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History of Willamette

As the First University in the West, Willamette has a rich and complex history. Please read our Land Acknowledgement in recognition of this land and its Indigenous people, then explore the timeline of our university's history spanning from the present all the way back to 1834.

Willamette Timeline: The Beginning

In 1834 missionary Jason Lee came to the Oregon Territory to establish a Methodist mission for Native Americans living in the Willamette Valley. One of the mission’s primary operations was a school designed to “educate and civilize” the Native children.

When the missionaries arrived, they encountered communities ravaged by deadly diseases that had been introduced only a few generations earlier by the first white traders who had come to the region. These diseases shattered communities that had flourished for millennia in the fertile Willamette Valley. Deeply moved by the misery of the Indians they encountered, the missionaries offered health care, food and shelter to several Indian children who had been orphaned when their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles succumbed to these deadly diseases.

As was standard with most missionaries of the times, Lee and his followers failed to acknowledge that the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest had settled the area thousands of years prior and that these advanced societies had been successfully hunting, fishing and trading for generations. This lack of cultural understanding on the part of the missionaries contributed significantly to the failure of the mission school. While a few Indians took advantage of the education offered by the missionaries to learn English and hence become more effective treaty negotiators in the years that followed, most Indians found little of value in what the missionaries had to offer. In the early 1840s, the missionaries began to shift their focus from serving the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest to serving the rapidly increasing number of white settlers.

As the first Protestant mission in the Pacific Northwest, Lee’s work was followed closely by church members who remained in New England. After two “reinforcements” of missionaries and supplies were sent west, the mission expanded. Some early missionaries traveled west to teach. Others came for reasons of commerce. In 1841 construction of the Indian Manual Labor Training School began on what is now the Willamette University campus.

Because of its failure to thrive, in 1844 the Methodist Mission Board closed the mission, and the building that had previously housed the Manual Labor School was sold to the trustees of the Oregon Institute to be used as a school for the children of missionaries and settlers. The building that remained on the University campus was renamed the Oregon Institute. It housed the first session of the legislature to meet in Salem and sheltered the first court in the territory under the auspices of the United States. It is this institute that finally became Willamette University. At a mission meeting, Jason Lee and his followers determined to use Feb. 1, 1842, as the founding date for Willamette University.

Willamette University is closely associated with the beginning of law and government in the historical Oregon Territory, which now comprises Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. It educated many of the Northwest’s first leaders, artists and business people. Willamette established the first law school (1883) and the first school of medicine (1866) in the Pacific Northwest, which later merged with the medical school of the University of Oregon.

During the University’s first half-century, its land holdings were gradually sold to meet other needs, with the result that much of the present Salem downtown is built on former University land.

Willamette was one of the earliest coeducational institutions in the United States, and its first graduate was a woman. Women were attending the School of Medicine as early as 1877.

Today, Willamette University continues to push the frontier of higher education, aware of the influence of the first peoples of the Pacific Northwest. In its efforts to strengthen relationships with regional Native American tribes, the University has placed new energy in renewed partnerships.

Chemawa Indian School and Willamette University have begun a collaborative partnership with the support of the Lilly Project. In 2005 Chemawa administrators invited Willamette to assist in its long-term process of transitioning to a college preparatory curriculum. Willamette students now volunteer as tutors and mentors at Chemawa study hall. They in turn learn from the relationships they are building with Chemawa students and the teaching staff at Chemawa.

The Native American Enlightenment Association, a student organization, has worked with tribal elders to rekindle the annual campus Powwow. Funds have also been made available to bring Native American artists and speakers to campus. On Founders Day 2005, Willamette held a Ceremony of Renewal with regional tribes to acknowledge its Indian mission legacy and begin a new chapter in the mutual history of Oregon’s tribal communities and the University. At the ceremony, then President M. Lee Pelton announced the establishment of a lecture series to bring guests from Indian country to the campus and the broader Willamette Valley for dialogue, teaching and learning. The Indian Country Conversations Series is coordinated in consultation with the University’s community-based Native American Advisory Council.

Willamette University has a responsibility to speak honestly about its earliest beginnings. Today Willamette University is committed to building a more inclusive and tolerant community.