In 1832, four Indians from the Flathead
and Nez Perce tribes journeyed from their homelands in what
is now northern Idaho and eastern Washington State to St.
Louis, Missouri, where they met with Indian agent and former
explorer General William Clark, and reportedly asked him for
"the white man's book of heaven." They had heard from
white trappers and other Indian tribes that the white men
in the East possessed a book of great spiritual power, and
wanted that power for their people. When the tale of
the Indian's pilgrimage reached the east coast, it immediately
sparked the interest of evangelical Christian congregations.
The Methodist Episcopal Church quickly formulated plans to
establish a mission in the Pacific Northwest, and selected
a young preacher named Jason Lee as its leader. Although
Lee established his mission in what is now Salem, Oregon,
hundreds of miles from the nearest Flathead or Nez Perce,
and was almost entirely unsuccessful in his ministry to the
local Kalapuya Indians, his mission had a dramatic and lasting
effect that those four Indian searchers could never have anticipated.
Lee founded not only a mission but a school (Willamette University)
and a city (Salem). His work was instrumental in bringing
settlers to the Willamette Valley, generating the "Oregon
Fever" that would soon grip the nation, and establishing Oregon
as a U. S. territory.
Jason Lee was born in 1803 in Stanstead,
Quebec, just over the U.S.-Canada line from Vermont.
He was the youngest of fifteen children, and his father died
when he was only five years old. By the age of thirteen, Lee
found himself "thrown upon the world, without money, to provide
for all my wants," as he later recalled. The 1810s and
20s, when Lee worked as a manual laborer, were a time of great
religious fervor throughout the United States, when traveling
preachers and revival meetings attracted huge crowds.
It was at one of these revivals in 1826 that Lee first felt
himself called to do the work of God. Despite his little
previous education, Lee as accepted to the Wilbraham Academy
in Massachusetts in 1829, where he trained to be a minister.
Over the course of his education, Lee came
to believe that his calling in life was to live and labor
among the Indians. When the Methodist Episcopal Church
began planning a mission to the Flathead Indians, he was their
emphatic choice for its leader. Lee selected his nephew,
Daniel Lee, to be his assistant missionary, and Cyrus Shepard
was appointed as lay missionary. With the addition of
two other laymen, Philip Edwards and Courtney Walker, the
small party prepared to cross the continent.
As residents of modern-day Oregon, it can
be difficult for us to comprehend how isolated Oregon was
in the 1830s, before the settlers of the 40s and 50s began
pouring in. Although Lewis and Clark had explored the
area in 1805-6, and the Hudson's Bay Company was well established
at the mouth of the Columbia River, the Willamette Valley
was still almost exclusively populated by Native Americans,
with a sprinkling of French-Canadian fur traders thrown in.
On their overland journey, Lee's party was led by Captain
Nathaniel Wyeth, who had been to Oregon once before.
His correspondence with Lee before the party set out hints
at the great distance between Oregon and what was considered
the "civilized world." This distance was both physical
and psychological. Wyeth wrote to Lee that, "A ship
goes from London to the mouth of the Columbia river every
year. A ship will go from Boston some time between this and
next September. Occasional parties cross the mountains
from and to the U. States." In other words, the missionaries
would be virtually cut off from the world they knew.
They were literally journeying into the unknown.
Lee and his fellow missionaries arrived
in the Willamette Valley in the fall of 1834. Encountering
friendly Hudson's Bay Company officials, fur traders eager
to have a church and a school for their children, and Indians
in apparent need of religious instruction, Lee decided to
remain along the Willamette River rather than continuing up
the Columbia to the Flathead lands. Because some members
of the Chinook and other coastal tribes had flattened heads
similar to the Flathead tribe, it is possible that Lee did
not realize he was in the wrong place. In an area now
known as Wheatland Ferry, ten miles north of Salem, they constructed
a 32' by 18' mission building out of logs. The window sashes
in the mission building were carved by Jason Lee with his
jackknife. Today, Willamette Mission Park memorializes the
original mission site.
In the spring of 1835, a school for Indian
children was established with Cyrus Shepard as teacher.
Three Kalapuya children had been taken in at the mission during
the first winter, two of them orphans in poor health.
However, this early success belies significant problems in
the mission's outreach to Indian children. Of the original
three children taken in, the one healthy child soon ran away
to rejoin his tribe. In the mission's first year, an
estimated fourteen children were taken in, of which five ran
away, five died, and two died the following year. Twenty
five children were received the following year, sixteen of
which became ill. Because they had no natural immunities,
Indians were extremely susceptible to European diseases, and
smallpox, measles, diphtheria, malaria, and tuberculosis took
a devastating toll. As early as 1842, Indians had almost
disappeared from the Willamette Valley. The deaths of
children at Lee's mission made the local Indians wary of the
missionaries, and caused many adults to avoid the mission
Despite these setbacks, Lee did not give
up on his ministry to the Indians. He believed that
in order for the mission to be a success, they needed to create
a more stable community, including women and children.
In response to Lee's pleas for funds and reinforcements, the
Board of Missions in New York sent the "First Reinforcement."
The group included Dr. Elijah White with his wife and two
children; Alanson Beers, a blacksmith, with his wife and three
children; and William H. Willson, a carpenter. It also
included three unmarried women: Susan Downing, the fiancÚ
of Cyrus Shepard; Elvira Johnson; and Anna Maria Pittman,
whom the mission board chose in the hope that she would be
a compatible wife for Lee. The reinforcements came via
ship, around South America with a stopover in Hawaii, a voyage
that took ten months. They arrived in May of 1837.
Only two months later, on July 16th, in a beautiful fir grove
east of the Mission house, Anna Maria and Jason Lee were joined
in marriage, as were Cyrus Shepard and Susan Downing.
A second reinforcement arrived September
7, 1837, led by Reverend David Leslie. In March of 1838,
Jason Lee left the mission in Leslie's care and traveled east,
returning to the United States with the hope of recruiting
more missionaries. He brought with him a petition urging
the U. S. to annex Oregon, signed by the ten men at the mission,
17 other American men, and nine French-Canadians who wished
to be U. S. citizens. These 35 reportedly comprised
three quarters of all white men in Oregon at that time.
Lee met with the mission board in New York
and traveled up and down the east coast giving speeches to
generate support for the mission and entice new settlers to
come to Oregon, possibly hoping that increased American settlement
there would encourage the government to make Oregon a U. S.
territory. Lee was accompanied by one of the few Indian
children he had managed to convert, a teenage boy whose religious
devotion served as a testimonial to the mission's success.
Sadly, the boy died while in the east, far from his own people.
Lee received more sad news while still in the East.
His wife Anna Maria had died in childbirth on June 26, 1838,
not quite a year after their wedding. In New York, a
friend introduced Lee to Lucy Thompson, a recent graduate
of the Newbury Seminary. After a brief courtship, they
married in July 1839. That fall, Lee and his new
wife sailed for Oregon on the Lausanne, along with fifty other
new recruits for the mission. This group became known
as the "Great Reinforcement." Among them were
five ordained ministers, including Reverend Gustavus Hines,
and their families, as well as laymen including Lewis H. Judson
and J. L. Parrish, with their wives and children.
Soon after the Great Reinforcement's arrival
on May 21, 1840, the missionaries constructed a mill on what
would come to be known as Mill Creek, and appointed Rev. Hines
as the head of a new Indian Manual Training School, to be
constructed near the confluence of Mill Creek and the Willamette,
an area that the Kalapuya called Chemeketa, meaning "place
of peace." In 1841, flooding at the main mission
building prompted Lee to relocate the entire mission to Chemeketa,
where a new residence was built in 1841. Known as Jason
Lee House, it was located north of the Indian Manual Training
School on what would become Broadway Street. A second
building known as the Parsonage was built just south of the
school, on land later occupied by the Kay Woolen Mill.
Both buildings are now preserved on the grounds of Mission
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of white
settlers were arriving in the Willamette Valley, motivated
by an 1839 bill that asserted U.S. ownership of Oregon and
promised 1000 acres of land to every white male over 18.
The land grant was reputedly Jason Lee's idea. Lee believed
that in order to transform Oregon into a Christian society,
it was necessary to have established family life and strong
civil government--in other words, large numbers of white settlers
and U.S. territorial status. Although Lee did not give
up his efforts towards the Indians, and sent people from his
missionary to establish satellite missions in other areas
of Oregon and Washington, the focus of the Chemeketa mission
began to change, with less emphasis on converting the Indians
and more on educating the children of white settlers.
The Indian Manual training School evolved into the Oregon
Institute, a school for white children, and was eventually
renamed Willamette University. A new chapel was also
built in 1843 to accommodate the growing number of settlers.
This small chapel grew to be Salem's First United Methodist
Church. The same year, enough Americans had settled
in Oregon that they easily outvoted the British and Canadians
to create an American provisional government.
However, not everyone shared Lee's vision
for an Oregon filled with white, American, Christian settlers.
Some of his fellow ministers disapproved of his leadership,
and the mission board back east felt that he had abandoned
the original goal of bringing God's word to the Indians and
was wasting money and manpower on a "colonization scheme."
In 1843, the board sent Reverend George Gary to replace Lee
and restructure the mission. This bad news came while
Lee was probably still mourning for his wife Lucy, who had
died in March of 1842, only three weeks after giving birth
to their daughter, Lucy Anna Maria. Leaving young Lucy
in the care of Rev. and Mrs. Hines, Lee sailed for New York
on Nov. 1, 1843, to defend his actions to the mission board.
After meeting with the board, Lee was exonerated
of their most serious charge, misappropriating mission funds
for land speculation, and his title of Missionary to Oregon
was reinstated. However, he became ill while visiting
friends and family in the East, and returned to his family
home in Stanstead, Canada, where he died on March 12, 1845,
at the age of 41.
In 1906, Jason Lee's body was returned
to Salem in recognition of his crucial role in the settlement
of Oregon. His remains were re-interred in Lee Mission
Cemetery beside those of his two wives. In 1954, Lee's part
in the development of the Pacific Northwest was recognized
with a statue in the National Hall of Fame in Washington,
Researched and written by Sue Morrison and Katherine
Bashford, James W. The Oregon Missions: the Story
of how the Line was Run between Canada and the United States.
New York: Abingdon Press, 1918.
Brosnan, Cornelius J. Jason Lee: Prophet of a New
Oregon. New York: the Macmillan Co., 1930.
Canse, John M. Pilgrim and Pioneer: Dawn in
the Northwest. New York: Abingdon Press, 1930.
Carey, Charles H. General History of Oregon Prior
to 1861. Volume 1. Portland: Metropolitan
Hines, H. K. Missionary History of the Pacific
Northwest Containing the Wonderful Story of Jason Lee with
Sketches of Many of His Co-Laborers, All Illustrating Life
on the Plains and in the Mountains in Pioneer Days.
Portland: H. K. Hines, 1899.
Maxwell, Ben. "Indians Notwithstanding, Jason Lee,
Missionary, Had Mind to be Kind." The Oregon Sunday
Journal, Portland. 15 May 1938.
Terry, John. "Jason Lee's Mission Perseveres in Valley's
Damp Drudgery." Sunday Oregonian. 22 April
2001. Page A18.
Yarnes, T. D. The Contribution
of Jason Lee to Civil Government in Oregon. Oregon
Conference Historical Society. [no date] (Salem
Public Library Hugh Morrow Pamphlet Collection)