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Ezra Meeker's tale needed to be told

Welcome to "The Flip Side." The name harks back to a newsletter I once prepared for a Wisconsin coin club. The front side of the newsletter related the latest club news, and the back (or "The Flip Side," as I called it) carried my various ramblings—most of which, if memory serves, were related to the history of U.S. coins.

I currently serve as editor of Coins and Coin Prices magazines and have penned a number of articles and three books related to U.S. coinage history.

Although I have nothing against those who buy numismatic items with the intent to someday sell them (hopefully at a profit), I've always been an advocate of pursuing the story behind the coin. My first article for a national numismatic publication reflected my dedication to this. It focused on Oregon Trail-veteran Ezra Meeker's role in the creation of the Oregon Trail commemorative half dollar.

Prior to my article, everyone who told the story of this commemorative, issued from 1926-1939 (with gaps), had complained about its overissue and the blatant marketing that went into selling the coins. True, these articles noted that the money from the sale of the coins was to go toward marking the 2,000 miles of the famous emigrant trail west, but few writers dug any deeper.

In particular, I found in my research that the origin of this attractive coin—oversold or not—goes back to Meeker (shown in the photo here with his dog), who traveled the trail with his wife and one-year-old son in the early 1850s on their way west with thousands of other Americans. His was an inspirational story and one I felt shouldn't be overshadowed.

Meeker's initial journey had such an impact on him that, in 1906, at the age of 76, he set out from his home in Puyallup, Wash., to re-travel the Oregon Trail and mark it for future generations to remember. Employing a prairie schooner, pulled at first by two oxen, and accompanied by his dog, Meeker stopped in towns along the way, where he and townspeople erected monuments to the trail and gave dedication speeches. More than 20,000 people sacrificed their lives in their attempt to begin a new life in the American West via braving the hardships associated with this wagon-trail west.

When Meeker ran short on money, he had his trail journal printed, calling it "The Ox Team or the Old Oregon Trail," which he sold in paper- and hard-bound editions. Eventually, Meeker arrived in Washington, D.C., where he met with Teddy Roosevelt and received a pledge of federal support for marking the Oregon Trail.


Meeker repeated portions of the trip in 1912, in 1915 by auto, and in 1926 by air.

On April 26, 1926, at the age of 96, Meeker appeared before the Senate's Committee on Banking and Currency as president of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association. His goal was to secure passage of Public Law 235, which authorized the coining of "not more than 6,000,000" Oregon Trail half dollars. Faced with growing opposition to U.S. commemorative coins (many of which were issued for dubious causes), Meeker stood firm on the need for the Oregon Trail commemorative and the money it sales would raise.


Unfortunately, the Oregon Trail half dollar did not sell as well as Meeker and his supporters hoped. During the 13 years in which it was authorized, a little over 200,000 coins were ultimately distributed—far short of the 6 million limit and the association's lofty goals.

Meeker, who had spent most of his later life honoring the memory of the great trail west, died in 1928, at the age of 98. He lived long enough to see 150 monuments placed along the Oregon Trail and, more importantly, the minting of the "Ezra Meeker coin."

Today, Americans can still travel portions of the trail and enjoy owning one of his coins. Meeker's various books, many of them autographed by Meeker, are also available, as are interesting Meeker-related postcards.


It's these kinds of stories that bring extra meaning to collecting and the kind I will probably lean most on here. Again, welcome to "The Flip Side."