Did you know that the oldest university in the West is located right here in Marion County? Not only that but its been shaping the minds of community members and educating the masses for the past 175 years.

Established in 1842, Willamette University stands as the oldest university of the Western United States. It has created a commitment to academic excellence, community engagement, and the nurturing of well-rounded individuals cemented throughout its rich history and will continue to lead the college forward for years to come.

Willamette University history
The campus has grown quite a bit since it got its start nearly two centuries ago, but much of its original land was sold in the beginning to cover building and facility costs that now are part of much of downtown Salem. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

The Establishment of Willamette University: The First Mission School

In 1834, Methodist missionary Jason Lee and four associates were sent west by the Mission Board on a journey to the Oregon Territory. They were tasked to establish a Methodist mission for Native Americans living in the Willamette Valley so that they may “educate and civilize” the Native children.

Eventually, the men found their way to the mid-Willamette Valley near present-day Salem and set up their mission there. Already this task would not be without its challenges as the Kalapuya Tribe in the valley had already been decimated by malaria and smallpox years prior upon the arrival of the region’s first white traders.

It was Lee’s hope, as were that of most missionaries of the West that were largely insensitive to historic Native culture, that the Willamette Valley Natives would adopt the dominant practices and beliefs of white Americans if he provided education and a stable white community. To accomplish this, Lee would embark on a multipronged approach that would begin with the opening of his Indian Mission Manual Labor School.

More missionaries would join him in the ensuing years, but in the end, it would be this held-out hope and failure to acknowledge that the Native American Tribes of the Pacific Northwest had settled the area thousands of years prior that would ultimately put an end to the first mission school. When a second bash of missionaries would join him in 1840, Lee and his new arrivals would move the mission farther south to present-day Salem. Here, they built the new Indian Manual Training School in 1841 on what is now the Willamette University campus. A year later, on  February 1, 1842, Lee established the Oregon Institute and elected its board of trustees.

Despite the new education facilities, in the end, only a few Native Americans would take advantage of the education offered by the missionaries to learn English and become effective treaty negotiators, while the majority found little value in what the missionaries had to offer. Eventually, the Methodist Mission Board deemed the mission a failure in 1844 and closed its doors permanently, citing failures on Lee’s part for not focusing enough on the conversion of Native Americans.

Two years later, the building that had previously housed the Manual Labor School was sold to the trustees of the Oregon Institute so that it would be used as a school for the children of missionaries and settlers.

Willamette University history
In a time when women were frequently barred from college, Emily York was Willamette’s first graduate in 1859, earning a degree as a Mistress of English Literature. She was also the first college graduate on the West Coast. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

The Oregon Institute Transforms Into Willamette University

The Oregon Institute officially opened its doors on August 13, 1844, with five students and one teacher, Mrs. Chloe Clarke Wilson. Lee served as the first President of the Board of Trustees until he died in 1845, after which David Leslie took his place and served until his death in 1869.

The original three-story frame structure was home to many firsts for the region, including housing the first session of the state legislature to meet in Salem after the capital was moved there in 1851, as well as sheltering the first court in the territory under the auspices of the United States. Tragically, this particular building burned down in 1872.

Two years later, in 1853, the institute began to expand and grow into a more comprehensive university that offered a wide range of academic programs beyond primary and secondary education that would be renamed “Willamette University.”

By the end of this transformation, Willamette University would go down in the history books as closely associated with the beginning of law and government in the historical Oregon Territory. It educated many of the Northwest’s first leaders, artists, and business people and established the region’s first law school in 1883 and the first school of medicine in the Pacific Northwest in 1866. The school was even one of the earliest coeducational institutions in the United States, and its first graduate was a woman named Emily J. York, who graduated in 1859 as a Mistress of English Literature. Women were even attending the School of Medicine at the university in 1877.

Willamette University history
A group of students (circa 1950) in and around a car in an arena of columns east of the University Library. The columns are from the State Capitol Building that burned down in 1935. The Library, Eaton, Waller and Lausanne are visible in the background. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

Willamette University’s Journey Through Time

As the university continued to grow, a new brick building was built in 1867 in Renaissance-style architecture to house the school known as University Hall. The building was later renamed in 1912 as Waller Hall to honor the Reverend Alvin F. Waller and is now the oldest university building west of the Mississippi River still in use. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

During the university’s first half-century, many of its land holdings were gradually sold to meet other needs and help expand campus buildings, as funds were difficult to raise in a frontier environment. As a result, much of present-day downtown Salem is built on former university land.

Still, expansion seemed steady until 1891, when the school would face a new challenge to its existence with the creation of a rival Methodist University in Portland. The new school attracted many of the Salem school’s students and faculty. It was a trying time for Willamette, resulting in the College of Medicine losing its clinical privileges at Portland hospitals and being forced to return to the Salem campus due to a lack of financial support. Though Portland was their rival, by 1899, the school was also failing financially. To combat this, a decision was made to unite the two institutions as they were able to recognize the benefits of collaboration and the shared Methodist affiliation.

As a result of the merger, Willamette University absorbed Portland University, incorporating its resources, faculty, and students into the existing structure of Willamette when students reconvened in the fall. This not only helped Willamette overcome the competition it faced from Portland but also strengthened its position as a leading institution of higher education in the region.

Willamette University history
Today, the university has an academically selective student body with an average of 2,402 undergraduate and graduate students. Photo courtesy: Willamette University

Willamette University Today

Since then, the university has continued to grow, adding such additional buildings as the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, the Oregon Civic Justice Center, the Tokyo International University of American campus, and several residential and academic facilities such as Eaton Hall and Gatke Hall. In addition, the university also opened the George H. Atkinson Graduate School of Management in 1974, and the university launched a School of Education in 1995, now known as the Graduate School of Education.

Today, Willamette University continues to push the frontier of higher education as it always has along its remarkable journey of teaching and sharing knowledge with the masses. Within its humble roots is a strong sense of community service reflected in the school’s motto: “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.” As a result, the university is recognized nationally for its commitment to environmental and educational sustainability programs and ranks third nationally among comparably sized colleges for its number of graduates in the Peace Corps.

Already notable graduates from Willamette include long-serving United States Senators Mark O. Hatfield and Robert Packwood, along with the first woman to hold an elected statewide office in Oregon, Norma Paulus, and Nobel laureate in economics Dale Mortensen.

As time goes on, there’s no doubt that even more notable graduates will cross the historic Willamette University’s center stage and go on to accomplish even more amazing things as the university retains its commitment to building a more inclusive and tolerant community so that these graduates will have all that they need to not only succeed in life but go on to make the world a better place.

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