Joe Meek, Mountain Man Extraordinaire
Today on our countdown to launch I want to introduce one of the real historic characters who plays a significant role in my book, mountain man Joe Meek. In the story he’s a good friend of the fictional mountain man Jake Johnston. And when I say character, I do mean.
Photo courtesy of Oregon State Archives
The above photo is of a large mural in the Oregon State Capitol building. That’s Joe Meek in the red shirt, rifle in hand, yelling to catch the attention of men mingling around him. An uncertain voice vote has left the historic Champoeg meeting in confusion as to whether the Americans will set up a government and have the protection of law in this isolated land. In order to get a true count, Joe calls out with his immortal words, “Who’s fer a divide?” A hush settles over the crowd, and Joe calls out again. “All fer the report of the committee and an organization, follow me!”
Some thirty years after the days portrayed in The Shifting Winds Joe Meek sat down with author Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor and relayed to her the story of his life as a mountain man and as a settler in Oregon. Her book that came out of these discussions, The River of the West, was published in 1870. The man was an inveterate storyteller, and while some folks in his day suggested the stories may have occasionally stretched, he often enjoyed an appreciative audience. From Victor’s book I gleaned several of Joe’s stories about his exciting days in the Rockies. As indicated in the Afterword of The Shifting Winds, the stories “are as true as Joe chose to make them.”
Whatever the truth of his tales, he found purpose in Oregon. He would become sheriff, then territorial marshal, and he had connections in high places. There was more to Joe than first impressions might suggest.
In Chapter One, just after meeting Jake Johnston, protagonist Jennie Haviland meets Joe:
“Another man approached, dressed almost the same [as Johnston], his dirty buckskins showing more wear, the fringes more ragged, his dark straggly hair longer, and this one had a brushy tangle of beard covering his chin. He stepped up beside the other and stood before her with a broad smile, and she felt herself surrounded by the two of them.”
Jennie’s little brothers dutifully introduce themselves, but thirteen-year-old Eddie can no longer contain his excitement. He turns to Joe.
“‘Are you Joe Meek, the Joe Meek? The famous mountain man in the wax museum in St. Louis fighting the bear?’
“Mr. Meek grinned. ‘One and the same, but don’t ye let that statue fool ye none, boy. Old Joe didn’t lose nary a finger from that ol’ bar, do ye hear, now?’ The man held up both hands, fingers stretched to show he still had all ten.
“‘But did you really fight a bear?’ Eddie asked.
“Mr. Meek began to laugh and slapped the other man on the shoulder. ‘Do ye hear that, Old Jake?’ He was so caught up in laughter he didn’t attempt to speak further.
“Jake Johnston smiled at Eddie. ‘This man has fought more bears than any man I know.’
“Mr. Meek lifted a hand. ‘Why, bar fightin’—that’s what this old coon is famous fer.’”
And the stories go on.
NEXT: Fort Vancouver
Thanks for sharing these excerpts, Janet. It’s going to be a great book. I can’t wait to read it. See you April 10th.
Glad you’re enjoying them, Libby. Looking forward to seeing you at the April 10th event.