Jason Lee (missionary)

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Jason Lee
Jason Lee missionary.png
Jason Lee
Born June 28, 1803
Stanstead, Quebec
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Stanstead, Quebec
Spouse(s) Anna Maria Pittman (d. 1838)
Lucy Thompson
Church Methodist

Jason Lee (June 28, 1803 – March 12, 1845), a Canadian missionary and pioneer to United States, was born on a farm near Stanstead, Quebec. He was the first of the Oregon missionaries and instrumental in the American settlement in the Oregon Country.

Early life

Jason Lee was the youngest of fourteen siblings.[1] Lee attended the village school and by the age of 13 was self-supporting. A traveling Methodist priest, Richard Pope, was able to convert him when he was 23.[2] He attended Wilbraham Wesleyan Academy where he became friends with Osman Baker and graduated in 1830.[2] Between 1830 and 1832 he was minister in the Stanstead area and taught school. Lee had applied to the London-based Weslyan Missionary Society to proselytize to the First Nations of Canada but his application wasn't processed as Richard Watson, the secretary had died.[3]


In 1832 four men of the Salish or Flathead tribe journeyed to St. Louis and requested from resident William Clark for someone to bring the "Book of Heaven", prophesied in a vision, to the Salish people.[4] An account was editorialized by the Christian Advocate and Journal the subsequent year, calling upon its readers to send preachers to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. The article quickly was given the attention of Wilbur Fisk, President of the Wesleyan University, who tabled a proposal for the Methodist Church to establish a presence among the Salish. Jason Lee, a former student of Fisk, and his nephew Daniel volunteered for service in the planned mission amongst the Flathead Indians.[5][6] Arrangements were made with Nathaniel Wyeth for the small missionary group to travel with his party, and the group left for the west from Independence, Missouri in early 1834.[7] The close to two thousand mile trek ended at the Hudson's Bay Company's fur trading station of Fort Vancouver, where the missionaries wintered. During their stay there Chief Factor John McLoughlin advised against creating a mission in interior Flathead land and instead recommended the nearby Willamette Valley.[8] Lee eventually settled on a location northwest of the present site of Salem, Oregon. He found about a dozen Canadian settlers with native wives, who had previously been employed by the Hudson's Bay Company.[7]

Over time the superintendent began to request additional missionaries and laymen be sent to relieve him of temporal duties. This view was shared by Daniel Lee and later missionaries, all of whom complained of having to spend too much time away from conversion efforts. Additionally Lee downplayed the accounts from fellow priests proclaiming that hundreds of natives had become Methodists.[9] He also highlighted that the indigenous populations were on the decline: "it does seem, that unless the God of heaven undertake their cause, they must perish from off the face of the Earth, and their name blotted out from under heaven."[10] It wasn't until the arrival of George Abernethy in 1840 that Lee was finally allowed to focus solely on proselyting to the indigenous.

The delays in communication with the Board of Managers back in the United States eventually necessitated Lee to return there to give a more thorough description of the activities of the Mission. Prior to leaving he was influential in the propagation of a memorial by many residents of the Willamette Valley addressing the United States Congress. The document requested that the American government establish rule over the regions of the Oregon Country south of the Columbia River and highlighted the potentials of trade with Asia and the Pacific. While waiting for an escort from the Hudson's Bay Company, Lee spent three weeks at the interior ABCFM missions ran by Marcus Whitman and Henry H. Spalding.[2] After giving birth to their child both his wife, Anna Maria Pittman Lee, both she and the infant died in June. News of this reached Lee as he entered Missouri, who soon enough remarried to Lucy Thompson Grubbs.[11]

While traveling through Illinois Lee convinced John P. Richmond to join him in Oregon, later being appointed as the head of the Nisqually Mission in modern Washington. While in Peoria he held a speech on Oregon that enthralled some locals who formed the Peoria Party to attempt to colonizing Oregon. At a meeting with the Missionary Board in November the Board approved his plan for the creation of recruiting laymen such as blacksmiths and mechanics, the creation of grist mill, and expansion of agricultural production. Since at least 1837 Lee had beseeched the Missionary Board to "send us a few good, pious settlers will aid essentially in laying the foundation for the time to come and confer an incalculable upon the people"[12] After delivering the memorial in Washington D.C. it was presented to Congress by Senator Lewis F. Linn in January 1839.[13] In correspondence with Representative Caleb Cushing Lee noted that if America were to control the area many of the laymen of the Mission would in time become permanent settlers, an eventuality that did occur. During his time in the United States Lee went on several speaking tours throughout the nation along with a visit to his hometown in Canada to raise funds for the mission. Despite his position that only two additional preachers were needed, the Board recruited five.[14] Lee and the "great reinforcement" sailed aboard the Lausanne and arrived in Oregon on 1 June 1840.[15]

Jason Lee's mission in 1834

Political activities in Oregon Country

In 1836 Lee formed the Oregon Temperance Society which in the subsequent year was mobilized into action. As the plan of Ewing Young to create a distillery for sale amongst the indigenous became known the Society intervened. In a letter signed by residents of the valley, Young was requested to refrain from doing so and promised to cover the costs of forfeiting the distillery venture. Young blamed the Hudson's Bay Company for the situation he was in, but agreed to forfeit production of alcohol without compensation.[16] Shortly after this incident visiting Lieutenant William A. Slacum proposed that cattle from California be procured to break the cattle monopoly of Hudson's Bay Company in the region. The Willamette Cattle Company was formed with Slacum's brig the Loriot giving passage to Young and other men to California. Returning with a herd of 600 livestock, the portion for Lee and the Mission bestowed a sound means of nutritional self-sufficiently.[17]

As the growth of missions was ongoing, politics once again received Lee's attention. After scouting for a possible mission location amongst the Umpqua people, tensions in the mission community quickly rose over the financial records of Elijah White. White was accused by Lee for having spent money at Fort Vancouver on the account of the mission and rather than show his records, White left for the United States.[18] A more pressing issue was the death of Young and his extensive estate, which had no heirs to claim it. Several meetings were held and Lee chaired the first one where he put forth a proposal for a singular jurisdiction for all inhabitants south of the Columbia river. This was the culmination of feuds with Vicar General Blanchet who had till then dispensed justice on the Catholic population of the Willamette Valley. The Catholic was accused by the Methodist of splitting the settler community by refusing to submit to the attempted civic authority. This attempt was aimed at cutting the relationship then formed between the Hudson's Bay Company and the Catholic Missionaries, the former being financially supportive of the latter. By removing the political control over Catholics, the Company would lose influence among the settlers. An additional motive was that the Oregon Mission was in debt to the Company. These were the roots of Lee's support for a government in 1841, rather than finding a local regime necessary in of itself.[9] At the time of the Champoeg Meetings Lee was no longer an active participant of the political activities in the valley, being joined by Abernethy in criticizing the developments as unnecessary.[19] "By 1843, however," noted a biographer "Jason's Lee acumen made him realize that a local provisional government was not the direction that lay Oregon's true interest."[20]

Jason Lee NSHC statue


Letters were sent to the Board of Managers from Elijah White, John P. Richmond, Gustavus Hines attacking the leadership of Lee for several years.[21] While David Leslie had given the superintendent a positive appraisal, it wasn't enough to counter the criticisms.[21] Additionally the reports of neglect to the education of Native Americans and no complete account of the financial history of the Mission proved to be too much for the Board. They appointed Rev. George Gray as the new superintendent and instructed him to dispose of the temporal properties of the Mission, including the grist mill and missions not actively used.[21]

After hearing the news that he was ejected as the superintendent from Marcus Whitman, who recently returned from the United States, Lee went to meet the Board in person to defend himself. Crossing Mexico and sailing up the Mississippi River, Lee reached New York City on 27 May 1844.[22] He found the leadership debating over slavery, which soon lead to a schism and the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In the mean time, Lee went to Washington D.C. and had conferences with both President John Tyler and Senator Thomas H. Benton to present the land claims of the Oregon Mission.[21] When finally meeting with the Board leadership Lee was able to rectify his position but he wasn't reappointed as superintendent. He opted to raise money for the Oregon Institute, (now Willamette University), a school he helped organize.[21] However while visiting his sister in Stanstead, his health failed, and he died on March 12, 1845. His remains were reinterred at the Lee Mission Cemetery in Salem, Oregon in 1906 alongside his two wives and child.[13]


The house Lee occupied in 1841 is preserved as part of the Mission Mill Museum.

In 1953, the State of Oregon donated a bronze statue of Lee to the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection. Another copy was installed on the grounds of the Oregon State Capitol in 1953, having been poured by Gifford MacGregor Proctor after the death of his father, sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor.

Elementary schools in Richland, Washington, and Portland, Oregon and middle schools in Vancouver, Washington, and Tacoma, Washington are named after him.

See also


  1. Brosnan, Cornelius J. Jason Lee: Prophet of New Oregon New York City: The MacMillan Co. 1932, p. 22.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Missionary History of the Pacific Northwest, Hines, Harvey K., Portland: Marsh Printing Co., 1899
  3. Annals of the American pulpit: or, Commemorative notices of distinguished American clergymen of various denominations, Sprague, William B., New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1856
  4. Among the An-Ko-me-nums ; or, Flathead tribes of Indians of the Pacific Coast, pp.13-18, Thomas Crosby, W. Briggs, Toronto, 1907
  5. The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society Volume 20, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, 1919
  6. Ten Years in Oregon, Lee, Daniel, and Joseph H. Frost, New York: J. Collard, 1844, p. 110
  7. 7.0 7.1 Horner, John B. (1921). Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature. The J.K. Gill Co.: Portland.
  8. John McLoughlin: The Father of Oregon, Holman, Frederick Van Voorhies, Cleveland: A. H. Clark Company, 1907, pp. 55-56
  9. 9.0 9.1 Equality on the Oregon Frontier: Jason Lee and the Methodist Mission, 1834-1843, Loewenberg, Robert J., Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976
  10. Brosnan (1932), p. 80.
  11. The Oregon Missions: The Story of how the Line was Run Between Canada and the United States, James W. Bashford, New York City: Abingdon Press, 1918, p. 162
  12. The Conquerors: Historical Sketches of the American Settlement of the Oregon Country, A. Atwood, Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1907, p. 129
  13. 13.0 13.1 Memorial services at re-interment of remains of Rev. Jason Lee, Grubs, F. H., Salem: 1906
  14. Brosnan (1932), p. 104.
  15. History of Oregon, Carey, Charles H., Chicago: The Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1922, p. 339
  16. The Mission Record Book of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Willamette Station, Oregon Territory, North America, Commenced 1834, Carey, Charles H., Portland: The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1922, pp. 230-266
  17. Brosnan (1932), pp. 86-87.
  18. History of Oregon, Bancroft, Hubert H. and Frances F. Victor, San Francisco: History Co., 1890, p. 196-197,
  19. The Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume 13, Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1912, p. 107
  20. Brosnan (1932), p. 218.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Early American Methodism, 1769-1844, Barclay, Wade Crawford, New York: Board of Missions and Church Extension of the Methodist Church, 1950
  22. Brosnan (1932), p. 242

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