Born in Huntsville, Ohio, in 1830, Ezra Meeker moved with his family to Indiana when he was 10 years old. In 1851, penniless but in love, Meeker married his neighbor Eliza Jane Sumner, paying the wedding fee by splitting 300 rails for the minister. One child and less than a year later, Meeker and family joined the pioneers crossing the Oregon Trail.
Eventually settling in Washington’s Puyallup Valley, Meeker planted the hop seeds he hoped would bring his family fortune. He wagered correctly, and within 15 years the Meeker family had monopolized the hops market.
Despite his prosperity, Meeker was restless. He began efforts to promote migration to the Western territory by writing and printing an 80-page pamphlet advertising the glories of Puget Sound. He traveled to New York and presented his pamphlet to Jay Cooke, financer of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Cooke bought all 2,500 copies and hired Meeker to promote the railroad with him. Meeker did his best to conform his manners and dress to big-city standards. Only one habit betrayed his pioneer past; he still required a large dollop of butter in his morning coffee.
After a plague of hop lice devastated the Washington crops in 1892, Meeker decided to try his luck in the Alaskan gold rush. He made four trips to the Klondike and returned in 1901, fortuneless but ready to begin the work that would become his most lasting legacy.
Meeker dedicated the final years of his life to the preservation of the Oregon Trail. In 1906, at the age of 75, he returned to New York, traveling in true pioneer style. Riding the Oregon Trail backwards from his Puyallup home, Meeker arrived on the East Coast in a covered wagon. All heads turned to see the feisty old man with long white hair and a flowing beard, driving a team of oxen down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Meeker traveled south to Washington, D.C., where he met with President Theodore Roosevelt on the curb of Pennsylvania Avenue. Photographs of the weathered pioneer and his two oxen, Dandy and Dave, appeared on the covers of newspapers and postcards. And by the end of his two-year voyage, appreciation for pioneers was arguably greater than it had ever been.
In 1910, Meeker financed a second wagon trip, placing markers on the disappearing trail. During these two trips alone, Meeker placed 150 cairns and memorials along the Oregon Trail, many of which survive today. When Dandy and Dave grew too old to pull the wagon, Meeker had them slaughtered and stuffed to appear with him at fairs and exhibitions. The overwhelming enthusiasm of the crowds inspired Meeker to speak at schools across the Pacific Northwest, sharing the history of the Oregon Trail with thousands of enthralled children. He published several books with hopes of teaching future generations about the strength and perseverance of the early pioneers.
In 1916, Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail a third time from east to west in a touring car that was fashioned to resemble a covered wagon. Always with an eye towards progress, Meeker spent his third trip promoting the construction of a national highway with the blessing and encouragement of President Woodrow Wilson. Meeker made his final journey by aircraft, flying a WWI-era plane over the old trail and portions of the proposed highway. He was 94 years old.
Henry Ford was in the midst of constructing a personalized vehicle (the “Oxmobile”) for Meeker’s next trip in 1928 when Meeker fell ill. As he lay dying in a Washington hospital, two planes flew overhead and tipped their wings in salute, scattering Washington’s state flower, the rhododendron, over the venerated pioneer’s final bed. He died within weeks of his 98th birthday.