Ezra Meeker’s one-man crusade is credited for reawakening awareness of the Oregon Trail in the early 20th century.
In the process, he erroneously linked Omaha to the trail and others took his word for it.
Oregon Trail is a street name near Creighton University, not far from a boulder that was placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution with a confusing, controversial inscription. Another DAR monument was a sundial on an engraved granite base placed in Riverview Park.
In 1852, Meeker went west from Iowa. He made the trek to the Pacific Northwest with his wife and newborn son, crossing into Nebraska from south of present-day Council Bluffs and following the north side of the Platte River — a path that never was considered the Oregon Trail.
His life had boons and busts, from being considered the richest man in Washington state to a drifter. But he kept a notion that the Oregon Trail needed to be marked, lest it be forgotten. In 1906, Meeker went back east in an ox- and steer-drawn wagon to drum up interest in funding monuments — and himself.
The ox died near Brady Island, Nebraska. Meeker found a replacement in the Omaha stockyards. While he was in town, as an attraction at the Ak-Sar-Ben carnival, the Omaha schools turned down his request to ask for money from students for local markers.
A better reception for his idea came from the DAR. It collaborated with the state historical society, starting in 1907, to mark the trail statewide. Three years later, the Omaha chapter of the DAR received permission to erect the sundial monument near the northwest entrance of Riverview Park at 10th Street and Deer Park Boulevard.
On the monument was engraved “Erected by the Omaha Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution to mark the entrance of the Oregon Trail into Nebraska, 1849-1869, October 15, 1910.”
Within a year, thieves stole the brass pointers from the sundial. A photo of Meeker with the monument, dated April 1912, shows the sundial wasn’t replaced. And sometime before 1939, the monument was moved to Mount Vernon Gardens at its north entrance. Its subsequent whereabouts are unknown. In 1968, the World-Herald asked city parks and zoo officials about it and they either didn’t remember it or never heard of it.
The second DAR monument, the boulder, sits on Lincoln Boulevard a block north and about a block west of 30th and Cuming Streets.
This boulder was erected in 1912 by Omaha Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution to mark one of the Oregon Trails 1843, the California Trail 1849 later called the Military Road.
As the World-Herald’s Paul Hammel wrote last year, Clarence Paine, the secretary of the Nebraska State Historical Society, butted heads with the DAR over the inscription’s validity. He had suggested the boulder play up the California Trail with a footnote that Oregon emigrants took the route as early as 1843.
In a subsequent letter to The World-Herald, Paine wrote, “The young people of Omaha for many years to come will see this inscription and the first thought implanted in their minds will be that the Oregon Trail and California Trail were identical and that it passed this marker. It is agreed that it would be permissible to erect in Omaha a monument to ‘commemorate’ the Oregon Trail, but not to ‘mark’ it.
“There never was but the one Oregon Trail and that entered Nebraska in the southwestern corner of the present Gage County and followed the Little Blue River to a point just south of the present town of Hastings in Adams County, where it cut across to the Platte River.”
A Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints historian later concurred with Paine’s assessment.
The California Trail took gold seekers west starting in 1849. On today’s map, it followed Cuming Street to about 29th Street. Historian Merrill J. Mattes, in “The Great Platte River Road,” said the route then diverged. The main emigrant road went west to Boys Town, then to the northwest. The military road, following the highest ridges, went diagonally to 32nd and Hamilton Streets, then west to Military Avenue at 43rd Street and joined with a branch of the Mormon Road in the vicinity of the Benson shopping district.
The California Trail’s diagonal stretch was on the Count John A. Creighton farm. A row of locust trees ran along a gully 8- to 10-feet deep, caused by the wagons and load-bearing animals of western migration. Real estate men Erastus Benson and F.W. Carmichael had to grade it down when they purchased the farm in 1913 for their Montclair subdivision. They kept the path as a street and named it Oregon Trail. It runs from 30th and Nicholas Streets to 31st Street and Lafayette Avenue.
“Omaha lost a landmark of the great emigrant days that might well have been preserved,’’ a World-Herald writer lamented in 1929.
That was shortly after Meeker died at 97. He twice visited Omaha by wagon, in 1906 and 1912, then returned by train in 1923, airplane at Fort Crook in 1924 and automobile in 1926.
Meeker succeeded with his tireless promotion. The Oregon Trail has its rightful place in history. It just didn’t run through Omaha.