Eliza Jane Sumner was born in Marion County, Ind., in 1834. On May 13, 1851, she married Ezra Meeker and immediately moved to Eddyville, Iowa. The next spring, soon after the birth of their first child, they set out over the Oregon Trail. She died in October 1909 at the age of 75 after she had been ill for several years. In between, we know she bore six children, five of whom survived childhood.
Very little remains of Eliza’s own voice or image. Contemporaries used terms such as quiet, gentle and respected as they described her, and her husband, Ezra, wrote a touching “Tribute to My Wife” after her death.
During her life, Ezra faithfully wrote scores of letters to Eliza during the times when he was away – to Europe selling hops, to the Yukon selling vegetables to miners, or on his Old Oregon Trail Monument Expedition.
But not a single answer to one of his letters survives. We know of only eight photos of Eliza, and most of those are in groups; she is seldom portrayed alone.
Yet Mrs. Meeker, all 4 feet, 8 inches of her, was an integral part of Ezra’s success. He gives her credit for packing their provisions to sustain them on the trail. She was the inspiration and the driving force behind the construction of the Meeker Family Homestead (today’s Meeker Mansion); indeed, the title was in her name. She and other family members dried, canned and evaporated foodstuffs in Puyallup to be sold in the family store in Dawson City, Yukon.
Eliza also was a suffragette.
She engaged in many activities to secure women’s right to vote. In the only document in her hand that survives, a diary of a trip to the East Coast from December 1889 to May 1890, she mentions a visit to Mrs. Harrison in the White House and attending the National American Woman Suffrage Convention. Her voice in that document is very matter-of-fact, and, sadly, not descriptive at all, except for addressing the weather.
Two tender stories of Eliza bear remembrance. In the first, Charley Ross, himself born on the Oregon Trail, recalled that Mrs. Meeker, desiring to improve her education, would appear in the classroom where he was a student to recite her lessons to the teacher.
The other is Ezra’s story of Eliza Jane running a lending library out of a lean-to on the back of their cabin in today’s Pioneer Park. There, townspeople could check out copies of the 60-some periodicals she kept on file.
Indeed, it is this Eliza Jane Meeker, the first Puyallup librarian, whom the Puyallup Public Library will celebrate at 2 p.m. Aug. 24 with a newly commissioned interpretation of her by noted historian and actress Karen Haas.Andy Anderson is the historian for the Puyallup Historical Society at Meeker Mansion. He can be reached through the mansion at 253-848-1770.