Joe Meek's Mission to Washington

The Centennial History of Oregon
by Joseph Gaston - Volume I



As a part and parcel of the whole country-wide uproar over the murder of Whitman, the Provisional Government decided to send a special messenger far-a-way over the mountains to President Polk beseeching aid to the colony. All minds turned at once to one and the same man - Joseph L. Meek, for the dangerous mission. Meek's knowledge of the mountains, plains, Indians and dangers of every sort between Oregon and the Missouri river identified him as the man to undertake the hazardous trip; and besides all this, his cousin, James K. Polk, whom he had not seen since boyhood, had been elected President of the United States, and it was believed that the extraordinary trip of such a delegate over the Rocky mountains in the depth of winter would arouse the President and Congress to immediate action. Meek resigned his membership in the Provisional Government Legislature, accepted the commission to Washington and made speedy arrangements for his departure. For company and aid in trouble he took along with him as far as St. Louis his old mountaineer friends, John Owen and George W. Ebberts. They packed their pack horses and took saddle horses and left Oregon City for the east by the way of the Barlow road around Mt. Hood on January 4, 1848; Meek carrying with him authority from the legislature and governor to present Oregon's case to the President and Congress of the United States. And it must now be recorded here that by this commission to Meek, Oregon had so far as its governor had authority, put two delegates to Congress on the way to Washington City. After much consideration and advice from interested parties Governor Abernethy had on the 18th of October, 1847, appointed and commissioned J. Quinn Thornton to go to Washington City and advocate the cause of Oregon with the president and congress. Thornton was at the time Supreme Judge of the Provisional Government, a smooth, plausible man and popular with the Methodist mission. But his appointment by the governor was not relished by the legislature, which passed resolutions indirectly condemning the appointment as the "officiousness of secret actions." Thornton sailed from Portland October 18, 1847, on his mission to Washington by the ocean route on the bark Whitton, whose captain contracted in consideration of certain voluntary contributions of flour and very little money, to carry the Oregon delegate down to Panama. But on this ship and contract Thornton got no farther than San Juan on the coast of Lower California, where the United States Sloop of War Portsmouth picked up the stranded Thornton and carried around Cape Horn and landed him at Boston on May 2, 1848.

Returning now to the Meek party we find it delayed two weeks at the Dalles to allow the provisional army to drive back the hostile Indians. Then as soon as the hostiles were out of the way Meek proceeded to the wrecked Whitman station and decently re-interred the murdered victims of the massacre, the hasty burial by the Catholic Priest Brouillet not having been sufficient to protect the bodies of the slain from the ravages of the wolves. At this time Meek, with thoughtful tenderness, saved some tresses of the golden hair of Mrs. Whitman to carry to relatives in the states, and one of which was carefully preserved and turned over to the Oregon Pioneer Association, and is now in the rooms of the Oregon Historical Society, City Hall, Portland. And notwithstanding these unavoidable delays, such was the tireless energy of these sturdy pioneers that within sixty days after leaving Oregon City the party safely reached St. Joseph on the Missouri river. If one stops to think, and can think of all the dangers, trials andd sufferings those men had to endure and overcome on that trip through the snows in the dead of winter, shooting some wild animals and packing scanty supplies of food for themselves, sleeping under any temporary shelter of brush or trees while their horses pawed the snow from dried grass for feed, over a trackless winter waste for two thousand miles, they can get some idea of the fiber, the courage and the real heroism of the men who founded the state of Oregon and saved it to the United States, and who in truth and dded stand "unrival'd in the glorious lists of fame."

It was not an exploit that necessarily incurred great personal danger, hardship or sacrifice for a Caesar to cross the Rubicon and devastate Gaul; nor for Napoleon to scale the Alps and pounce down upon Italy; nor for Grant to hang to the flanks of the rebel armies until they were penned up, exhausted and forced to lay down their arms at Appomattox; but it was a mighty different proposition to freeze and starve and bleed with Washington at Valley Forge; or to march and freeze and wade and fight with George Rogers Clark at Old Vincennes and save the Ohio valley to the United States; or to trudge and fight and starve and freeze with Joe Meek and the Oregon pioneers to save three great states to the American Union and secure a foothold on the great western ocean. And it is a labor of love as well as duty to see that these real heroes and heroines of the Great West have justice done their names as far as words and historical records will suffice.

Although Thornton had started for Washington City three months before Meek started, he reached the city only one week before Meek got there; and Meek had the advantage of three months' later news from the west and all the thrilling events of the Whitman massacre. On this account and his superior address and his kinship to the President, he quite overshadowed the educated lawyer and judge, Delegate Thornton. The bill to organize the Oregon territory was then before Congress, and the report that Meek was able to make sufficed to load up Senator Tom Benton with one of the best of the many speeches he made for Oregon. On May 31, 1848, Benton in advocacy of the Oregon Bill delivered an address in the senate from which is taken the following extract:

"Only three or four years ago the whole United States seemed to be inflamed with a desire to get possession of Oregon. It was one of the absorbing and agitating questions of the continent. To obtain exclusive possession of Oregon, the greatest efforts were made, and it was at length obtained. What next? After this actual occupation of the entire continent, and having thus obtained exclusive possession of Oregon in order that we might govern it, we have seen session after session of Congress pass away without a single thing being done for the government of the country to obtain possession of which we were willing to go to war with England!

"Year after year, and session after session have gone by, and to this day the laws of the United States have not been extended over that territory. In the meantime, a great community is growing up there, composed at this time of twelve thousand souls - persons from all parts of the world, from Asia, as well as from Europe and America - and which, till this time, have been preserved in order by compact among themselves. Great efforts have been made to preserve order - most meritorious efforts, which have evinced their anxiety to maintain their own reputation and that of the country to which they belong. Their efforts have been eminently meritorious; but we all know that voluntary governments cannot last - that they are temporary in their very nature, and must encounter rude shocks and resistance, under which they must fall. Besides the inconvenience resulting from the absence of an organized government, we are to recollect that there never yet has been a civilized settlement in territory occupied by the aboriginal inhabitants, in which a war between the races has not occurred. Down to the present moment the settlers in Oregon had escaped a conflict with the Indians. Now the war between them is breaking out; and I cannot resist the conviction that if there had been a regularly organized government in that country, immediately after the treaty with Great Britain, with a military force to sustain it - for a government in such a region so remote would be nothing without military force - the calamities now impending over that country might have been averted.

But no government was established, and now all these evils are coming upon these people, as everybody must have foreseen they would come; and in the depth of winter, they send to us a special messenger, who makes his way across the Rocky mountains at a time when almost every living thing perished in the snow - when the snow was at such a depth that nothing could penetrate to the bottom of it. He made his way across, however, and brings these complaints which we now hear. They are in a suffering condition. Not a moment of time is to be lost. If the bill were passed this instant - this morning, as I hoped it would be - it would require the utmost degree of vigor in the execution of it to be able to send troops across the Rocky mountains before the season of deep snow. They should cross the mountains before the month of September. I was in hopes, then, that on this occasion there would be nothing to delay action - that we should all have united in deploring that for years the proposition to give these people government and laws has been defeated by the introduction of questions of no practical consequence, but which have had the effect of depriving these people of all government and bringing about the massacres which have taken place, and in which the benevolent missionary has fallen in the midst of his labors. All the calamities which have taken place in that country have resulted from mixing up this question, which has not a particle of practical value, with all the measures which have been introduced for the organization of a government in Oregon. All the laws passed by the Congress of the United States can have no effect on the question of slavery there. In that country there is a law superior to any which Congress can pass on the subject of slavery. There is a law of climate, of position, and of Nature herself, against it. Besides, the people of the country itself, by far the largest number of whom have gone out from slave-holding states, many of them from the state of Missouri, in their organic law, communicated to Congress more than a year ago, and printed among our documents at the last session, declare that the law of nature is against slavery in that region."

Thus it is seen that Meek's record-breaking dash across the continent in the dead of winter, and Benton's speech quoted are necessary incidents from the murder of the martyr missionary. Whitman had himself made a journey from Oregon to Washington in the winter season of 1842-43; but he was six months on the way, about twice the time consumed by Meek. But it was considering the antecedents and knowledge of the two men, quite as great a feat of physical prowess for Whitman as for Meek. That both men did, each in his way largely influence the fate of Oregon there can be no doubt. The career of Whitman and his wife, and their brutal murder is the most affecting, exciting and dramatic chapter of history of the United States. Even down to the arrest and execution of the savages the pathos and the horror of the scene keep hand in hand, and the brutal murderers that could not be reached and arrested by white men were hunted down and delivered up for trial and execution by their own blood and kindred, for the purpose of putting an end to the white man's war against the Cayuse tribe.

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Letter Describing the Whitman Massacre
Marcus Whitman's Earlier Trip to Washington
Biography of Joseph LaFayette Meek
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