Joseph Lafayette Meek was born in Washington County, Virginia in 1810, and spent his formative years hunting and trapping in the Rocky Mountain wilderness. It was during this time that wild stories of Meek and the wilderness arose: an unarmed encounter with a grizzly bear; his trapping group scattered by Blackfoot Indians; and the death of his first wife at the hands of a raiding party. When the game animals became scarce, Meek moved out of the mountains and guided one of the first wagon trains through the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley. He then settled down in Oregon with his third Native American wife and by 1840 was a farmer.
In 1847, a mission established by Marcus Whitman was attacked by a group of Cayuse Indians in apparent response to an outbreak of disease which Whitman, a physician, failed to cure. The Indians captured around fifty settlers and killed fourteen, among them was Meek’s daughter.
Following what became known as the Whitman Massacre, Meek traveled to Washington to press for Oregon’s inclusion into the U.S. as an official territory. Congress approved territorial status in 1848, and President James K. Polk appointed Meek, his wife’s cousin, as U.S. Marshal, a position he held for the next five years. In 1850, as part of his duties, he oversaw the hanging of five Native Americans convicted in the Whitman Massacre.
Meek assisted in the organization of a volunteer militia and participated in the Yakima War in 1855, against the Yakima, Walla Walla, Umatilla and Cayuse tribes. Later Meek helped organize the Republican Party in Oregon and was pro-Union during the Civil War. He died in 1875, as the result of what was then called inflammation of the stomach.