Jason Lee and Oregon in 1834

He met the Flatheads and Nez Perces at Ham’s Fork. There is no way of knowing whether disgust or despair moved him chiefly, there is no way of knowing how conscious he was of the instantaneous discharge of his mind’s potential. But the cerebellum and the spinal cord knew. You could not make Christians of Indians. First you had to make white men of them.

And of course Jason Lee was right. The story of civilizing the Indian is only a story of degrading him. The massacre of the Whitmans and all the failures of godly men who were twiceborn, as Lee was not, proved only what the carrier of the timespirit had known instantly on being confronted by the Indians who had stretched out their hands in supplication. First they must be white men. So he wasted no time. On his way here he had learned enough to know that you could not make them white men in such country as this. Therefore he went straight to a place where he thought the experiment had a chance to succeed. To the western side of the Cascades, the magnificent valley with its rivers and rainfall, its rich soil and its waterpower, its promise of the farms and villages and neighborliness in which his personal culture had been formed. To Indians whom forty years of lay effort had already made into white men about as much as was possible, which is to say they were degenerate, debauched, diseased, despairing, and about to die. There he would set up his mission and serve God by making farmers, carpenters, herdsmen, users of soap, teetotalers, hymn-singers, monogamists, and newspaper- readers of whatsoever Indians he might find there. This, he realized, would be at best a small fraction of the universal hopes that had sent him West. But it would be a beginning and at least there was some hope, as assuredly there was no hope at all in the mountains, that it might succeed. That it could succeed only by means of the greatest cruelty men can inflict on other men, only by breaking down the culture that made them men – this mattered not at all, it was the end in view. Thus Lee’s decision at Ham’s Fork.

The importance of this decision to the United States will not escape attention. Mr. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has persuasively argued that the fires of revived religion which marked the eighteen-thirties served the propertied interests as backfires against the radical democracy that was crowding them hard. Well, the missions which the revival sent to foreign lands served those interests in a different way – and other interests too. Shall we instance the opening of China to American goods or Herman Melville’s observations on expansion in the Marquesas? Shall we remember by what steps the Pearl of the Orient became American? The land, Mr. MacLeish has said, was waiting for its westward people. Certainly its people were at this moment ceasing to wait for the westward land. The mountain fur trade had made it known, opened it up, blazed the trails, located the water and the grass, named the rivers, triangulated the peaks, learned how to traverse the Great American Desert. There remained only for this knowledge to be disseminated. The ore was now being mined out of which the wagon tires, the trace-chains, and the plowshares would be forged. For the westward people it would be expedient to have the British Empire stopped in Oregon … and to have the Indians made into white men at the loss of their power. The time-spirit, it has been remarked, ran in Jason Lee’s veins so clearly that it can be seen throbbing in his pulse. History has no accidents: Jason Lee and Hall J. Kelley, the prophet of Oregon colonization and the first American known to have proposed that the Indians of the Northwest coast be christianized, reached Oregon in a dead heat. Thereafter Jason Lee, in a devotion of spirit which cannot be questioned for a moment, served Christian salvation in ways indistinguishable from the promotion of real estate. The Missionary to the Flatheads labored to build the City of God as a colonizer of the Willamette Valley.

He was, that is, like the mountain men and Nathaniel Wyeth, an instrument of the national will. It was Jason Lee who, on July 4, 1834, at Ham’s Fork, Wyoming, directed his assistants to pack up the outfit and prepare, not to travel with the Flatheads to Montana, but to go on to the Columbia with Wyeth. It was Jason Lee who gave the orders but it was Manifest Destiny that cast the vote.