Jason Lee’s Mission to Oregon

When the first wave of American settlers arrived in the Oregon Country, it was ironic that they were greeted by two Canadians: one a sympathetic rival who was under orders to discourage them, and the other probably the single person most responsible for establishing white settlements, organizing schools, and creating a government. The first was John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The second was Jason Lee, Methodist missionary to Oregon.

With the exception of a handful of explorers, traders, and mountain men, the first Americans to arrive in the Oregon Territory were Protestant Missionaries sent by the Methodist-Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches. They failed in their primary task of converting the Indians, but they were successful in providing a foundation of order for white settlement in Oregon during a critical and potentially chaotic time of transition. In the course of trying to bring Christianity to the Indians, they founded the first permanent schools in Oregon. Their presence was also reassuring to people contemplating the trip to Oregon, as the missions, like the trading posts and forts that dotted the Trail, were seen as islands of civilization in the wilderness.

Attention was first drawn to Oregon in 1829 when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) heard a report from their Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) mission about the abundance of unconverted Indians on the West Coast. The ABCFM was a Boston-based group of missionaries supported chiefly by the Congregational Church but also embraced the Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and Methodist-Episcopals. They had been working to convert Indians since 1816, when they set up a mission among the Cherokee.

While the ABCFM would go on to play a major role in foreign lands, at that time their only prior experience outside the United States was in Liberia, an American colony in Africa created to send home freed slaves, and Hawaii, which was an important stop on the China Circuit. Captain Jonathon Green was dispatched from Oahu to explore the Oregon coast, which at that time extended from Alaska to California. Over the course of a two-year journey, he obtained the names of 34 tribes of Indians which he believed needed instruction. His report reached Boston in 1832.

At the same time, four Flathead Indians of the Nez Perce tribe in northern Idaho traveled 3000 miles to find General William Clark in St. Louis, who had explored Oregon 25 years earlier as a captain with Meriwether Lewis. They wanted to know about the “true mode of worshiping the Great Spirit.” They wanted a copy of the “book of directions” on how to “conduct themselves in order to enjoy his favor” and how to “be received into the country where the Great Spirit resides and live forever with him.”

A letter from these Indians was printed in the leading publication of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. This letter and Captain Green’s report from Hawaii about the 34 heathen tribes of Oregon sparked the imagination of the people of the United States. Meetings were held to see what citizens could do. Committees were appointed to inquire into the situation.

Dr. Wilbur Fisk of Wesleyan University in Massachusetts asked the Methodist Mission Board and the ABCFM to establish a mission among the Flatheads. An appropriation of $3000 was secured and Dr. Fisk’s former pupil, the Rev. Jason Lee, was chosen to lead a caravan to Oregon. Thirty-year-old Lee was working near his birthplace in Ontario when he received word of his appointment. Before heading west, Lee was sent on a tour of the eastern states to present his missionary cause to the people.

Lee contracted with Nathaniel Wyeth to accompany him on his second trading expedition. Supplies for the mission were forwarded to Oregon on Wyeth’s brig, the May Dacre. The Wyeth-Lee Party set out with the 1834 fur caravan of Captain William Sublette, which also included naturalists J.K. Townsend and Thomas Nuttall.

They left Independence on April 28, 1834, and arrived at the Green River in time for the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, the annual gathering of fur traders, Indians, and mountain men. There, they separated from the Sublette Party and struck out for the Oregon Country.

On Sunday July 27, 1834, during a layover along the Snake River, the local mountain men, Indians, and missionaries heard the first Protestant sermon delivered in the Oregon Country. It was reportedly a festive day, with Indians in full regalia and mountain men dressed in what passed for their Sunday best. After the sermon, there was a horse race in which a man was killed when he fell from his steed. The next day, Lee conducted the first Protestant funeral service west of the Rockies. Wyeth stayed behind to construct Fort Hall while the Lee Party went on to Fort Vancouver.

At Fort Vancouver, McLoughlin insisted it was too dangerous to be among the Flatheads and suggested instead the Willamette Valley. The Hudson’s Bay Company provided men, boats, and provisions for the journey to Mission Bottom, outside present-day Salem, in the fall of 1834. The site selected was among the melons and cucumbers of former Astorian Joseph Gervais. They pitched tents and started building an unhewn log cabin. Men trained as missionaries found themselves pressed into service as woodsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths, and husbandmen. Lee was heard to say, “men never worked harder or performed less,” and the first storm of the winter rained down upon a roofless house. They finished the cabin between storms. By spring, they had 30 acres fenced and planted.

Lee founded a school at Mission Bottom to educate the local Indians in what he considered a proper, Christian manner. There were fourteen Indian students the first year, of whom seven died and five ran away. In 1836 there were twenty-five students, of whom sixteen fell ill. Only one of the surviving students converted. By 1842, almost all the Indians in the Willamette Valley were dead of diseases brought to their homelands by white missionaries, mountain men, sailors, and settlers. The missions in western Oregon no longer had any reason to exist. Some of them degenerated into crass commercialism before being shut down.

In March of 1836, Lee wrote to his mentor, Dr. Fisk, to complain that without the able assistance of tradesmen and farmers to oversee the day-to-day details of running the mission, there was little time available for the business of religion. Lee’s letter resulted in reinforcements in 1837 and 1838. The first arrived by ship on May 28, 1837. Among the new arrivals were such early notables as Elijah White, who would later return to the United States to lead the 1842 migration to Oregon; Alanson Beers and W.H. Wilson, who were in Oregon’s first government; and Lot Whitcomb, who built the first steamboat in Oregon and founded the town of Milwaukie.

In 1837, Lee chose The Dalles as the site of his first branch mission, where he placed his nephew Daniel Lee in charge. Wascopam, as the mission was called, was at first successful, but backsliders soon outnumbered converts. In 1847, Wascopam was deeded over to Perrin Whitman, the nephew of Marcus Whitman.

After the arrival of the reinforcement of 1838, Lee returned to New England to plead for more farmers and mechanics to support his mission. At Westport, Missouri, he received news of the deaths of his wife — Anna Maria Pittman, whom he had married only the previous year — and son in childbirth. Lee carried with him a petition from the Americans in Oregon to the US government asking for protection from the British. This petition marked Lee’s transition from missionary to colonizer.

Lee remained in New England for two years recruiting settlers for Oregon. His efforts were successful, and he married Lucy Thompson before returning to Oregon on the ship Lausanne with the Great Reinforcement of 1840. Lee’s fifty recruits included seven ministers, two doctors, four farmers, six mechanics, and four teachers. Among them was George Abernethy, a miller who would become steward of the branch mission at Oregon City and later the first man to be elected governor of Oregon. Upon their arrival, the population at Mission Bottom totaled forty adults and fifty children. Branch missions were started at Nisqually, Clatsop, Umpqua, and Willamette Falls (near the present-day sites of Tacoma, Astoria, Roseburg, and Oregon City, respectively). Nisqually and Clatsop were both later abandoned. The Methodists organized a congregation in Oregon City in 1840 and began building a church there in 1842. The church was completed in 1844, the same year Oregon City was incorporated under the Provisional Government. The Oregon City congregation is the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in Oregon, and it is second only to the Catholic congregation at St. Paul in longevity.

In 1841, serious flooding made it apparent that Lee had chosen a poor location for his original mission, and he relocated from Mission Bottom to Mission Mill, a site within present-day Salem. Lee’s Indian Manual Training School was moved to its present location at Chemeketa, and the following year a school for the white population was started at Mission Mill. The Oregon Institute, as it was known, was the first school for white Americans established west of Missouri. It later grew to become Willamette University, the first college in the Oregon Territory.

Lee was replaced in July, 1843, by Rev. George Gary for not converting enough Indians to justify the vast expenditures needed to maintain his missions. Lee was in Honolulu, heading home by ship, when he learned of this. He continued on without waiting for his replacement to arrive.

Lee spent the last two years of his life seeking vindication. He died in Canada on March 2, 1845, and his body was returned to Salem in 1906.