Hardcover, 176 pages
Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index
University of Washington Press, 2013
The Meek Cutoff recounts the perilous trek endured by 1,200 overland emigrants who -- in 1845 -- paid mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them across the desert of Eastern Oregon, bound for The Dalles on the Columbia River. Meek, who had promised the group that he knew a shortcut that would spare them possible encounters with Indians and avoid difficult topography, evidently lost his way, and with it, theirs. The group suffered terribly, and some of them -- exhausted and malnourished -- died.
William Barlow, one of the emigrants who followed Meek, later recalled, "[Meek] proved himself to be a reckless humbug from start to finish. All he had in view was to get the money and a white woman for a wife before he got through" (p.10).
The Meek Cutoff is the first book to identify and retrace the emigrants' exact course. Author Brooks Greer Ragen accomplished this feat in 2006, walking the trail he had identified by using diaries and other first-hand accounts written by the emigrants, accompanied by a team of experts. One of this book's great strengths lies in its use of beautiful color photographs that illustrate each area the text describes. Forty-four detailed maps complement the photographs.
The subplot of the Meek Cutoff ordeal is the persistent rumor that -- while wandering lost -- the emigrants found gold in some of the creeks they passed. None of these emigrants was subsequently able to relocate these supposed gold creeks, although many people have searched for them during the intervening 17 decades.
The Meek Cutoff is a highly readable, exciting example of the ability of primary source materials -- in this case, letters and diaries -- to reveal the past -- in this case the Meek Cutoff's trajectory. Ragen brings multiple contemporary accounts together, organizes them day by day, and supplements them with maps and photographs. Using these historical clues, Ragen and his team (dubbed the Meek Research Expedition) -- and with them, this book's readers -- solve the mystery of the Meek emigrants' route. Documents, explanations of the Meek Research Expedition's detailed methodology, maps, and photographs combine to make this book a vivid reading experience. Highly recommended for all ages.
By Paula Becker, February 18, 2014