Ezra Manning Meeker was an American pioneer who traveled the Oregon Trail by ox-drawn wagon as a young man, migrating from Iowa to the Pacific Coast. Late in life he worked to memorialize the Trail, repeatedly retracing the trip of his youth. Once known as the "Hop King of the World", he was the first mayor of Puyallup, Washington.
Meeker was born in Butler County, Ohio, to Jacob and Phoebe Meeker. His family relocated to Indiana when he was a boy. He married Eliza Jane Sumner in 1851; the following year the couple, with Ezra's brother and with their newborn son, set out for the Oregon Territory, where land could be claimed and settled on. Although they endured hardships on the Trail in the journey of nearly six months, the entire party survived the trek. Meeker and his family briefly stayed near Portland, then journeyed north to live in the Puget Sound region. They settled at what is now Puyallup in 1862, where Meeker grew hops for use in brewing beer. By 1887, his business had made him wealthy, and his wife built a large mansion for the family. In 1891 an infestation of hop aphids destroyed his crops and took much of his fortune. He later tried his hand at a number of ventures, and made four largely unsuccessful trips to the Klondike, taking groceries and hoping to profit from the gold rush.
Ezra Manning Meeker was born in Butler County, Ohio, near Huntsville, on December 29, 1830, the son of Jacob (1804–1869) and Phoebe Meeker (née Baker; 1801–1854). His paternal ancestors had been among the early settlers of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where their ancestral home was located. In the American Revolutionary War, about twenty Meekers fought for the new nation. Ezra was the fourth of the six children Jacob and Phoebe had together, with older brothers John, Manning (died at age one week) and Oliver, and a younger sister Hannah and brother Clark.
Jacob was a miller and farmer. In 1839, the family moved from Ohio to Indiana, close to Indianapolis—Ezra and his older brother Oliver walked behind the family wagon for 200 miles (320 km). Ezra had little formal education; he later estimated a total of six months. Phoebe, seeing that her son's mind was not well adapted to formal learning, allowed him to earn money through odd jobs. He obtained work as printer's devil at the Indianapolis Journal, where his duties involved delivering the newspaper to subscribers, among them local pastor Henry Ward Beecher. In 1845, Phoebe's father, a Cincinnati merchant, gave his daughter $1,000, enough to buy the family a farm. As both Jacob and Ezra Meeker realized the boy enjoyed the outdoor life more than inside work, Jacob placed Ezra in charge of the farm, allowing the elder Meeker to work as a miller.
Meeker's first employment in the Pacific Northwest was unloading a ship that had docked at Portland. He moved to the nearby town of St. Helens, where construction of a wharf in competition with Portland's was under way—Oliver rented a house to lodge workers in, and Ezra went to help his brother. By this time, Ezra Meeker and his wife were determined to fulfill their original plan to farm, and when work was abandoned on the wharf, he went to find land which could be cultivated.
Meeker first made a claim in January 1853 about 40 miles (64 km) downriver from Portland, on the current site of Kalama, Washington. There, he built a log cabin and began his first farm. He did not build close to the water, which proved fortunate as there was a major flood on the Columbia soon after he claimed the land. Instead, he profited from the incident, selling logs the river left on his claim, together with trees he chopped down, for lumber.