Willamette University

In the Beginning

Willamette's Native Start

By Erik Schmidt ’05

The missionary Jason Lee didn’t appreciate it when people forgot about the Sabbath along the trail. His fellow travelers occasionally lost track of the time as their path wound 2,000 miles between St. Louis and the Oregon Territory, but they made it to Fort Vancouver in good spirits and more or less according to schedule. By Sept. 15, 1834, this small group was positioned to introduce Christianity to Oregon.

Willamette University’s “tall, stout-looking” founder, Lee would have ended up in Canada, but a perceived need for missionaries to reach Native Americans in the West rerouted him. Four Native American representatives from “beyond the Rockies” had visited St. Louis two years earlier seeking education, said white observers at the time, in the religion shared with them by explorer and territorial governor William Clark. This event had galvanized church decision-makers, and when they needed someone to lead the expedition, they looked to the young and unattached Lee. He was an able leader, a hardened but compassionate man fiercely committed to his cause.

The group arrived in the waning summer to a place detached from the reality they had known. In the social context of 1834 Oregon, Lee and the other white missionaries reckoned with the differences between themselves and indigenous peoples by presuming that the native groups needed “elevation.” This was built into their religious objective, and it was a common cultural attitude. Manifest destiny wasn’t just about lines on a map.

Constructed in 1841, the Indian Mission Manual Labor School was the original precursor to Willamette University. It was intended to give Native Americans new skills in farming and householding — things that the settlers imagined they must need — but it was doomed by misunderstanding and largely failed to import new fundamentals. According to white settlers, native children still floundered in “degrading conditions of savagery” that the missionaries, confined to their own paradigms, could not address.

The overarching project of “giv[ing] them the advantages of religious and moral training” also faltered because of the settlers’ presumption that those things didn’t meaningfully exist in native cultures. The Willamette mission venture hobbled early on.

And it might have ended there.

But the mission grew as “reinforcements” came to Oregon, some on a ship called Lausanne. What we know now as Willamette University really started as the Oregon Institute, which was founded after the labor school primarily to educate the children of missionaries and other settlers. The old labor school building was sold to the institute, and the operations of primary schooling and higher education for settlers quickly coalesced on what is now Willamette’s campus. The Oregon legislature held its first session here, as did the first U.S. territorial court.

In January 1842, Jason Lee and a few other missionaries held the first meeting to “consider the needs of the [white] community for a literary institution.” The group decided that the issue deserved public discussion, so a second meeting was arranged for Feb. 1. At this crucial meeting, the group appointed a board of trustees and adopted bylaws. Lee would later cite this defining moment as the beginning of the institute, and, thus, the university.

At the time, many details were left unresolved. For example, the early plan said that the organization was always to be grounded in some form of Protestantism, but it didn’t specify the Methodist Church. And the Oregon Institute didn’t enroll its first five students until 1844.

Interestingly, the new institution’s financial plan was sophisticated, and this could have helped push it toward long-term sustainability. According to the bylaws, anyone who donated $50 to the institute was entitled to “a voice in all of the business of the society...during his natural life.” Five hundred dollars meant that the donor could indefinitely maintain one student at the school without paying tuition. On Jan. 12, 1853, the Territorial Legislature of Oregon formalized the charter for what was then named Wallamet University, “Wallamet” being derived from a Clackamas word. Emily J. York, mistress of English literature, was the first graduate of the new institution in 1859. Eleven years later, the current spelling of “Willamette University” appeared in the academic catalog.

Throughout the process, the connection with the Willamette Valley’s native people suffered. Over time, dedicated advocates from all groups involved have rekindled it. But the conversation must continue.

What Goes On: Events and Traditions Today

A 2005 visit from New Zealand’s native Maori people enlivened the conversation about Willamette’s heritage in the Pacific Northwest. Maori weavers introduced Salem to their artwork and cultural history with a lauded exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Visitors from the group, which constitutes 15 to 20 percent of New Zealand’s population, promoted conversations about identity, indigenous cultures and relationship-building.

At the time, The Scene reported that, “This will help our own native communities feel welcome as part of our campus community — to feel like this is a place that can help them further indigenous exchange.”

And it worked. Since then, Willamette has expanded resources and outreach devoted to multicultural programming and relationships with tribal groups throughout the Northwest. When it was time to inaugurate Steve Thorsett, the soon-to-be president ensured that the ceremony would include delegates from several native groups and a meaningful observation of the connectedness between the university and those whose ancestors were here well before 1834.

It was a festive, lighthearted show of good will, but it was also a serious acknowledgment of shared responsibility as the next chapter opens.


Resources at a Glance

Social Pow Wow
(yearly, March)

Chemawa Indian School Partnership Program

Indian Country Conversations Series

Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Gallery

Ohana: new multicultural-student programming/service activities
(yearly, August)

Native American Heritage Month
(yearly, November)

Native American Enlightenment Association

Learn more at the Office of Multicultural Affairs.