By Dan Duncan – Retired, Pinnacle Rarities ……
Ezra Meeker – Champion of the Oregon Trail
Over the summer months, our numismatic travels took us to great historical cities like Boston and Philadelphia. And this week we travel to Baltimore, another city rich in early Americana. Of course, there are local historical sites across the nation and, more specifically, sites of numismatic interest. Over the last 200 plus years, our mints have aided the extraction of a number of precious metal lodes. Now many of the once-thriving businesses are gone, with a few remaining as mint and mining museums or historical landmarks.
Each place chronicles a rich history founded in capturing natural resources and refining them into tangible representations of our history. Living in the Northwest, we are thousands of miles from any of these sites. While some old mines exist in the state, the real history of Washington State lies in the old-growth forests. The “American” history of the region is for all intent and purpose quite young. But, sometimes you don’t have to look far to find a piece of numismatic lore right in your own backyard.
Recently we took the family to a large state fair located in the city of Puyallup (pyoo-al-uhp). One of the town’s principal founders was a pioneer who traveled to the Oregon Territory in the mid-nineteenth century. He eventually settled in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. This man was Ezra Meeker. His contributions to the northwest are many, but he is best remembered nationally for his extensive work on having the Oregon Trail marked.
According to the Meeker Mansion website, “Ezra Meeker became the self-appointed champion of the Oregon Trail in 1906, when at the age of 76, accompanied by two oxen, a wagon, a driver and a dog, he made his way from his front yard to Washington D.C., by way of New York City.”
Meeker first took the Oregon Trail as a young man in 1852. A true pioneer, Ezra was lured by the promise of the new territories. Finally settling in a valley below Mt. Rainier, Meeker cleared his own land and eventually became an internationally successful hops farmer. His travels included a stint in Europe and a couple of forays into the Alaskan territories.
Meeker was obviously impacted by his early trip out west. He had a connection to the Oregon Trail. He recognized it as a part of American history and felt it should be cherished and preserved. In his mid-70s, he harnessed his oxen and retraced his steps from some 50 odd years ago in a Conestoga wagon. He deemed this trip the “Oregon Trail Monument Expedition Trip”. During this trip, he promoted trail awareness, lectured, handed out pamphlets, and eventually gained a lot of publicity. Meeker met with Teddy Roosevelt, who agreed in principle to in some way recognize the Oregon Trail, but the bill died in Congress.
After returning to his home, Meeker wrote an acclaimed book on the subject entitled The Lost Trail (1915), Meeker again braved the 2,000 mile trail with an ox-drawn wagon in 1910. He was again to promote its preservation, but this time he intended to map the route. He was in favor of a transcontinental railroad along a similar course, which he also intended to lobby for. Despite completing the trail, and the map, his second trip was somewhat of a failure. When he arrived out East he was contacted by the Senate and told not to come to D.C. After some other tribulations, he found his way back to Washington State. He continued to campaign, worked on a movie, lectured, and published another book – Ox Team Days (1922). Eventually, he’s instrumental in the formation of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association. Through that organization, he petitioned Congress to get final approval for the Oregon Trail Commemorative in 1926. The proceeds from the distribution were used to mark the trail.
The first Oregon Trail commemoratives rolled off the press 75 years after Meeker’s original trek. After the initial run in 1926, additional mintages were struck in 1933 – 1934 and then continually from 1936 until 1939. Designed by a husband and wife team, Laura Gardin Frasier’s standing Indian and James Earl Fraser’s Conestoga design combine for arguably one of the most beautiful coins in U.S. numismatics. Fraser’s ox-drawn wagon is said to be inspired by Ezra and his travels. The colorful story of Meeker proves that no matter where you live, look hard enough and you’ll likely find a piece of numismatic lore. For me, it’s at the Meeker Mansion in a small city with the funny name – Puyallup.