Two Canadians met in the Oregon wilderness and what they did changed America. One was a fur trader and the other a preacher. They faced disease, violence, death and failure, but in the long run, they helped make the Pacific Northwest part of the United States.
In the early 1800s, Great Britain owned Canada and what then was Oregon Country — which included today’s Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. That’s the way it was when Lewis and Clark arrived on the Pacific Coast in 1805.
Both the British and Americans were claiming the region, and in 1818 a joint treaty was signed establishing the 49th parallel as the U.S.-Canadian boundary, and also regulating commerce in the Oregon Country region from Alaska to the Oregon-California border.
Between then and 1848, Spain and Russia gave up their claims, but other troubles arose: Native American tribes were being decimated by white men’s diseases as more settlers flooded in.
In 1824, the fur trading powerhouse Hudson’s Bay Company sent Dr. John McLoughlin as chief factor at Fort Vancouver trading post on the Columbia River, headquarters for company operations in the Columbia Basin.
McLoughlin was a French Canadian born in Quebec. He studied medicine and became a physician at age 19. He was described at 6 feet tall — big in those days — “bony but well-proportioned and strong … had piercing eyes and long, prematurely white hair.”
The Indians called him “White-headed Eagle.”
After several years in medicine, a friend talked him into joining the North West Company fur traders. One report described him as having an impetuous nature but at Fort Vancouver, “conducted company affairs with dignity and treated kindly those who came to the fort. In later years, when emigrants began their trek to the territory, McLoughlin extended credit, gave them supplies and other assistance as needed.”
Ten years after starting his duties at Fort Vancouver, McLoughlin was visited by Nathaniel Wyeth, a Boston businessman, mountain man and founder of Fort Hall trading post in Idaho, on his second expedition to Oregon.
With him was Canadian Jason Lee, a Methodist Episcopal minister born in Stanstead Plain on the border with Vermont.
Wyeth warned that they’d be far from civilization. “A ship goes from London to the mouth of the Columbia river every year,” he said writing to Lee. “A ship will go from Boston some time between this and next September. Occasional parties cross the mountains from and to the U. States.”
Lee and McLoughlin would change the history of the American Northwest, but it all began two years earlier with four Indians from the Flathead and Nez Perce tribes.
The four had traveled nearly 2,000 miles from Washington and Idaho to St. Louis to meet with the great explorer William Clark, asking him for “the white man’s book of heaven.”
They’d heard from trappers and Indians that the book had great spiritual power, and they wanted that power for their people.
When that story reached the East, missionary groups took notice. At age 23, Lee decided on a career of ministry. He’d graduated from Wilbraham Wesleyan Academy and was teaching school in Stanstead. When he heard of the request from the Indians, he and his nephew, Daniel, volunteered to minister to the Indians and headed west.
They took three lay minsters with them — Cyrus Shepard, Philip Edwards and Courtney Walker.
On the way to Fort Vancouver, the group stopped for a layover along the Snake River with some mountain men and Indians, and Lee delivered Oregon Country’s first Protestant sermon. That same Sunday, there was a horse race and a man was killed, so the next day, Lee also conducted the first Protestant funeral service west of the Rockies.
Lee’s missionary plan was to build a mission among the Flathead, however after talking with McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, he was advised instead to go to nearby Willamette Valley — 10 miles from today’s Salem — to build his mission because the veteran factor thought the Flathead were too dangerous. And that’s what he did.
In an area now known as Wheatland Ferry in the Willamette, they constructed a 32-foot by 18 mission building of logs. Lee carved the window sashes with his jackknife.
Then the troubles began. Multiple storms interrupted the construction, and his helpers — schooled only in ministry — were faced with life on the frontier and had to quickly learn how to be woodsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths and husbandmen. Nevertheless, by spring they had 30 acres planted and fenced.
There were only a few Kalapuya Indians in the valley, the tribe having been decimated by malaria and smallpox.
Benton County Historical Society and Museum historians say there might have been 15,000 Kalapuyas at one time. By 1849, according to Oregon Territorial Governor Joseph Lane, there were only 60 souls left — “living in the most dire of conditions.” (Others say there were 600.)
Lee believed the few that he ministered to would adopt white man’s beliefs and practices if he just provided education and a stable white community.
Willamette Valley did have settlements of mostly former French Canadian fur trappers, with their Indian wives and children, but it wasn’t enough.
Lee started a school for the few local Indians but it was a disaster. The first year, there were 14 Indian students. Seven died and five ran away. In 1836 there were 25 students. Sixteen of them fell ill. Only one became a Christian.
One report stated, “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.”
The settlers needed meat and the Hudson’s Bay Company had a monopoly on livestock. Lee and others then formed the Willamette Cattle Company, went to California and bought 750 heads of cattle from the Mexicans and herded them back to Oregon.
HBC’s John McLoughlin was one of the investors.
Survival was taking up so much effort that there was little time left for ministry, so Lee wrote back east pleading for help. In due course, it arrived by ship, sailing around South America’s Cape Horn. On board were early Oregon notable pioneers, including Elijah White, who in 1842 led 100 settlers over the Oregon Trail.
Alanson Beers and William H. Willson helped start Oregon’s first government, and Lot Whitcomb built the territory’s first steamboat — also founding the town of Milwaukie.
Another passenger was Anna Maria Pittman, who would become Mrs. Jason Lee.
The following year, Lee headed back to New England armed with a petition signed by local men asking the government to annex Oregon. Signing were 10 men at the mission, 17 others and nine French-Canadians who wished to be U.S. citizens. They were three-quarters of all the white men in Oregon.
While Lee was back east, he received the sad news that has wife and child had died in childbirth.
Lee stayed there for two years, shifting his life work from ministry to the Indians to building a new state. Lucy Thompson became his new wife. In 1840, the couple along with 50 new settlers — known as the Great Reinforcement of 1840 — boarded the ship Lausanne and sailed back to Oregon.
Word about how great Oregon was spread quickly, promoted by Jason Lee and others. Settlers were motivated by an 1839 bill promising 1,000 acres of land to every white male over 18.
Though Lee shifted his education efforts toward white children, he continued ministering to the Indians, sending others out to establish satellite missions.
Years later, his Indian Manual Training School that increasingly became a school for white children, became the Oregon Institute, and today is Willamette University.
In the early 1840s, more tribulations hit: Lee’s second wife, Lucy, died, and he placed their only child, Lucy Anna Maria, in care of friends. Then the church board fired him, alleging he wasn’t doing his job and was mismanaging funds. The following year, he headed east to defend himself. He won his appeal but was not reappointed superintendent.
His health failed and he returned to Stanstead to recuperate at his sister’s, where he died on March 12, 1845.
He was only 41 — but left his mark in Oregon history.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
• • •
What happened to Nathaniel Wyeth?
After building Fort William where Portland, Ore., now stands, and Fort Hall in Idaho, Nathaniel J. Wyeth — who brought Jason Lee and his nephew to Fort Vancouver in his second expedition — promoted Oregon for the rest of his life. Unable to compete with fur trading giant Hudson’s Bay Company, Wyeth sold both trading posts to them and returned to the East, never to return to Oregon or Idaho. He went on to making a fortune in the ice harvesting business.
Oregon Trail travelogue…
“More than 3,000 traveled overland to Oregon in 1845; by 1850 an estimated 9,000 had crossed the trail to the Pacific Northwest. They knew their journey was a rite of passage. For the first time in their lives, and for many the only time, they penned daily entries in diaries. Their trip was epochal. They were part of history and wanted to record their participation in it.”
— Oregon Blue Book
2000-mile trek and no Bibles?
When the four Indians arrived in St. Louis from Oregon in 1831 seeking the white man’s “Book of Heaven” they were disappointed. William Clark — then Superintendent of Indian Affairs — met them and showed them several churches. “All they saw were statues, candles, crucifixes, incense, rosaries and missals” — but no Bible.
McLoughlin becomes an American…
John McLoughlin resigned from Hudson’s Bay Company in 1846 and put his roots down in the Willamette Valley, opening a store (“the last stop on the Oregon Trail”) selling food and farm tools to settlers. The Pope made him a Knight of St. Gregory, and he became an American citizen. He was elected mayor of Oregon City, and died of natural causes six years later. The Oregon Legislative assembly gave him the title of “Father of Oregon” in 1957 — the centennial of his death.
Among the 50 passengers known as the “Great Reinforcement of 1840” sailing aboard the 600-ton, three-masted barkentine Lausanne from New York to Oregon were seven ministers, two doctors, four farmers, six mechanics and four teachers. Passenger George Abernethy, a miller would the first governor of Oregon when it became the 33rd state in 1859.