We are able to access the creation of the Jason Lee mythos thanks to documents held by the Willamette University Archives, which include some of his letters and papers, those of his family and friends, as well as all of the student handbooks produced since the 1880s and special commemorative documents issued by Willamette and the Methodist Church at the 50th and 100th year anniversaries of Willamette’s founding.
These sources provide enough information to trace a basic trajectory of Lee’s life. The youngest of 16 children, Lee was born either June 27 or 28, 1803 to American parents living in Canada. When he was 13, his father died, and he left school and became a logger until he was 23. On a visit back home Lee converted to Methodism at a religious revival. He trained for the ministry at the Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts and was ordained in 1834, immediately before being sent to Oregon territory by the Methodist Church in New England as one of the first American missionaries to the Oregon territory.
At this time, Native nations of what would become the Willamette Valley were experiencing terrible loss of life due to diseases transmitted by Europeans. By the time Lee arrived, upwards of 60 percent of Native people had perished as a result of disease. Lee set up the Oregon Mission Manual Labor School as a boarding school for Native American children and adults about 10 miles outside of modern Salem.
The school failed in its mission, struggling to find students willing to steadily enroll or permanently convert to Christianity. Parents and children alike were suspicious of the high mortality rate (due to disease) among students and the enforced Western dress and forms of work.
Concerned by these trends, the Methodist Board back east removed Lee as director of the Oregon Mission. Soon after, he became a founding member of Willamette University and served on its first board of directors, although he left Oregon following the formation of its foundational committee in order to fundraise on the East Coast. On this trip, a lingering unwellness became outright illness, and after a period of incapacitation, Lee died March 12, 1845 and was buried in Canada near his birthplace.