The Meek Cutoff and the Great American Desert: Part 1

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near the Meek Cutoff

The year was 1845. More wagons were clustered around jumping-off points such as St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri, than ever before. The number of emigrants who braved the trail that year has been estimated at 3,000 individuals.

As they crossed the northeastern corner of Kansas, the emigrants noted its lush and verdant appearance, a picture of abundance made even more complete by the presence of game. Joel Palmer, an emigrant of 1845, wrote in his journal of the Lawrence area:

We advanced…through a very fertile and well watered country, and possessing, along the banks of the water courses, a supply of bur and white oak, ash, elm, and black walnut timber, amply sufficient for all practical purposes….[T]he trail strikes into a level and beautiful prairie, and crossing it—a distance of four miles—rises gradually to the ridge between the Walkarusha and the Caw, or Kansas river….The banks of both streams, as far as can be seen, are lined, either way, with excellent timber: the country rises gradually from the streams, for fifteen or twenty miles, with alternate forests and prairies, presenting to the eye a truly splendid scene.

But the emigrants were bound for Oregon, not Kansas, so they hurried on.

By this time, the trail had been traversed sufficiently to be well marked. Guides were no longer necessary to cross the plains and mountains.

However, when they arrived at Fort Boise, the emigrants encountered a significant setback. This was the rumor that Walla Walla warriors had killed two French guides. The rumor proved to be false, but it was quite sufficient to cause worry. However, the emigrants were too far west to turn back now. Onward they must go.

And a mountain man offered an enticing way.

The Meek Cutoff

Stephen Hall Meek

Stephen Hall Meek was an experienced mountain man and guide who had trapped the area extensively and was noted for his almost photographic memory of places he had seen. He offered a safe route following an old trapping trail that would bypass the territory of the disquieted Walla Wallas altogether.

Matters went wrong almost from the beginning. While the trapping trail was quite suitable for pack horses, a considerable amount of time and effort was required to throw aside rocks and boulders to allow wagons to pass through. The lead wagon train quickly grew discontent with this task and eventually rebelled against Meek’s guidance altogether.

Stephen Meek may have been a master of geography, but he was by no means a master of men. Despite the guide’s repeated warnings, the wagons forged westward into the waterless central Oregon desert, perhaps hoping to find a more direct route to their destination. As Meek predicted, they ran out of water and grass for the livestock and were forced to spend several days encamped at a tiny spring at Lost Hollow while men rode into the wilderness on horseback in quest of water and a viable route. The pollution of the spring at Lost Hollow, combined with a shortage of provisions and the general hardships of the trail, led to a large outbreak of sickness among the emigrants, resulting in several deaths.

Fortunately, Meek was still on duty and determined to see the emigrants safely through at all hazards, even though the anger and hostility of the emigrants toward him increased daily. Meek climbed to the top of a butte and caught sight of a green cut in a mountainside in the distance, promising water and a better route. Meek directed the emigrants to this site, concealed in the wagon of a friend for his own safety.

From here, the emigrants were able to regain the old pack trail, hire a Native American guide for extra assistance, and make their way to the Deschutes River, the last major obstacle on their way to the Methodist Mission at The Dalles, where they could purchase food and obtain care for the sick. Here Meek had to leave the wagon train to escape the wrath of the emigrants, but not without arranging for a fellow mountain man to assist the stragglers in crossing the river.

The Cutoff Craze

While the Meek Cutoff was among the most disastrous and infamous of the Oregon Trail cutoffs, it was by no means the only one.

A well-known cutoff route was the Applegate Trail, which entered the Willamette Valley from the south. While this route proved useful to homestead-seekers in later years, for the initial party of emigrants who traveled it the Applegate Trail was pure disaster. Men had been hired to blaze and clear the trail, but abandoned their task partway through, leaving the emigrants to negotiate a rocky canyon on their own. The arrival of the rainy season and subsequent flooding of the canyon forced many to choose between abandoning their possessions so that they could hurry to the settlements on foot or spending the winter on the trail, foraging and hunting for anything that could serve as food.

View from the Lander Cutoff

And then there were the lesser-known cutoffs. The Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff, in an effort to avoid Shoshone and Bannock country, traversed a barren volcanic wasteland in Idaho now aptly termed “Craters of the Moon.” The Nebraska City–Ft. Kearney Cutoff was far more effective and saved a great deal of distance, although an effort to traverse it with a steam-powered wagon failed. Likewise, the Lander Cutoff in Wyoming was shorter and boasted plenty of wood, water, and grass, but tended to be steeper and rougher than the main Oregon Trail. The McAuley Cutoff, in contrast, was longer than the original route, but spared emigrants from traversing the notorious Big Hill of Idaho.

These cutoffs, dangerous and unproven though they were, were nevertheless immensely popular because they offered at least the prospect of avoiding the hardships of the regular Oregon Trail route. Some, like the Meek Cutoff, avoided the territory of Native American tribes who were less than pleased about the intrusion of the settlers. Others, like the McAuley Cutoff, avoided geographical difficulties. Most promised greater speed in reaching the settlements.

Which brings up a question: Given the perceived hardships of the Oregon Trail, plus the favorable impression many of the emigrants had of northeastern Kansas, why didn’t they stay? What was so unfavorable about the plains and so compelling about Oregon that they felt the need to pursue the proverbial two birds in the bush?

Next week: Part 2

By hsotr

Pulling from nearly 20 years of experience, Michelle Lindsey started Homestead on the Range to help Kansans and others around flyover country achieve an abundant country lifestyle. Michelle is the author of four country living books. She is also a serious student of history, specializing in Kansas, agriculture, and the American West. When not gardening or pursuing hobbies ranging from music to cooking to birdwatching, she can usually be found researching or writing about her many interests.