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Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 7/Jason Lee memorial address by J. R. Wilson


By Dr. J. R. Wilson.

The history of civilization has been advanced through the operation of various and diverse motives in individual men and groups or communities of men. Almost every motive that has carried civilized men into regions hitherto unknown has resulted in some enlargement of the borders of civilization, even though this has not been an avowed end. In almost every movement that has enlarged the horizon of man's knowledge of the earth, or widened the domain of civilized society, men have acted without either of these ends in view. The occasions when discoverers or explorers or pioneers have made the widening of our knowledge for knowledge's sake, or the advancement of the limits of civilized life, their conscious or avowed end have been the exception rather than the rule.

The Phœnicians, in the early centuries, did much to enlarge civilized man's knowledge of the earth, and to carry westward through the countries bordering on the Mediterranean, the knowledge and civilized life of the Orient, but the motive in their westward movement was commerce and trade. The Greeks, and after them the Romans, did much to expand man's knowledge of the outlying regions of Asia and Europe, much, too, for the carrying into those regions their several civilizations, but their motive was that of empire and commerce. So, too, of those wonderful voyages and explorations culminating in and following upon the discovery of America.

Their moving cause was not the desire to enlarge human knowledge, not to carry forward the frontiers of civilized life, but it was primarily to discover and open a new pathway to the riches of the East, a motive made urgent when the inroads of the Turks had closed to Western Europe the trade routes of Asia.

The explorations and settlements of Christian missionaries in the early centuries of our era, penetrating as they did to the remote and rude peoples of Europe; the settlement of the Puritan on the coast of New England; the missions of Jesuits circling the far horizon of the New World like a line of light from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi, all belong to movements resulting from higher and exceptional motives. So of the early mission settlements of Oregon.

The coming of white men to Oregon before the coming of Jason Lee and his company was chiefly for the purpose of trade. Whatever settlements such earlier coming contemplated, or resulted in, had trade for their primary object. The kind of trade, too, was such as contemplated the preserving of the country as far as possible in its native wildness, and of the inhabitants in their uncivilized state. The fur trade, which hitherto had been the chief inducement for white men to come to the Oregon Country, would not have been furthered by any movement that had resulted in the colonization and cultivation of the country, or which had induced to settled life and civilized occupations its wild and roving inhabitants.

Nor would the purposes of the early settlers have been subserved by the bringing of this country by any man fully to the knowledge of the civilized world. It was to their interests rather that both the country and its inhabitants remain as long as possible both wild and unknown.

When, therefore, Jason Lee set foot on Oregon soil it marked the coming into this region of a wholly new purpose. Not all that has resulted from his coming was intended or dreamed of at the first. It was the people he sought, not the country; it was for their enlightenment in the life and hopes of the gospel that he crossed the continent and made his home among them, not for the exploiting of their country and the enrichment of himself through their toil.

It was one of the great sorrows of his life that he was compelled to see those for whose sake he came, and to whom for years be delighted to minister, waste away with disease and fail from the land, until at last the people that once gathered in his home and to his ministry were no more.

Coincident with the rapid decay of the Indian was the coming in increasing numbers of the white man. Painful as the failing of the native people was to the warm and earnest heart of Jason Lee, and disappointing as it was to his first and highest desires for his mission, he was not long in recognizing the changed conditions of his work in Oregon, or in adapting himself to them. Here at the seat of the original mission his mission to the Indian was practically closed at the end of six years. The Indian, parent and child, was gone. With a wasting away, unspeakably sad, he saw the tribe once numerous, which had gathered to his ministry, fall day by day under the ravages of disease, and himself powerless to arrest its decay.

The object of his ministry was now no longer the same, but his unselfish purpose to serve his fellowmen was unchanged. The white man who had come to Oregon needed his service not less than the Indian who had gone had needed it, and he was not less willing to give it to the one than he had been to give it to the other. Accordingly, from 1840 on to the close of his life we find him addressing himself with untiring zeal and unflagging energy to the work of providing the opportunities of education for the children of the white settlers of Oregon.

The hope of redeeming a savage people had vanished with the people itself. In its place came the not less inspiring purpose of laying, in the education of the white people who were fast taking their places, deep and broad the foundations of the great state which he now foresaw must sooner or later occupy this favored region.

With this change in the conditions of the mission and in his purpose in the work came the great tragedy of his life. The necessity of his recognizing and addressing himself to the changed conditions of the mission was clear enough to him, as it must have been to all who like him were thoroughly acquainted with the rapid and remarkable change that within a half a decade had taken place in this region. But what he and others saw so clearly was not so easy to make clear to the officers of the mission board which commissioned him to work among the Indians. Distance and the representations of those who were less fully acquainted with them, or less clear-sighted and far-sighted than himself, made his task doubly difficult.

The making of himself right with the church which had commissioned him was his last earthly task. To this he addressed himself with the same courage and singleness of purpose which he carried into every task. Leaving behind his only child, a daughter of tender years, with trusted friends, and turning his back upon this land of his love and great and single purpose, with infinite toil and difficulty he made his way to the other side of the continent, that he might make clear to those to whom under God he was accountable the wisdom and the entire rightness of his conduct and purpose.

He succeeded, but at the sacrifice of his life. When his task was done and his honor vindicated, the limit of his vital power was reached. Still hoping that he might return to the work he loved, he got quickly away to the home of his boyhood, that he might there recruit his failing strength. But his hope proved vain. But a few weeks of failing strength and his work was done.

Jason Lee died in the prime of manhood, just when he seemed to have his hands upon the instrumentalities of a larger work for the land of his love and adoption. But the work he did was great enough to have gratified a larger ambition than was his. It is not to be measured by the completed results as he saw them. It was initiative in its character, and is to be measured by the farther reach of that to which it led.

The ceremony of this day in laying Jason Lee's dust in the soil of this noble State, whose rise here he foresaw and for which he hoped and prayed and toiled, is but a late and worthy answer to that mute and unutterable longing of heart with which in his last conscious moments he turned his eyes to the Western sky and breathed his latest prayer for the land of his love that lay beyond its horizon.

Oregon has received and holds the ashes of many noble men and women who have had an honorable part in the founding and rearing of this commonwealth, but holds the ashes of none more worthy of lasting and grateful remembrance than was he whose ashes we shall commit this day to the sacred soil of these historic precincts.