For some fifteen years — roughly speaking, 1823 to 1838, the western U.S. was the domain of the mountain men, fur trappers who spent years traveling and living in the wilderness. Long before wagon trains, settlers, gold rushes, cavalry, Indian wars, cowboys, wild west towns, or railroads, mountain men were the first from the U.S. to see the Rocky Mountains and the lands from the plains to the Pacific. Their life was highly free and adventuresome, and often dangerous and short lived in a shining wilderness.
My name is Joe Meek, one of the true mountain men in this area. I’ve been described as “bold, adventurous, humorous, a first-class trapper, pioneer, peace officer, and frontier politician. And…the wittiest, saltiest, most shameless wag and jester that ever wore moccasins in the Rockies – a happy-go-lucky lover of practical jokes, tall tales, Jacksonian Democracy and Indian women.”
I left home in 1829 at age 19, and joined William Sublette, and for the next eleven years I was living the dream the grueling life of a mountain man! Another nick name I got was the “Merry Mountain Man.”
While in the mountains, I had many adventures including a hand-to-claw encounter with a grizzly bear, and hand-to-hand combat with a Bannock warrior.
After the Rendezvous of 1839 (an event where fur traders would get together and trade their wares), many of us trappers traveled to Fort Davey Crockett to winter – this was up at Brown’s Hole in Northwest Colorado. Because the fort was small and basically built in a mud hole, we mostly called it Fort Misery. My group was Joe Walker, Doc Newell, Kit Carson as well as a few others. The previous season we had seen a very poor harvest of beaver. At the same time prices paid for beaver was dropping and the cost of goods and supplies was higher than ever. Rumors were there would be no supply train or rendezvous in 1840. We could see that our way of life was at an end, and we were really depressed.
Under these hopeless conditions a number of the trappers took to horse-thieving. One time some of these men traveled up to Fort Hall in Idaho and stole fourteen horses from the fort and later, over thirty horses from friendly Shoshone (Snake) Indians. When us trappers at Fort Davey Crockett learned of the theft, we were outraged that they had stolen them from the Indians. We knew that no whites would be safe in this part of the Rocky Mountains until the Indians had taken retribution for the stolen horses.
I didn’t like it that the now unemployed trappers had taken to a life of thieving and mischief which made enemies of the friendly Indians, and was likely to prevent us from enjoying security among any of the tribes.
According to Indian law, when one of a tribe offends, the whole tribe is responsible. Therefore if whites stole their horses they might take vengeance on any whites they met, unless the property was restored. We totally understood requisition of Indian law, so we made up a party at Fort Davey Crockett to go and retake the horses and restore them to their rightful owners. There were about 25 of us and we found the horses on an island in Green River where we decided to not confront but get the horses off the island without them knowing. But while horses and our men were crossing the river on the ice, the ice started sinking with them until the water was knee-deep and the robbers discovered the escape of their booty. They charged on us and tried to recover the horses but they couldn’t do it! One of our guys, Walker, made a masterly flank movement and getting in Thompson’s rear, ran the horses into the fort, where he stationed his men, and succeeded in keeping the robbers on the outside. Thompson then commenced giving the horses away to a village of Utes in the neighborhood of the fort, on condition that they should assist in retaking them. The Utes who had a wholesome fear not only of the trappers, but of their foes the Snakes, declined to enter into the quarrel. After a day of strategy, we marched out of the fort right in front of the thieves, taking our booty with us and restored it to the Snake Indians and peace was secured again.
By 1840, we had all left the area and I heard that by 1844 little was left standing of Fort Davey Crockett when Captain John C. Fremont passed through the area. Yep, those were the good ole’ days of being a mountain man in Northwest Colorado!
Later Doc Newell and I joined the immigrants to Oregon, and escorted one of the first wagon trains across the mountains. We settled in Willamette Valley of Oregon, near what would become Hillsboro, and I became a farmer. I also served as sheriff in 1843 and in the legislature in 1846 and 1847. With the Whitman Massacre and outbreak of the Cayuse War in the Oregon Territory, I headed for Washington D.C. where I met with President Polk. My case for making the Oregon Territory a federal territory happened with the appointment of Joe Lane as Territorial Governor and myself as Territorial Federal Marshal.”
Local, Bernie Roybal, will be playing Joe Meeker this summer at cultural heritage events!