Monday, October 26, 2020

Jason Lee Portrait unveiled 100 Years Ago, Lost to Fire in 1935

100 years ago today, on October 26th the City and State held a grand unveiling for a new portrait of Jason Lee at the old Capitol. I could not easily find information on it or its painter, and I assume it was lost in the 1935 fire at the Capitol. The Methodists had commissioned it, and the dedication coincided with a conference here in Salem. 

Jason Lee portrait in back. (detail)
Swearing in Gov. Julius Meier, 1931
Oregon Historical Society

"Patriot and Colonizer"
October 27th, 1920

From the morning preview on the 26th in 1920:

Church dignitaries, pastors and laymen numbering several hundred will arrive in Salem this morning from all over the state to take part in, and witness the formal unveiling and presentation of the Jason Lee Portrait, which will take place at 1:30 o'clock this afternoon in the honse of representatives in the state capitol.

Bishop V. O. Shepherd of Portland will make the main address, and there will be contributions to the program by other prominent representatives of the church and state. Patriotic musical numbers will precede and close the exercises, and another feature will be the reminiscences of Jason Lee by Mrs. Maria Campbell Smith, the first female white child born in Oregon. Governor Olcott will present the portrait to the state.

The portrait, which is life-size, was painted by Hester L. George, a Boston artist, the commission being given by the historical society of the Oregon Conference or Methodists.

Through this society also the gift of the portrait is made to the state of Oregon.

The old Capitol, from SW looking NE
Oregon State Library

The interval from 1920 to Lee's time in Salem around 1840 corresponds roughly to the the gap between now and World War II. Additionally, veterans in their 20s during the Civil War and at Statehood would be in their 80s in 1920 and passing on. We are at the very end of a human life span and of direct human memory for these events, and so there is a retrospective renewal and refashioning of collective memory, sifting for details to remember and details to forget. In telling stories about Lee they told stories about themselves, just as today we are choosing what stories to tell about ourselves.

As we have considered changing views on Lee, it is interesting to note a gulf in the news coverage in 1920. The morning Statesman had wall-to-wall coverage of the portrait and speeches; the afternoon Capital Journal largely ignored it. Usually there is greater overlap with both papers covering significant events in Salem. Perhaps this is evidence there was a real ideological purpose to the portrait and ceremonies. Certainly from a century later, the speeches are saturated with ideas, and it is reasonable to suppose not everyone gave them all the same significance.

All the speeches, October 27th, 1920

The speech of Edgar Piper, editor of the Oregonian, and son-in-law of former Confederate officer Leo Willis, attempted to place him in history, and today we might read the speech as full of erasure and revision. It is flowery with ideology. Of Lee's work and legacy he says,

October 27th, 1920

The meanest intelligence, even, can understand that America would not have thus matured into the full flower of its development - and indestructible union on indestructible states....The Indian alone populated the open spaces, and lived as his fathers had lived, in ignorance, in squalor and in superstition....Jason Lee is more than a missionary, a pioneer, a colonizer, a patriot, a statesman, he is a symbol - a symbol of duty seen and done amid many trials and perils of opportunity realized and crystallized against official ignorance and neglect, of a ministry bestowed upon the friendless Indian and the homeless immigrant, and of service performed to his country, once indifferent, now grateful.

Another speech mythologizes Lee's appearance, proper to the heroic scale of the portrait:

Jason Lee was intended seemingly for great things. Nature gave him a constitution like iron. His person was tall, being 6 feet 3 inches high, and well developed; his complexion was almost blond, with light hair and grayish blue eyes; his mind was large, and responsive to all the pure aspirations of the human conscience; his manner was grave without dullness, gentle without weakness; his spirit was brave, tireless, indomitable, and his character was sincere and exemplary, benevolent and all-embracing....Jason Lee was no bottle baby. He was well born and well fed at the breast of a human mother.

October 27th, 1920

And still another compares him to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington in the pantheon of American politicians and as a "providential character...chosen to be the pioneer and founder of a great civilization which should be built upon the ruins of a pagan and decadent race."

The Bitsman further grafted the story onto our founding myths: "The Lausanne was a second Mayflower, and Salem was a second Plymouth." This was not original. In Gaston's Centennial History of Oregon, published in 1912, he said, "the Lausanne was to the Pacific coast in 1840 what the Mayflower was to the Atlantic coast in 1620."

It's so much mythmaking, our Oregon origin myth, and less about a more sober history.

The next day on the front page, there was a note about saving the house "as shrine for persons interested in history." Not a museum, but a shrine. The Bitsman had asserted that the Jason Lee house "ought to be made a Methodist and a pioneer shrine...." and invited submissions to the paper.

October 28th, 1920

Americanism triumphed at the famous Champoeg meeting and organized under the Stars and Stripes the provisional government....The house restored and furnished thus would become a mecca toward which many would journey.

Saving the house eventually happened and it is at the Mill.

But it is not exactly treated as a "shrine" today in general pop culture, and there are only a small number of people for whom the house operates like a pilgrimage site. It is more an old-timey curiosity, one of several on the Mill's campus.

Though the word is having something of a revival today, mostly we don't emphasize "Americanism" quite the way the writer envisioned, either. It had a specific meaning and context then.

In a talk to the Rotary Club in 1919, a speaker talked about "true Americanism," in contrast with "radicalism," "bolshevism," and "disloyalty." Americanism did not employ "foreign tongues." The concept of Americanism existed in a context of the Red Scare, labor unrest, and nativism.

November 19th, 1919

Almost a year later, as candidate for President, Warren Harding talked about the danger of "hyphenated citizenship" and dual loyalties, not just those who were not yet naturalized, but even naturalized citizens who were not born here. "Real Americanism" implied whiteness and native born. Associating Jason Lee with "Americanism" is, then, charged with certain meanings.

Sept. 19th, 1920

Tonight at Council the Mayor is proclaiming "Native American Heritage Month" and there is yet work to do. We are still working to come to grips with what it means that we saw "the ruins of a pagan and decadent race." Similarly, we need to revise our understanding of Jason Lee. Next month at the Mill, Jennifer Jopp will give a talk on just this, "A New Look at Jason Lee." It's the right time.

Not the Ruins of a Pagan Race
Mayor's Proclamation
for Native American Heritage Month