Joe Meek Becomes a Mountain Man


Joe Meek was born in 1810 in Virginia not far from the Cumberland Gap which was, at that time, the gateway to the west. Joe hated farm-work and he didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. But he was about the best hunter around.

By the time he was in his teens his older brothers had already headed west and the thought gave Joe itchy feet. Worse yet, he watched covered wagons heading for Kentucky and Missouri while he was standing still.

Then word came that one brother had joined a fur company in St. Louis, Missouri. He’d be heading for the Rocky Mountains, hunting, riding, and fighting Indians and bears. It boiled down to one thing for Joe Meek, freedom. That one word just about expressed everything that had been building inside of this boy for some time.

When one of his neighbors headed West Meek was packed and ready to go along. By the fall of 1828 he was going down the Missouri River towards St. Louis. There he heard about John Colter discovering the Teton Mountains and seeing spouting geysers and boiling springs. Joe listened to tales of Major Stephen Long marching up the Platte River in 1820 and climbing Pikes Peak.

It was almost beyond Joe’s belief that Jim Bridger had discovered a big salty lake then, with Tom Fitzpatrick, Bridger found South Pass. It was even harder to believe that Jedediah Smith had crossed a desert to a place called San Diego in a mystical land known as California.

In St. Louis everything in this frontier town, to Joe, seemed in an uproar. Keelboats and mackinaws were tied up at the wharf, riding low in the river under a wealth of furs. Bullwhackers added their profanity to the din as prairie schooners went by, carrying the best to be had from the southern end of the Santa Fe Trail. Joe watched it all, soaking it up like the dry prairie during a rainstorm. French voyageurs blended their gay songs with the loud silence of the fringe-swinging, buckskin-clad, muscle-bulging hunters who tipped their low-crowned beaver hats to the ladies. But it was the mountain men that drew Meek’s attention the most.

When winter passed Joe was hired on by Bill Sublette who was an old-timer to the mountains and the fur trade. Sublette’s pack train would be heading for the mountains soon.

After Joe was outfitted, at a price to be deducted from his pay, he was anxious to get going. He had yet to realize how much his goods would cost him in beaver pelts, laboriously collected in bone-tingling icy mountain streams that gave most mountain men arthritis in later life, if they lived long enough and didn’t lose their scalps.

He did learned that life in the Far West might not be the lark he’d expected. They hadn’t left civilization yet and already he was sleeping out of doors, cold Missouri rain or no. Every day Joe was roused from a soggy slumber at four o’clock in the morning to eat a quick breakfast he’d had to concoct himself. After he’d choked it down it was time to start a grueling day of taming horses and mules.

The word “Cowboy” hadn’t been thought up yet, at least not in those words. If it had, Joe Meek would have been just that, a cowboy, for the time being. Eventually he did bring his bucking, jumping, and twisting mule under control. Now there was the trick of loading his pack animals to suite the boss. Sublette insisted the only way to pack a mule was the right way–his way. Whoa to the man whose mule developed saddle sores. Before he’d gotten his three mules packed the right way, Meek had been bitten, trampled, and trod as well as bruised and bloodied.

On March 17, of 1829 Sublette’s company was considered ready to move out. At last, Joe Meek was headed west.