The Willamette Mission Development

Thanks to Jim Sheppke, former State Librarian for the state of Oregon, I received a digital copy of the thesis “Mill Place” on the Willamette a new Mission house for the Methodists in Oregon, 1841-1844, by Elisabeth Brigham Walton, June 1965, produced for the University of Delaware.  This digital book is now available from the Willamette Heritage Center. I promptly sent it along to a few other anthropologists and historians who would appreciate it and began to eagerly wade through this well-researched thesis.

A few new understandings of the actions of the early Methodists in Oregon have emerged from this thesis.

John McLoughlin has been noted by historians as guiding former employees, French-Canadian traders whose contracts were up, to claim land to the south of the Columbia River. But from this research Mcloughlin also influenced the Methodists to claim lands south of the Columbia as well.

“Once in Oregon Lee determined not to establish the mission among the Flatheads of the Interior, but after an inspection, to site his operations in the valley of the Willamette, at a spot sixty miles south of its entry into the Columbia below Fort Vancouver. Lee seems to have based his decision largely on the advice of Dr. John Mcloughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Mcloughlin extended every hospitality to the missionaries; he cautioned then on the hostility of the Nez Perce north of the upper Columbia; and he undoubtedly wished to preserve certain areas of the company’s domain as long as possible. The Willamette was an avenue of supply. A location on its banks would be provided by rich farming land; it should be readily accessible to the Indian tribes of the entire region if extension of the program should be planned in the future.” (Walton 7)

Lee is in Oregon because of the invitation from the Flathead tribes to have priests come among them and teach them in the ways of the bible. The “Flathead’ tribes were first exposed to the bible by the Lewis and Clark expedition, who on their return trip in 1806 spent some 2 weeks among the Nez Perce peoples waiting for the mountain passes to open. A few years after the expedition four Flathead Indians appeared in St Louis in search of the “white man’s way of worshipping the Great Spirit” ( noted here as a romanticized version of their initial request). That by 1833 the Methodist Church felt great sympathy for the Indians and then sought to establish a mission among the Flathead Indians (which is what the Nez Perce were called and widely noted misnomer). Lee’s goal was at first to establish a mission among the Flathead tribes of the interior. However, through Mcloughlin’s influence they instead decided to settle in the Willamette Valley.

This influence was intended to make sure that all American settlers would settle south of the prophesied settlement boundary between the United States and Canada- the Columbia River. Since 1817 the US and Britain were in joint occupation of the Oregon territory, and it was not until 1846 that the boundary line was finally settled to the 49th parallel, where it exists today. This historic theme is now noted in several histories and suggests that it was likely Mcloughlin’s actions influencing Lee and the Methodists to settle south of the Columbia which is why the majority of the settlers in the earliest days settled in the Tualatin Valley, French Prairie and around Oregon City as the first large town.

McLoughlin then really emerges as the architect of the origins of Oregon and the Willamette Valley as the chosen and desired land for American settlement. It is because of the location of the Willamette Mission in French Prairie that Jason Lee finds that the land is superior for farming, a selling point he uses in his presentations when he takes his tour in the east to attract white Americans to Oregon as well as a desire among many settlers to attract more Americans to settle to increase the importance of the Oregon territory to the U.S. government and then hopefully cause them to act to finally claim the territory for the United States. The Lee tour in 1839 exactly has that effect, spurring Americans to immigrate west in the great reinforcement.  McLoughlin’s plan did not succeed, as the attractiveness of the land is such that Americans were coming in ever-increasing numbers, overtaking the tribes, and the overwhelming the ability of McLoughlin to control them, and after the southern valley filled up, increasing numbers began settling in the Washington Territory.

Settlement at Chemeketa

Walton’s research has revealed that there was much more planning involved in the decision to move to Chemeketa Plains that reported in other accounts. In most history telling the story of the Willamette Mission, and its move to Chemeketa later called Salem, there are notations of a flood and the destruction of a part of the settlement causing Lee to move the Methodist settlement to Chemeketa. This account is only partially accurate.

Walton reveals that in her survey of various invoices for supplies that there were plans as early as 1836 to build a sawmill at the Willamette Mission. The invoice shows a sawmill crank and iron and steel castings (Walton 19, see note 40).  But there is no indication that a sawmill was built at the Willamette Mission. Of Lee’s intentions we know that he was highly critical of the Hudson’s Bay Company and their apparent monopoly on goods in the Oregon Territory. This was a problem in several ways, they controlled the prices, which they kept high, and they then controlled the economy of the territory for the settlers, most of whom were Americans. There was a feeling of patriotism in many of these settlers, they wanted the U.S. to claim the territory from the British, and when Lt. William Slacum arrived in 1837 he had meetings with the Americans about ways they could get out from under the British monopoly. From this discussion the plan became the Willamette Cattle Company. The settlers and Slacum put money into a pot to buy cattle from the Spaniards in California, and then drive them to Oregon. which they did in 1838. Slacum also helped them by giving the cattle drovers a free ride to Northern California on his sloop. Hudson’s Bay Company also had one of the only large sawmills in the territory and it is likely that Lee thought to build his own sawmill to undercut the prices from HBC.

Slacum reported,

“Fort Vancouver, the principal depot of the Hudsons Bay Company west of the Rocky Mountains…on the north bank, the Hudsons bay company have erected a saw-mill on a never-failing stream of water that falls into the Columbia; cuts 2,000 to 2,400 of lumber daily; employs 28 men, chiefly Sandwich Islanders, and ten yoke of oxen; depth of water four fathoms at the mill where the largest ships of the Company take their cargoes for the Sandwich Island market” (Hawaii). (Walton 22)

Slacum himself was considered a spy by McLoughlin, as he arrived in Oregon with no supplies, on his own sloop, appeared to have no purpose for being in Oregon, then met with the Americans, bought land at Willamette Falls, had a “mill” built (really just a large log cabin which was never used), and gave settlers a free ride to California to get cattle.

But again Lee does not build a sawmill at the Willamette Mission as far as we can tell. He does write numerous letters to the Methodist Church back in New England about the shortcomings of the mission, and the great needs to attend to the Indians and then gains the support for supplies and reinforcements to be sent to Oregon. Reinforcements for the Mission began arriving in 1836 and 1837 causing expansion of the Willamette Mission. The first reinforcement began traveling July 29 1836 from Boston and included Dr. Elijah White a physician, and a blacksmith, with their wives and children, a carpenter, and three female teachers, thirteen people. They are sent with a significant amount of supplies as well (Walton 15-20).

The second reinforcement of six people, led by David Leslie arrived on September 7, 1837 (Walton 23). The expanding missionaries and families cause the need for more housing and two log cabins, a blacksmith shop were built at the mission. A frame-house intended for a hospital is built about a mile away on higher ground with a good prairie around the place and occupied by Dr. White and his family.

With this new large settlement and now plenty of help for the Mission and school in 1837 Lee began attempts to evangelize among the Kalapuyans, with plans to have them inhabit a settlement near the mission and to make them farmers. But the Kalapuyans were unwilling to settle down as farmers and the effort was abandoned (Walton 29-30).

In 1838 Lee had been on a mission to the Umpqua Valley as he was determined to find ways to expand his mission in the territory. In March 1838 the mission council confirmed its mission to commence a new station at the Dalles. Daniel Lee and H.K.W Perkins were appointed to the new station at Wascopam (Walton 30).

In 1839 Lt. Slacum’s report to Congress catches the attention of Senator Linn. A memorial was produced, inspired by Lee, which captured a sense of the patriotism of Lee. The memorial is clearly meant to spur the Congress to act to take the territory from the British

“Our interests are identified with the country of our adoption. We flatter ourselves that we are the germ of a great state, and are anxious to give an early tone to the moral and intellectual character of its citizens. We are fully aware., too, that the destinies of our posterity will be intimately affected by the character of those who emigrate to the country. The Territory must populate. The Congress of the United States must say by whom. The natural resources of the country, with a well-judged civil code, will invite a good community; but a good community will hardly emigrate to a country which promises no protection to life or property. Inquiries have already been submitted to some of us for information of the country. In return, we can only speak of the country highly favored by nature. We can boast no civil code. We can promise no protection but the ulterior of self-defense. By whom, then shall the country be populated?” (Walton 34)

In 1839 the Methodist Church mission board determined to increase their support for the Oregon Mission. They determined to send out another physician, a blacksmith, millwright, cabinet maker, three carpenters, three farmers a mission steward, and some young ladies for teachers and additional supplies. They wanted to satisfy their great need, to evangelize among the Natives as it was reported in numerous letters from Oregon that the tribes are willing and even desirous of taking instruction and that it was time to take the initiative before they were defiled by mingling with unprincipled white men (Walton 39). The board adopted the proposal by Lee for more reinforcements electing to send thirty-one people and supplies.

While the Board was making plans for the Third reinforcement, Lee and Dr. Fisk were making plans for an enlargement of the franchise to nine mission stations.  Soon after this plan Lee proposed to the board a petition for a school building for one hundred to three hundred Indian children, which was approved by the board on April 15, 1839. The third reinforcement, also called the Great Reinforcement, with supplies departed on October 9, 1839 on the Lausanne from New York City, and arrived in May 1840 on the Columbia (Walton 53-54).

The original plan devised by Lee and Fisk in Middletown, CT, was revised after the arrival of the Great Reinforcement. In the two years that Lee had been absent, there had been a great decline in the Indian populations. The cause of the decline was the malaria epidemic that had raged since 1830. The Willamette Station was now slated to be expanded to two sites, the “Old Mission” and a new central site. Plans were made for William Kone and Gustavus Hines assignment to the Umpqua Station (Walton 55). John P. Richmond was sent to Fort Nesqually to assist William H. Wilson at the newly establish mission three miles for the HBC center there. Joseph H. Frost was to establish a post among the Clatsop Tribe and attend to members of the Tillamook and Chinook Indians at Fort George (Astoria). Dr. Ira Babcock and Henry Bridgeman Brewer were sent to Wascopam Mission at the Dalles (Walton 55-56).

Alvan F. Waller was slated to remain on the Willamette to help with mill-building at the new station. Waller later established a church and permanent presence among the Clackamas and Clowwawalla at Willamette Falls. Blanchet records arguments with Waller over their evangelization plans. Waller wrote,

“We have received our appointments, and shall soon scatter abroad, some have already gone. One farmer, and most of the mechanics, for the present, go to Willamette for the purpose of building a saw-mill, so that we can get lumber for building.” (Walton 55).

In 1839 upon the return of Lee with his new mechanics’ work began on a sawmill and grist mill on the stream south of the Old Mission, at Chemeketa village, called Chemeketa Creek at first. On August 18 1840 Lee, White and Hines were set out to visit the Umpqua, and stopped at the site of the building of the combination saw and grist mill. Once stopped they “… dined with our friends who are erecting the sawmill, distance 8 to 10 miles from the mission.” By the following spring lumber from the sawmill was being used to build the schedule additional buildings at Chemeketa creek (Walton 57-58). The Oregon Manual Training school was completed by May 1841 when Gustavus Hines was named Preacher in charge of the school. Lee wrote soon after that “bug have fairly driven us out (of the old Mission house), the Mission school was removed to the sawmill, where we hope to be able to erect a suitable building for their (Indian scholars) reception in the course of the summer… I left my things with the bugs, and have no house to lay my head, but still think the children must be provided for” (Walton 58).

Its clear by this description that the station at Chemeketa was not then decided on because of a flood, but that the issues of bugs and perhaps access to good agricultural lands was the main issue. The Mission needed to expand and Chemeketa was the next best expansion location. That Lee saw more opportunity there that at the Old Mission site.

Lee then expanded his needs in the Chemeketa site suggesting that he was opting to abandon the Old Mission site altogether.

“…it cannot be supposed that the school can support itself at least until we have suitable buildings, and are able to bring its energies to bear more systematically… the past winter we have hired help, in order to keep our sawmill moving, and though we have pressing calls for lumber, we are under the necessity of keeping all for ourselves thus far, but we hope thereafter to pay some of our expenses by means of the Mill.” (Walton 58).

While Gustavus Hines was appointed the superintendent of the school, Mr. Robert Shortess was a teacher, Mr. Raymond and wife were steward and stewardess. Then the building committee approved the erection of such buildings in the vicinity of the sawmill as are necessary for the accommodation of the institution (Walton 80). The boarding school and parsonage project was placed under the supervision of Hamilton Campbell.

The name “Oregon Institute” was adopted on February 1, 1842 in a public meeting at the Old Mission house, and a nine-member board of trustees was appointed. They were Jason Lee, David Leslie, Gustavus Hines, Josiah L. Parrish, Lewis H. Judson, George Abernethy, Alanson Beers, Hamilton Campbell, and Dr. Ira L. Babcock.  The building of the Oregon Institute began Fall 1842 on nearby Wallace Prairie under the direction of William H. Gray (Walton 83). This school was intended for the children of the missionaries and settlers in the vicinity. The building of a boarding school (Training school) on Chemeketa Plains, began in 1841, lapsed, and the project not finished until 1844. However, even incomplete the boarding school, was accepting Indian scholars as early as 1842 (Walton 81). { its clear here that there were two schools, that the Oregon Institute was for the white kids and the Oregon Manual Labor school, was for the Indian children, and that these two schools, and their names have been switched and been confused in several histories.)

By 1843 it was clear that much of the mission of the expanded Methodist stations was costing more than they were producing. They had too many workers and too few Indian children to teach. The settlement at Salem had not yet commenced its expansion so many of the services developed were not serving any needs. Most Indian tribes in the region were not converting in large numbers and services were lightly attended.  Hines noted that the “perishing heathens were a broken and dispirited race of men” and so far as the prospect of accomplishing much good among the Indians of this lower country, is concerned, there is nothing to warrant the Board in being at the immense expense necessary to support the mission in its present form” (Walton 127). Concerns of the Board were reported, they have spent $40,000 for the great reinforcements with additional supplies and payments for 3 Indian boys education amounting to $14,000, and yet the stations were unable to support themselves. Fingers were being pointed at poor record-keeping as the problem. (Walton 129)

February 27, 1844, Jason Lee was removed from his post, the excuse being that he was aged and the post had expanded beyond his abilities, but in truth that he had not managed to convert enough Indians, nor was his station self-reliant as he had suggested they might become. Lee was faulted in other communication with “too much of the Romantic, has mixed this enterprise from the beginning… some of the missionaries themselves went out more in the spirit of romantic adventure than in that of the self-denying, self-sufficing Missionary of the cross” (Walton 135). This reasoning seems very plausible because a good number of Americans were also caught up in the same romantic adventure, a situation we now call manifest destiny.

Lee, in defense alluded to “the great vortex” that had “swallowed up” $40,000 because of the “immense distance between the United States and Oregon” the “transportation the extra expense of outfit, the freight of goods, & the return of the missionaries.” This does ring true because this was the same problem that Joel Palmer faced in the 1850s, People in the east rarely truly understood the distances and incredible expenses of transportation of people and goods across such large distances and the Indian agencies were constantly out of funding because of this. The cost of freight was normally half to 2/3rds the cost of getting the supplies to the people in Oregon.



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