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Joseph Meek was bold but not 'Grizzly'

It might seem strange that rugged mountain man Joe Meek’s career was shaped by something as luxurious and seemingly superficial as fashion.by: COURTESY PHOTO - Old Joe Meek

But it was the demand for beaver fur to make men’s hats — and the later decline of that business — that led to a lifetime of discovery and adventure for Meek. by: COURTESY PHOTO - Young Joe Meek in his trapping days

John Terry, amateur historian and author of The Oregonian’s longtime “Oregon Trails” column, will discuss Meek’s life as a fur trapper in the Rocky Mountains next Wednesday, Oct. 16 at the Washington County Museum. The Crossroads Lecture is free to museum members, $6 for nonmembers.

According to Terry, Meek’s career started in his teens, when he saw an ad in a Missouri newspaper looking for “young bucks” to work for the new Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

When beaver hats went out of style and silk hats became the rage — thanks to England’s Prince Albert — it meant Meek no longer had a job as a fur trapper. So he headed to “Oregon Country” and made history by helping set the territory on the right course to becoming a state.

While Meek is famous for his influence on Oregon history, little is known of his life as a trapper or the lives of mountain men in general. Terry plans to contrast Meek’s reality with the stereotype popularized by Grizzly Adams and film character Jeremiah Johnson.

He’ll explore the rivalry between the Hudson Bay Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, as well as the trappers’ personal motivations and the rough and rowdy lifestyle these frontier men lived.

“He was pretty smarmy,” Terry said of Meek. While there was fun in that lifestyle, he said, more often there was hardship.

In addition to trapping, these men “built” the trails and passes that would later be used by settlers on their way to the Western territories.

Meek himself would use them to head west to Oregon and begin his political career. A native of Washington County, Va., it was his desire to be laid to rest in Washington County, Ore., in what he saw as a fitting end to his life and career.




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