Jason Lee was born near Stanstead, Quebec, Canada on June 28, 1803, the son of Daniel and Sarah Lee. After being educated at Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts, Lee served in the local ministry from 1830 to 1832. Following his ordination, the Methodist Episcopal Church assigned him to be a missionary in the Flathead Indian country of the West.
After arriving at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, Lee was told by Hudson's Bay Company Chief Factor John McLoughlin that the Flathead Indians were too dangerous. He instead suggested a site about ten miles north of present-day Salem, Oregon on the Willamette River. Lee founded a school at the Mission Bottom site to educate the local Indians in what he considered a proper, Christian manner. The results contributed to a growing sense of futility. There were fourteen Indian students the first year, of whom seven died and five ran away. In 1836 there were twenty-five students, of whom sixteen fell ill. Only one of the surviving students converted.
Lee received reinforcements, including Dr. Elijah White, to help with the mission but by 1838 he returned to New England to recruit more. In 1840 he returned with 50 recruits including ministers, teachers, farmers, and mechanics.
Because of flooding, Lee relocated the mission and the Indian Manual Training School from Mission Bottom to Chemeketa, a site within present-day Salem. The following year a school for the white population was started at this location. The Oregon Institute, as it was known, was the first school for white Americans established west of Missouri. It later grew to become Willamette University, the first college in the Oregon Territory. Some of Lee's original Salem structures are available for touring at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem.
The Methodist Church replaced Lee in 1843 for not converting enough Indians to justify the vast expenditures needed to maintain his missions. He sought vindication for the last two years of his life and died in Canada on March 2, 1845. In 1906 his body was moved to a Salem cemetery. Lee's statue was placed in the National Hall of Fame by Oregon in 1954.
(Sources: End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Museum | Dictionary of Oregon History)