By Dan Duncan – 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, across the nation there are local historical sites and, more specifically, sites of numismatic interest. Over the last 200 plus years, our mints have aided the extraction from 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 back yard.
Recently we took the family to a large state fair located in the city of Puyallup (pyoo-al-uh p). One of the town’s principal founders was a pioneer who travelled 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 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-seventies, 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 the 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, 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 similiar 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. Eventually he’s instrumental in the formation of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association. Through that organization he petitioned Congress getting final approval for the Oregon Trail Commemorative in 1926. The proceeds from the distrubution were used to mark the trail.
The first Oregon Trail commemoratives rolled off the press seventy-five years after Meeker’s original trek. After the initial run, additional mintages were struck until 1939. John Sinnock’s design from sketches done by John Frederick Lewis is arguably one of America’s most beautiful numismatic examples. The Oregon Trail remains a very popular series. And on the back is depicted an ox drawn wagon 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.
Pinnacle Rarities, Inc., one of the most respected dealers in high-grade, certified U.S. coinage. On thier site you will enjoy a wealth of informative articles, as well as access to one of the finest quality inventories of PCGS and NGC certified rare coins on the market.