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REV. JASON LEE. – Jason Lee was the pioneer of pioneers. It is not possible for any other name to take precedence of his, whether we speak of the time of his coming to this coast, or of the power he exerted over the beginnings of civilization and christianity here. In these conditions he was first and mightiest.
Jason Lee was born in Stanstead, Canada East, in 1803. Though born in Canada, he was of New England parentage, and had in him no trace of foreign blood; so that he was a thorough American. His early life was spent in the labors of the farm and the adventures of the forest, where he acquired that hardihood of body, and independence and vigor of mind, that so well prepared him for his providential work. When he was twenty-five years of age, he entered Niltraham Academy, Massachusetts, then under the care of Doctor Wilber Fisk, where he spent some years in acquiring an education. Returning to Canada he offered himself to the London Mileyan Missionary Society for work as a missionary among the Indians of that province. Pending this offer, a clearly providential call came from beyond the Rocky Mountains for missionaries among the Indians; and Doctor Fisk turned to Jason Lee as “the one man” – to use his own words – to answer that call. The missionary board of his church ratified the selection; and on August 19, 1833, Mr. Lee left his home in Stanstead to prepare for his journey westward.
April 20, 1834, he arrived at Liberty, Missouri, near which place the trading company of Mr. Nathaniel Wyeth was outfitting for a journey to the Columbia river. Mr. Lee, attended by his nephew Daniel Lee, Mr. Cyrus Shephard and Mr. R.L. Edwards, joined himself to the rough cavalcade of the adventurous trader, and spent the entire summer of that year in the weary journey to Oregon.
On their route Mr. Wyeth stopped to build a trading-post on Snake river, which he called Fort Hall. There, on Sunday, July 27, 1834, Mr. Lee preached the first sermon ever preached west of the Rocky Mountains, to a congregation, as he says in his manuscript journal, “of Indians, half-breeds, Frenchmen, etc., very few of whom could understand the exercises.” He reached old Fort Walla Walla on the 1st of September and Vancouver on the seventeenth. In the few weeks following that date he traveled somewhat extensively over the Willamette valley, and finally located his mission station on the banks of the Willamette river, about twelve miles below the present site of Salem.
Mr. Lee devoted himself with great energy and singleness of purpose to the work assigned him among the Indians until the spring of 1838, when it seemed necessary to him, and his fellow-laborers, that he should return to the States and secure a large reinforcement for the mission. Accordingly he left the Willamette mission on the 26th of March, bidding adieu to his wife, to whom he had been married but a few months, and the lonely mission family, from whom he hardly expected to hear until his return to them, and took up his dreary eastern pilgrimage over the same desert route he had traveled four years before. He crossed the plains safely; but, on the very first night after he had reached civilization, a letter which had been sent by express after him was put in his hands, conveying the intelligence that his wife and her infant son had been put in the first grave of a white woman or child in Oregon.
Mr. Lee spent the following winter and summer in organizing his reinforcement for the mission work in Oregon, and in addressing large audiences in all the principal cities of the Eastern states in favor of the work. He sailed at the head of this band of missionaries (the largest that had ever been associated in missionary work) from New York in October, 1839, and reached Oregon in June of 1840. He was superintendent of the mission, and as such visited Umpqua, every part of the Willamette valley, Clatsop, Nisqually and The Dalles, devoting himself most conscientiously to his vast and important field. In 1843 he again returned to New York in the interest of his mission, going by sea to Honolulu, and thence to the coast of Mexico in a small Mexican schooner, thence overland via the City of Mexico to Vera Cruz, thence by sea to New Orleans, and by steamer and stage to New York.
Such had been the trials and exposures of this stalwart pioneer, that he was unable to bear up under their burdens longer; and, in a few months after his return to the States, he repaired to Stanstead, the place of his birth and the home of his childhood and early manhood, and soon after died in his early maturity. Physically he was a strong man, six feet two inches in height and well proportioned. Intellectually he was clear, discriminating and reliable; morally he was without a spot.
In the qualities of a pioneer, Mr. Lee was the peer of any man in his church – so universally and justly known as “The Pioneer Church” – ever sent to any field. Oregon, which was so eminently blest in its pioneers, never had one more capable, broad-minded, strong-handed and true-hearted than Jason Lee. Few really know all that Oregon, and country at large, owe to this first pioneer in organizing the influences and furnishing the information that finally resulted in securing Oregon to the United States, and, in the Provisional government, establishing law and order over the coast. In1830 he was often consulted by the Department of State and leading senators and representatives in Congress on the “Oregon question,” and also, after his second return to the States in 1843-44. His opinion, formed after so many years of careful observation on the ground, went very far in influencing legislation and determining cabinet councils on that question. If Oregon owes a debt of gratitude and recognition to any one of her noble pioneers above another, that debt is due to Jason Lee, the real pathmaker for civilization and christianity to the shores of the Pacific.