The River of the West

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When the author of this book has been absorbed in the elegant narratives of Washington Irving, reading and musing over Astoria and Bonneville, in the cozy quiet of a New York study, no prescient motion of the mind ever gave prophetic indication of that personal acquaintance which has since been formed with the scenes, and even with some of the characters which figure in the works just referred to. Yet so have events shaped themselves that to me Astoria is familiar ground; Forts Vancouver and Walla Walla pictured forever in my memory; while such journeys as I have been enabled to make into the country east of the last named fort, have given me a fair insight into the characteristic features of its mountains and its plains.

To-day, a railroad traverses the level stretch between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, along which, thirty years ago, the fur-traders had worn a trail by their annual excursions with men, pack-horses, and sometimes wagons, destined to the Rocky Mountains. Then, they had to guard against the attacks of the Savages; and in this respect civilization is behind the railroad, for now, as then, it is not safe to travel without a sufficient escort. To-day, also, we have new Territories called by several names cut out of the identical hunting-grounds of the fur-traders of thirty years ago; and steamboats plying the rivers where the mountain-men came to set their traps for beaver; or cities growing up like mushrooms from a soil Joe" to all Oregon, that a history of his varied adventures would make a readable book, and some of his neighbors have even undertaken to become his historian, yet with so little well-directed efforts that the task after all has fallen to a comparative stranger. I confess to having taken hold of it with sonic doubts as to my claims to the office; and the best recommendation I can give my work is the interest I myself felt in the subject of it; and the only apology I can offer for anything incredible in the narrative which it may contain, is that I "tell the tale as 'twas told to me," and that I have no occasion to doubt the truth of it.

Mr. Meek has not attempted to disguise the fact that he, as a mountain -man, "did those things which he ought not to have done, and left undone those things which he ought to have done." It will be seen, by referring to Mr. Irving's account of this class of men, as given him by Capt. Bonneville, that he in no wise differed from the majority of them in h13 practical rendering of the moral code, and his indifference to some of the commandments. Yet, no one -seeing Uncle Joe in his present aspect of a good-humored, quiet, and not undignified citizen of the "Plains," would be likely to attribute to him any very bad or dangerous qualities. It is only when recalling the scenes of his early exploits in mountain life, that the smouldering fire of his still fine eyes brightens up with something suggestive of the dare-devil spirit which characterized those exploits, and made him famous even among his compeers, when they were such men as Kit Carson, Peg-Leg Smith, and others of that doughty band of bear-fighters.

Seeing that the incidents I had to record embraced a period of a score and a half of years, and that they extended over those years most interesting in Oregon history, as well as of the history of the Fur Trade in the West, I have concluded to preface Mr. Meek's adventures with a sketch of the latter, believing that the information thus conveyed to the reader will give ail additional degree of interest to their narration. The impression made upon my own mind as I gained a knowledge of the facts which I shall record in this book relating to the early occupation of Oregon, was that they were not only profoundly romantic, but decidedly unique.

In giving Mr. Meek's personal adventures I should have preferred always to have clothed them in his own peculiar language could my memory have served me, and above all I should have wished to convey to the reader some impression of the tones of his voice, both rich and soft, and deep, too; or suddenly changing, with a versatile power quite remarkable, as he gave with natural dramatic ability the perfect imitation of another's voice and manner. But these fine touches of narrative are beyond the author's skill, and the reader must perforce be content with words, aided only by his own powers of imagination in conjuring up such tones and subtile inflexions of voice as seem to him to suit the subject. Mr. Meek's pronunciation is Southern. He says "thar," and "whar," and "bar," like a true Virginian as he is, being a blood relation of one of our Presidents from that State, as well as cousin to other one-time inmates of the White House. Like the children of many other slave-holding planters he received little attention, and was allowed to frequent the negro quarters, while the alphabet was neglected. At the age of sixteen he could not read, lie bad been sent to a school in the neighborhood, where he had the alphabet set for him on a wooden "paddle;" but not liking this method of instruction he one day "hit the teacher over the head with it, and ran home," where he was suffered to disport himself among his black associates, clad like themselves in a tow frock, and guiltless of shoes and stockings. This sort of training was not without its advantages to the physical man; on the contrary, it produced, in this instance, as in many others, a tall, broad-shouldered, powerful and handsome man, with plenty of animal courage and spirit, though somewhat at the expense of the inner furnishing which is supposed to be necessary to a perfect development. In this instance, however, Nature had been more than usually kind, and distinguished her favorite with a sort of inborn grace and courtesy which, in some phases of his eventful life, served him well.

Mr. Meek was born in Washington Co., Virginia, in 1810, one year before the settlement of Astoria, and at a period when Congress was much interested in the question of our Western possessions and their boundary. "Manifest destiny "seemed to have raised him up, together with many others, bold, hardy, and fearless men, to become sentinels on the outposts of civilization, securing to the United States with comparative ease a vast extent of territory, for which, without them, a long struggle with England would have taken place, delaying the settlement of the Pacific Coast for many years, if not losing it to us altogether. It is not without a feeling of genuine self-congratulation, that I am able to bear testimony to the services, hitherto hardly recognized, of the "mountain-men" who have settled in Oregon. Whenever there shall arise a studious and faithful historian, their names shall not be excluded from honorable mention, nor least illustrious will appear that of Joseph L. Meek, the Rocky Mountain Hunter and Trapper. Page:River of the West.djvu/17 Page:River of the West.djvu/18 Page:River of the West.djvu/19 Page:River of the West.djvu/20 Page:River of the West.djvu/21 Page:River of the West.djvu/22 Page:River of the West.djvu/23 Page:River of the West.djvu/24 Page:River of the West.djvu/25 Page:River of the West.djvu/26 Page:River of the West.djvu/27 Page:River of the West.djvu/28 Page:River of the West.djvu/29 Page:River of the West.djvu/30