Monday, January 6, 2014

Misguided: The Meek Cutoff


“I hope that no other emigrants will ever be gulled as we have been,” wrote John Herren in his journal on Monday, September 1, 1845.

He and the other members of his wagon train were headed deep into the hot, waterless expanse of what is now Harney County in eastern Oregon. Guided by a well-known mountain man named Stephen Meek, they had left the established Oregon Trail on an attempted shortcut. It's become infamous as the Meek Cutoff.

As his diary shows, Herren and the others already regretted their decision to follow Meek into the high desert. Their guide proved to be considerably less familiar with the territory than he let on, and the party’s ordeal had just begun.

In The Meek Cutoff: Tracing the Oregon Trail’s Lost Wagon Train of 1845, author Brooks Geer Ragen assembles all the diary entries composed by members of the Meek party. Then, aided by GPS, metal detectors, and other modern technology, he attempts to trace the party’s exact route across Oregon.



Each section of the book is one day of the Meek party’s ordeal, with the diary entries, maps, and large color photographs of modern-day location. The result is a book that is both fascinating and poignant, a detailed day-by-day portrait of the party’s agonizing journey, and of the modern-day researchers’ attempt to follow in their footsteps.

The fate of the Meek party is not as well-known (or as horrific) as the Donner party, but it was bad enough: approximately 25 people died on the trek, many of them women and children, who succumbed to thirst and fever in the desert.

If you’re interested in this chapter of Oregon history, you’ll find Ragen’s The Meek Cutoff to be a well-researched, beautifully-illustrated resource. Check out Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, by Keith Clark and Lowell Tiller, too.

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