Originally printed in the Nov. 27, 2002 edition of the Illinois Valley News
Sometime in the summer of 1831, four Indians arrived in St. Louis, Missouri from the Pacific Northwest. Three of them were Nez Perce and one was from the Flathead tribe. They wanted to see William Clark who had visited their region in 1804-1805. Little is known as to what they were seeking but the white man’s book was one thing that has been recorded in historical records. However, a letter from a visitor to St. Louis at the time, was published on March 1, 1833 in the “Christian Advocate,” a prominent religious newspaper in Boston. It stated that the four Indians were searching for the book that would help them better worship the Great Spirit. This stirred up a religious zeal in the East to send missionaries to Oregon to give them the Bible and convert them to Christianity.
The first organization to respond was the Methodist Mission Board. On April 28, 1834 Jason Lee and his nephew Daniel Lee left St Louis with the Nathaniel Wyeth expedition to establish a Methodist mission. This same expedition also included naturalists Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend. On arriving at Ft. Vancouver, John Mcloughlin helped them with supplies and selecting a good location. Their first choice was on the Willamette River, near today’s Salem, where the Wheatland Ferry is still operating. The land had been settled by Joseph Gervais, a French Canadian fur trapper. It was October when they started to construct log buildings and several storms caught them before the buildings were ready.
When the school opened they received both Indian and white children of local settlers, even three shipwrecked Japanese sailors attended for awhile. It was a difficult mission because they also had to clear land, raise crops, and hunt for meat. Illness was also a major problem especially for the Indian children who had had no contact with most of the diseases. In the first year five out of fourteen students died and another five ran away or were taken by their families. In the second year 16 out of 25 students became ill and adults became fearful of bringing their children to the mission. Mostly because of disease, by 1842 the Willamette Valley was almost devoid of any Indians at all. The mission did little to help or convert Indians but it did help educate the settlers and revived some of their religious desires which had deteriorated, away from civilization.
In 1837 more missionaries came to help and branch missions were established at The Dalles and later at sites that would become Roseburg, Astoria, Tacoma, and Oregon City. That same year Jason Lee also returned to New England to report on progress and solicit more support and more helpers for his ventures. In 1841, because of flooding, Lee moved his mission higher up from the river and farther south to what is now Salem. There he also helped to establish a school which would eventually become Willamette University, the first college in Oregon. Jason Lee also helped to organize the “Wolf Meetings” at Champoeg which led to the formation of a provisional government in the Oregon region.
Other religious groups sent missionaries to Oregon as well. The Presbyterian Mission was founded by Marcus Whitman near Walla Walla, Washington in 1836. Father Blanchet and Father Demers established a Catholic mission in 1840 in the area known as French Prairie north of Salem.
Jason Lee was recalled to New England in 1843 by the mission board due to lack of converts. He died on March 15, 1845. His remains were returned to Oregon and buried in Salem in 1906. Jason Lee had a great impact on the settlement, educational, and governmental beginnings of Oregon. A statue of him was placed in the National Hall of Fame by Oregon in 1954.