The search for historical truth: Jason Lee and Willamette commemorations

by Grace Pochis ’17,

Part four: A hidden agenda

Histories also can completely obscure the true historical experience of the people and places they purport to tell. Hines’ history — with its absolute absence of Native Americans —makes it strikingly clear whom he considered important, despite the fact that Jason Lee and other missionaries were intimately involved with indigenous communities and considered them integral to their life and work.

Why then are Native nations missing? Because the present that Hines was justifying didn’t involve Native Americans. He wrote this history explicitly for audiences — and especially Christian ones — on the East Coast. His goal was to persuade them to be interested in Willamette University, which was struggling financially at the time. So although Hines purports to write a “full history” of Oregon, the focus of the narrative, the actors and the events centers on what was important at the time of writing — not what was important or even true for Jason Lee. Histories are always products of their purpose, their present and their writer.

The next commemorations in our record are from the generation slightly following the missionary era. These commemorations of Lee still adhere to Whig history forms, though using new narratives. In particular, while in the early commemorations, causality was established by the presence of God, in these later commemorations, the omnipotence or omniscience ascribed to God was transferred to Lee. Lee becomes characterized as highly intuitive. An exemplary case is the booklet “The Contribution of Jason Lee to Civil Government in Oregon,” written by the Oregon Conference Historical Society. This publication argues that Lee was the most influential early colonizer of Oregon, and emphasizes that Lee was a political figure in addition to a religious one.

The narrative removes explicit references to God but continues to attribute intentionality, causality, and a divine order to the past. Like typical Whig histories, it’s highly celebratory of its present. It praises Oregon and the United States and ascribes to Lee all sorts of prophetic intuition about the future. For instance, when the booklet describes Lee deciding on a place to set up the Oregon Manual Labor School, it says, “Even in this primitive and almost uninhabited country he succeeded in finding and settling upon places that later became very important.”

This statement, rather than being simply strange or erroneous, offers insight into how these historians looked at history and causality. It envisions a set metropolitan layout of Oregon that Lee and other colonizers perceived and followed. According to its logic, the colonizers didn’t create the layout of Oregon cities; they just discovered the way it was supposed to be. A more secular version of Manifest Destiny, this causal narrative says that Lee acted with the intuition that things would turn out as they did. Another example comes up in a history of Oregon’s Methodist Church written in 1884. It says that Lee brought a teacher for the white missionary children before the need arose because “thoughtful, far-seeing minds were laying plans to meet coming demands.”

Part five: Distorting the past