Methodists in Oregon

Reverend Jason Lee established the first Methodist Mission near Champoeg in 1835. By 1839 the mission had been damaged by flood waters and Lee established another farm and school in what is now downtown Salem. Lee had the sawmill built first, and with the sawed timbers built first the grist mill then his house on Broadway at the Liberty interchange along Chemeketa Creek (Mill Creek)( the house is now situated at Willamette Heritage Center) and then the mission school, at what is now Willamette University. Many of the students at the first mission were taken off of the French Prairie and Willamette Plains and taken into the school as pupils. Other orphaned children were brought there from the Columbia and the valley, and places further away, like Shasta, as many children were left without parents after the malaria epidemics (1829-1835), and this school was the only one of its type in Oregon for at least a decade.

Willamette Mission

The first Willamette Mission was began in 1834 and finished by Christmas. In the next year, 24 acres were in agriculture. The children brought into the mission were made to do farm work for their room and board. The Methodist’s policies were very capitalistic as they worked to pay teachers and make the school and farm pay for itself from the work of the students. In 1840’s the body of a native youth was brought to Mission by fur traders. They requested that the Mission bury the youth, to which the Missionaries refused, because the fur traders had no money to pay them for the burial. It apparently did not matter to the Methodists that they were stealing lands from the tribes without paying for them at all, as well as freely plowing the prairies, which caused starvation among the tribes,  as the starchy roots of prairie plants would provide season foods for the tribes. This free land was made possible by the introduction of diseases which killed some 90-95% of the Native peoples, including the parents and relatives of the children the mission was taking in.

The Kalapuyan and Chinookan children were taught American farming and ranching, and put in school to learn English. They were given American names and made to wear American clothing. In 1838, Lee took two boys (one Chinook and one Kalapuya) with him to the East to tour with him to attract more “white” people to settle in Oregon. Lee saw that since there were few white women in Oregon, that his Methodists and other white Americans, were marrying  dusky Indian women, also called in church registers, “women of the country”. Lee wanted to attract white American women to Oregon to keep the white Americans pure. He also needed a new wife, as Anna his first wife had recently died.

Lee’s speaking and promotion tour was largely successful, resulting in the Great Reinforcement of settlers to Oregon in 1843, of people who has heard his speak and sold all of their lands in the east, bought wagons, and traveled west to find this now fabled promised Eden of the Willamette valley. Many of the most notable people in Oregon history came in the first few years of the new “Oregon Trail”, people like George Abernethy (judge in Oregon and first American governor of California), Daniel Waldo (Judge and Politician, Militia commander), John Minto (sheep, and agriculture), and the Applegate family (Indian agents, surveyors, politicians). Many of the early emigrees were conservative Methodists, which had a huge effect on early Oregon settler society.

The movement of mainly Methodists in to Oregon, in the early days caused Oregon’s policies to become very conservative Christian, causing policies like the repression or prohibition of alcohol in many communities, and among the tribes and later on reservations; disallowing Indians from marrying whites; promoting agriculture as a civilizing influence;  using education to assimilate natives; and disallowing blacks from moving to Oregon or owning property. These policies, of which many became state laws, caused Oregon’s perceived citizen population to be very “white” for over 150 years. Minority populations on reservations, in urban centers (China towns, urban blacks, etc), and in agriculture (Chinese, Japanese, Latinos, Native peoples) were nearly invisible in historical records.

It was quite common for the the early settlers and French-Canadian traders to take Indian women as wives and companions. For the French- Canadians, as many were French-Indians, where their Indian part was Algonquian of some tribe in the east, or sometimes Cree. And so,  it would not have been strange for them to marry an Indian women, as their mother was likely a native and so native culture would have been familiar. As well their work had them trading with and living with tribal people for decades so they probably had more in common with the Natives than the whites.

Early white explorers also took up with native women and married them, and these women became part of the genetics of the early French Prairie society. Many Kalapuyan women then never went to the reservation at Grand Ronde and instead assimilated to the new society, became part of the American culture of Oregon.

At the school, the Methodist teachers learned to speak Chinuk Wawa from their pupils. The young Jesse Applegate and his family spent the first winter in Oregon at, or near, the Willamette Mission interacting on a daily basis with the Kalapuyans and learned the Chinuk wawa very quickly.

“We learned to speak Chinook Wa-Wa (Talk or language) that winter. The mission children spoke it as habitually as they did their mother tongue. We talked Chinook every day with the Indians and half-bloods. There was one Indian who spoke both English and Chinook. He had a droll way of speaking in Chinook and then in English. He would say, “ Nika-tik-eh chuck, “ “I want water.” “Nika hyas olo,” “I am very hungry,” “Potlatch tenas piah sap-o-lil,” “give a little bread,” and so on. But we did not have a better teacher than this waggish Indian.” (Jesse Applegate- Pp 62)

Oregon Institute

After the flood of the Willamette in 1840 damaged the Willamette Mission, Lee and his Methodist teachers began moving their mission to an area further south, to a place they called the Chemeketa Plains alongside Chemeketa Creek (see my other essay). The Kalapuyan village on the Willamette at the Chemeketa Plains was called Chemeketa and in about 1850 was renamed Salem. On the Chemeketa Plains, in about 1845, Lee established an Indian Industrial School, yet the school failed to complete its mission. One story suggests that the first class of students all died of a disease. Lee died in 1845 and the responsibility for the mission properties was given over the William Willson as the trustee. Willson drew the first plat of downtown Salem (now at the Willamette University archives) and then sold some of the properties to the next wave of settlers to Salem, properties which became downtown Salem. He took personal ownership of some properties and carved out his family legacy from this financial windfall. The Indian Industrial school was sold to the State of Oregon and Willamette University used the school for their first buildings.

dmagaed by  1852 GLO map of Salem showing Mill Creek, suggesting an early naming, there was a sawmill on the creek

Lee’s Mission school was an early model of the United States policy to assimilate Indian people to become Americans. The policy of using religious education to assimilate and remove the Native culture from the native children, to make them all Americans, was taken up as a policy followed by the United States until the 1870’s. In fact, each reservation was assigned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs a specific church denomination, and the pastor or reverend of the church also administered the reservation school. Interestingly, while the policy of the United States was promoting assimilation, even if the Natives became Americans in culture, they still had no rights, and would have to legally disavow their native heritage and declare themselves Americans.

In the manner that the Methodists operated they promoted a white assimilation agenda towards tribes, as if whiteness was the essential part of American identity, which it was, and has been for some time.  In Oregon, and across the country, Native peoples were made to stay on the reservations and not allowed to leave because they were not “American” citizens, which meant they were not white, Christian and civilized into western culture. Once tribal people became Christians, disavowed their native culture and religions, and began living like other Americans, they were allowed to become citizens, in some cases.

Apologies by various churches in recent decades, where they have suggested they are newly enlightened,  have not gone unnoticed, but ring hollow without some recompense for what they did to Native peoples for hundreds of years. There has never been an apology by the United States for forcing Christian white society upon tribes. Native people were allowed to become Americans when the American Indian citizenship act was passed in 1924, making all natives citizens. Still equality under the federal and state laws would take until the 1970’s to achieve.

Lee and his Methodists dramatically had an effect on the tribes of Oregon for generations. Lee was honored, along with John McLoughlin, the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver,  as being called  the founders of Oregon. Interestingly, both men were not originally Americans but instead born in Canada. Lee and McLaughlin were honored by having statues placed in the National Capitol Rotunda in the 1930’s as the symbols and founders of Oregon. They are now being replaced. Lee’s companion statue resides on the grounds of the State Capitol.

To many Native people, the time of the Methodists is not a time to be admired in Oregon. Their repression of Native peoples and culture dis-empowered the tribes for generations. For Lee to continue to be looked upon as a positive symbol of Oregon, and for his statue to remain in public view at the state capitol, a place which is supposed to represent all of the people of Oregon, is a travesty.


2 thoughts on “Methodists in Oregon

Leave a Reply

The Quartux Journal