The search for historical truth: Jason Lee and Willamette commemorations

by Grace Pochis ’17,

Part six: The march of progress

Whig histories talk about the past based on the contemporary reality of the historian. As well as creating a history of steps toward the present, the historian thinks present circumstances are the pinnacle of this march of progress. That’s exactly what can be seen in histories of Jason Lee, starting with his birth. Jason Lee was born to American parents living in Canada — but, as Whig historians need him to be undebatably American, they say that Lee’s parents made a mistake in where they built their house. They offer other reasons why Lee is nevertheless a quintessential American citizen. The Oregon Conference Historical Society says that not only was Lee’s father a veteran of the Revolutionary War, but that Lee was “a staunch and loyal American citizen,” and one who continued to hold Euro-American interests as he traveled outside the country to Oregon Territory, where he “laid the very foundations of the American State.”

The historian Robert Gatke, writing in the 1940s, has the same preoccupation, saying, “There can be no question of Jason Lee’s being an American citizen both in interest and in fact.” What these American historians imply through their vehement defense of Lee’s Americanness is that America is better than Canada, and that being American is something special. In their interpretations of the past,  these historians argue that they themselves, being American, and Oregon, now incorporated into America, are awesome.

The 1884 history of the Methodist Church also assumes a triumphant present, including self-congratulatory remarks about the “marked success which has resulted from these early labors of the pioneers of this Church” or “the good results of their action.”  A Willamette Bulletin from around this time says, “From the battlements above, Jason Lee and his coadjutors must look with gratitude and delight on the blessed results of their faithful labors.” This Methodist history shows the other side of portraying history as a march of progress —that the past was not as good as the present.

In describing early Missionary work, the Methodist story emphasizes the wildness and danger of the land in the past. “... they left behind them their homes, the comforts and luxuries of civilization, and started out upon an almost trackless wilderness, to traverse thousands of miles over what was indeed to them a ‘terra incognita.’ In imagination we follow them as they toiled on, over broad plains and arid deserts, climbed the precipitous mountain sides or threaded the intricate mazes of the dark, tangled forest….”

Here, Lee becomes part of a wild realm of imagination, an almost unfathomably dark past sunk in the depths of primitivity. And “primitive” is actually the language they use to describe the early missions. They say, “it will be plainly seen that the primitive efforts of the missionaries to evangelize this people must have been of necessity simple, yet difficult…” They also admit that “ludicrous and even erroneous ideas may have been interchanged.”

Hines, writing his history of Oregon 16 years earlier in 1868, also emphasized the metaphorical darkness of Oregon in this time. He says, “Simple were the means employed, but grand have been the results secured,” which in one sentence declares the triumph of the present and establishes that the past wasn’t as awesome. The past is glorified — often by romanticizing the wildness of the land and the struggles and privations the Missionaries enduring while building their Euro-American infrastructure. But while these histories say that past people like Jason Lee were superhumanly great, they call their tools and means rudimentary. The histories emphasize that they built log cabins and they couldn’t communicate with the Native people of Oregon. There’s a clear hierarchy in these histories of present over past.

Part seven: Tales of supremacy

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