In the earliest lore of the City of Salem, the location was an Indian village named Chemeketa, next to Chemeketa Creek. Before this village was known by Americans, by this name, in 1812, William Wallace and others of the Pacific Fur Traders built a trading post just north of the village of Chemeketa which they called Wallace house. The fur trading post allowed the fur traders to trade furs from local tribes, trap the area about the fort, and hunt about the fort for deer and elk to be taken by canoe to Astoria. The other fur traders at Astoria, for their own reasons, did not like the native foods of the coast and desired deer and elk meat.
For two years the Wallace house was used until it was abandoned with the dissolution of the Pacific Fur traders by being sold to North West Fur Traders just before British warships arrived in the Astoria harbor to forcefully take the town for Britain. For some 30 years afterwards Fort Astoria became Fort George, under joint occupancy agreements, until the town was retaken by the United States with the ratification of the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The British claim was then push to its present location, at the 49th parallel.
During this time, the settlements on the Willamette were sparse, normally located next to a Native village. The native villages were already at the preferred locations on the river, for canoe landings and launches, and when a settlement began near a native village, the natives could then be hired for day work, and be traded with for food and furs.
Statesman Journal 1909;
The city of Salem was suggested by Jason Lee a Methodist minister way back in 1834….they founded a mission at an Indian village called Chemeketa, a name spelling in various forms, which mean “Here we rest. ” They built a group of houses, a mill, a school and various other necessary structures… They cultivated several hundred acres of ground and taught the Indians the arts and crafts of peace as well as the gospel .... (SJ 3 Oct 1909, Page 1)
This is the case with the early establishment of the Jason Lee Willamette Mission south of Champoeg. The mission situated between two major villages, Champoeg and Chemawa, accessed these villages for labor and for pupils to the mission school. Many Kalapuyan children were taken into the school in the midst of the malaria epidemic in the valley. Other children were sent from the Columbia as well to the school, mostly orphans. The Mission existed in this location until Lee decided to expand the settlement to a new site a few miles south at the Chemeketa Plains. In 1840-41 Lee chose to move south 10 miles to another preferred site on a vast flat area called the Chemeketa Plains. A few miles south of their first buildings, was the Kalapuya village of Chemeketa.
The first buildings which Lee used to anchor the new settlement were two mills. Some sources have suggested that it was a barn, or perhaps a school, but in rarefied accounts, it appears to have been two mills.
Statesman Journal 1929:
The Methodist mission under Jason Lee began in 1840, after the arrival of the Lausanne with the “great reinforcement” and the supplies, the construction of “the mills.” The machinery was brought on the Lausanne, They were a saw mill and a grist mill. That fall (1840) Gustavus Hines, Jason Lee and Dr. White started from the “old mission” on horseback for their trip to the Umpqua. They made a short stop on Chemeketa plain, to see about the work on “the mills.” That was August 18th. The next building was the Jason Lee residence, still standing [at Mission Mill-Willamette Historical Society] It was built right after if not along with the saw and grist mills. The mills were on North-Mill creek where the Oregon Electric track is now. The Jason Lee house was a little to the south; on what is now Broadway. It is 960 Broadway. (SJ 10 Jul 1929, Page 4)
And, The Capitol Journal 1960;
Lewis A. McArthur… says, and all historians confirm it, that the Indian name for the Salem locality was Chemeketa, which is said to have meant “meeting place or resting place or possibly both.” In 1840-41 the Jason Lee Mission was moved from its old location near the Willamette River about ten miles to the Chemeketa Plain and extensive improvements started. “While the new establishment was called Chemeketa, it was better known as the Mill, on account of the establishment of Mill Creek. In 1841 missionaries established the Oregon Institute and a building was stated. Bancroft in his history of Oregon says that David Leslie, president of the trustees, named the place Salem. Leslie M. Scott in his history of the Oregon Country says the place was named by W.H. Willson, which is verified by the late R.J. Hendricks…. (CJ 2 Aug 1960 page 4)
The Lee residence house, said to be the best built house in the territory for its time, is still standing, having been moved to the Mission Mill in Salem. The Lee residence was built from boards sawed at the sawmill built on Mill Creek previous to the house (First Dwelling House in Salem, 1841). So the Lee house was the fourth American building built at Chemeketa (Salem) in 1842 (960 Broadway in Salem).
While the mills and the residence was being built at Chemeketa, Lee remained at Mission bottoms. Once he moved to Chemeketa (in the fall of 1842) and his new residence, he continued teaching out of his residence while the other missionaries worked to establish a site for the school and worked hundreds of acres of wheat for the grist mill. The fact that he taught out of his residence suggests that some of the stories are true, that they did hold classes in North Salem before the official opening of the institute in 1844. They chose the site of the Oregon Institute somewhat south of the Lee residence.
The Oregon Institute was a school for Indian children initially. with the die-off of many Natives in the 1830’s and 1840’s there were less children to educate. Some reports suggest that the last class of Native children died of an unknown illness. The Institute and the land was eventually sold to become Willamette University in the mid-1850s. The building burned famously in 1872.
Daily Capital Journal 1936;
As you know the first settlers came to Salem in 1840, a group of Methodist missionaries…. they settled 10 miles below what is now Salem… and moved in July 1841 to Chemeketa, what is now our Salem. Schools were started at once- their first move of building culture in the crude west. The nucleus of Willamette University was formed in 1842 the famous old school started. It was called the Oregon Institute. We find the village of Chemeketa growing with the immigration of 1845. Lots were plotted and a survey was made in 1846. (DCJ 8 Feb 1936 page 5)
Therefore, the first permanent buildings in Salem-Chemeketa were the two mills, the Grist and Sawmills (1840-1841), The Wallace house was the first building (1812) but not the first permanent building, or even first settlement. The first residence was Jason Lee’s Residence (1842). The first school was the Oregon Institute (1844), and the Methodist Mission was the first farming community (1841-1842).
In 1839 the settlement landscape changes significantly with the entry of the Great Reinforcement, or thousands of Oregon Pioneer settlers arriving on the Oregon Trail, in part attracted by Jason Lee, when he toured the east giving lectures in 1838 and 1843 to attract white settlement into Oregon. Lee was a patriot and nationalist and wanted White women to come to Oregon so that the White American males would have White women to wed rather than Indian women, which was occurring. Lee also wanted the United States to take possession of Oregon, and his tour was a way to attract more American settlement, which would be a large factor in which the nation eventually took possession of the territory. In fact there were so many Americans in Oregon by 1846, that the U.S. government was compelled to protect their interests, in sort of a Monroe Doctrine-esque fashion. This may have been the deciding point to the final agreement of the Oregon Treaty of 1846.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.