Sometimes it is good to realize that Utah wasn't the only frontier territory with a surplus of characters. At Fort Boise in 1845, mountain man Stephen Meek persuaded 200 families to follow his shortcut to Oregon. Meek's attempt to find a "cutoff" set the pattern for similar trail disasters. Instead of finding an easier road, Meek led his followers into a nightmare.
Meek began his "wild life of adventure" in the Rocky Mountains in 1830. He went to California in 1833, trapped in eastern Oregon with Captain Benjamin Bonneville and worked with scalp-hunter James Kirker. In March 1845, he hired on as guide to the emigrant train of 480 wagons preparing to go to Oregon. Meek's piloting services ended at Fort Hall. He rode up the Snake River recruiting emigrants "who wanted to avoid all trouble and danger by taking a route over which he could guide us," William Goulder recalled. The cutoff promised to eliminate 100 or 200 miles from the arduous journey.
The prospect was compelling. Starting in late August, about 1,500 people headed west from today's Vale, Oregon, and disappeared into the desert. It was a hard road from the start with "an abundance of small, sharp stones in it, black and hard as iron." It got worse. The scattered parties struggled over the Stinking Water Mountains to the stagnant water at Harney Lake. It was soon evident, Goulder said, that Meek had "no more knowledge of the country through which we were passing than we did ourselves."
"Some talk of stoning and others say hang him," one diary noted. Meek was completely lost. "Go back we could not, and we knew not what was before us," Betsey Bayley wrote in 1849. "Our provisions were failing us...We were like mariners lost at sea."
Meek put up a brave front. "I have brought you here," he said, "and will take you off." But by now the emigrants had lost all confidence in him. Meek finally had to escape, hidden in a wagon. An Indian led the emigrants to the Crooked River. They staggered northward, burying their dead as they wandered from spring to spring.
"The mountains looked like volcanoes and the appearance that one day there had been an awful thundering of volcanoes and a burning world," Bayley wrote. Incredibly, the exhausted wayfarers built a tram across the barrier of Deschutes Canyon using wagons and ropes. It took them five days to cover the last thirty miles to The Dalles.
"Sickness and death attended us," Maria King wrote. "Upwards of fifty died on the new route." Hiram Smith described their suffering and the loss of "near fifty souls, young and old. The greatest number that died were children." Meek's cutoff probably killed more folks than the forty-one deaths in the Donner Party. "Those that traveled the old road," wrote Smith, "got in well and in good time."
Legend tells that somewhere on the trail a little girl loaded up her blue water bucket with shiny rocks. A blacksmith pounded some of them into fishing weights and tossed them into his toolbox. The child had to leave her pretty rocks behind, but after the California gold discovery, someone realized the rocks were gold. Nonsense or not, the tale of the Blue Bucket Mine entered Western folklore and sparked many prospecting trips to Oregon. In 1868, Meek led a party from California to hunt for the lost riches. The expedition was, of course, a failure.
Author Will Bagley is working on a history of the Oregon-California Trail.