his memory wasn’t all that good, or he was a world class braggart. Many suspected that latter and there was later some talk of lynching.
In his favor it is noted that the Malheur Lakes region has “no boundaries” and water fluctuates widely from season to season and year to year making the location of landmarks difficult.
It so happened that many of the Meek train wagons as well as being painted blue carried small blue buckets for various uses. Upon arriving in the Willamette Valley, pretty rocks collected by children in one of these buckets along the way turned out to be gold nuggets. That almost immediately spurred an intense desire to relocate the exact route of the lost train. As far as is known, the location of the gold has never been determined.
My summers for nearly 30 years were spent on the Prairie City Ranger District’s Antelope Lookout, and I became interested in this train when a rancher friend took me to the gravesite of train member, Sarah Chambers, at the last “known” site of the Meek Cutoff route, just west of Castle Rock on the North Fork of the Malheur River.
On further research, I was surprised to find my maternal ancestors, the Cornelius family of Howard County, Mo., traveled with with this very train.
This publication is a team effort of specialists who worked together for several years, visited the area west of Castle Rock many times, and even engaged a helicopter to see what old signs could be located from the air. They were lucky to possess several diaries.
“The Meek Cutoff” is beautifully presented in a coffee-table format and uses diary entries for each day of the train’s journey to try to capture the landscape memories of the lost train members. A local expert who has since died, Delmar Hinshaw of Mt. Vernon, was able to provide maps, notes and known locations to the author and his team.
Linda Driskill is a volunteer at the Grant County Library where Meek Cutoff books can be found in the Oregon Room.