Column: The Real Story; by Dirk Knudsen of the Hillsboro Herald
It is International Women’s Day and even though it is late in the day I have to post this quick story about Virginia Meek. She was the daughter of a Nez Perce Chief, Chief Kowesota, and was betrothed to the infamous Mountain Man, Joseph Lafayette Meek. He was one of the most colorful characters of the great American West. Joe was the first to settle here in the Tualatin Valley and his wife Virginia played an integral part in that. Meek would go on to form the Oregon Territory and make the crucial “Call For The Question” which determined our future as part of the Union and not part of Brittain. The much-lauded novel, The River of the West, tells the story of the western settlement through meeks eyes. From hand-to-hand combat with a massive grizzly bear to his avenging trip on horse and foot to Washington DC in 1847 to meet the President, Ol’Joe was bigger than life.
But today on International Women’s Day I salute the great Virginia Meek, a proud woman from the Nez Perce Indian Tribe and the Wife of Colonel Joseph Lafayette Meek. Together with her Sisters and fellow Mountain Men, she came to the Oregon Territory with babies hanging off of her. No Oregon Trail, no food, no housing. And yet she came to the Tualatin Plains out along what is now US 26 and she and Joe settled in .
She and the men and her sisters established farms, raised crops, and provided for others in need. She raised 10 children and took care of Joe while he was off as the Marshall of the Oregon Territory. He was gone a lot. Later she would bury 5 of those children off of Meek Road on what will soon be the home to Amazon where hundreds of employees and thousands of delivery vans will roll over the children’s graves every day; never knowing they are under the ground. Invisible forever right here in the home of the brave. They are still there. Soon we will be seeing the Methodist Meeting House Memorial (seen below) rise up on the site to commemorate Virginia and her babies; that being the result of a contentious land-use battle that was waged 4 years ago. Stay tuned for more on that. Virginia loved Joe to the day he died. Early on as one of the first settlers in Washington County, she was well-liked and she cared for all. After the Oregon Trail opened and hundreds of others came she, her children, her sisters, and other natives who were here first were treated badly. The kids were called half-breeds and she never faltered. Always encouraging them and having a kind word for everyone.
When Joe died in 1875 she stayed on their farm on Meek Road, eventually leaving to return to Idaho to be with her people who she had been away from for better than 50 years. The Oregonian reported upon her death in detail (see below) and mentioned that after Joe died and she lost her vision she would rock in her rocking chair and sing the songs of her people. Holding Colonel Joe’s brass buttons in her hands she would say “No Man Like Joe” often.
In her later years she would occasionally go to a work-basket, blind though she was, and take out a handful of brass buttons, which were on his marshal’s uniform, and caress them as tenderly as though they were more precious than gold. The Oregonian, 1900; March 7th.
This my friends is a woman. This is a human of the utmost capability and strength. Honorable and humble. We don’t hear about her around her. Instead, we build parks and plazas and name them after our living politicians who have done much, but frankly could not stand in her shoes in those days. She deserves a statue. Even a mention on a day like today would be nice. Her sisters and the other women here at that time were equally strong and admirable. When all the men left for California to find Gold in 1849- the women folk ran the show. Some of Joe and Virginia’s heirs are still her and the women are equally formidable. This is a great day to remember we are all equal and it is people like Virginia Meek who need to be recognized.
Happy International Women’s Day Virginia – we remember you!
Here is a page from the book by Harvey E Tobie, No Man Like Joe (1949) – in the closing verse Professor Tobie takes a quote from Virginia herself and closed his book.
Here is the Obituary from 1900- The Oregonian
March 7, 1900; Oregonian, p 4 (portrait sketch)
“Mrs. J. L. Meek Dead”
Hillsboro, OR., March 6Mrs. Virginia Meek, of Mountaindale, died at the home of her son, Stephen Meek, at 10:30 yesterday morning, after an illness of about three months. She was a full-blood Nez Perces Indian, but she readily adopted the customs and manners of the typical American woman upon her marriage to one of the most unique and daring characters in the early history of the Pacific Northwest.
Virginia Meek was born in the Nez Perces country in the year 1820, and at the age of 18 was married to Joseph L. Meek. Mr. and Mrs. Meek came to the Willamette Valley in 1840, and at once settled near Glencoe, in the vicinity of which place Mrs. Meek has ever since resided. Her husband, Colonel Meek, the famous trapper, who was a cousin of President Polk, died June 20, 1875, his remains resting in the cemetery at the Tualatin Plains church.Mrs. Meek has been ill since last December, but has borne her sickness with fortitude, never once complaining. She met the end with no thought of fear.
Chief Kowesota, of the Nez Perces, was the father of Mrs. Meek. When Mr. Meek sought the chief’s consent to marry the princess, at first the old warrior demurred, saying that, as a Christian, he could not give him the girl, when he (Meek) already had one wife living (Meek’s first wife had died and his second had left him). Meek pleaded, implored, cajoled and finally quoted Solomon and David as good Biblical precedents for the desired sanction, and against such authority the good old Christianized chief succumbed. Meek was given the girl, then a handsome young woman of 18, and he christened her Virginia, in honor of his native state.This was in 1838, and as Meek’s desire was to live in the Willamette Valley, he and his wife two years later made their way down the Snake and Columbia Rivers and settled four miles north of Hillsboro. Meek was Oregon’s first United States Marshal. Twenty-four years ago the intrepid frontiersman was gathered to his fathers, but his memory was kept fresh in the heart of the little old woman, which beat at his side nearly 46 years. In her later years she would occasionally go to a work-basket, blind though she was, and take out a handful of brass buttons, which were on his marshal’s uniform, and caress them as tenderly as though they were more precious than gold.Virginia Meek was always a favorite with early pioneer women and children, and she exercised a boundless charity to ward the poor and needy. Her native language she used to the last when she talked with herself in her favorite chair, but when spoken to, she would reply in broken English, very intelligibly. Her disposition was of the kindest sort, and while age rendered her decrepit, she sat in her chair, humming a chant peculiar to the Nez Perces.
A few months ago, an Oregonian reporter went to see Mrs. Meek, and he made it known that he wished to photograph her. “Oh no,” she said, “I don’t want that! I don’t want that!” But when she was told it would go all over the great West, and to her old girlhood home, she laughingly consented.Mrs. Meek gave birth to seven children, two of whom died in infancy. The other five grew to adult life, and are: Courtney Meek, who died two years ago in Portland; Mrs. Olive M. Riley, Mrs. Jennie Newhard and Joseph L. Meek, of Fletcher, Idaho, and S. A. D. Meek, with whom Mrs. Meek made her home after 1890. The children in Idaho are now on allotment lands, granted by the Government.
Mrs. Meek was short of stature, had a pleasant countenance, and, although 80 years of age, was very neat in her personal appearance. While sitting for her photo, she suddenly exclaimed to her son: “Steve, how is my hair? Is it combed?” Upon being assured that it was well brushed, she relapsed into silence and awaited developments. Being sightless, she never saw her picture, although she was solaced by the knowledge that it went to the land of her girlhood.