Kylie Pine, Willamette Heritage Center curator, stands on the site believed to be the original location of the Methodist parsonage in the 1840s (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In the 1850s, the U.S. government forced many of western Oregon’s Indigenous residents from their ancestral homelands and onto the Grand Ronde Reservation, clearing the way for a wave of settlers coming to the Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail.

But the decade before treaties and removal is a much less studied period in the state’s Indigenous history - and the focus of a new archaeology project bringing together the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Willamette University, Willamette Heritage Center and the city of Salem.

The 1840s in the Salem area were “a really critical time as we’re seeing communities of different nationalities interacting together,” said Briece Edwards, who manages the Grand Ronde tribe’s historic preservation office. “That’s an interesting period and it kind of gets lost.”

Together, archaeologists and historians from the institutions plan to spend the next year searching for the foundation of a Methodist Parsonage building on the Heritage Center’s campus, and use ground-penetrating radar to document the location of the Oregon Mission Manual Labor School which operated for only a few years in the early 1840s.

Methodist missionaries began construction on the labor school in 1841, setting up a campus intended to train Indigenous children from a variety of Northwest nations in European methods of agriculture, English and religion.

A parsonage, built nearby, housed the Methodist staff who worked at the school.

Unlike later federal boarding schools, where Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and forbidden from speaking their native languages, parents from tribes around the Northwest often sent their children to Salem.

“It was a strategic move. It was a way to equip students to deal with these settlers they saw coming,” said Kylie Pine, the curator at Willamette Heritage Center.

Edwards said many of the children educated by Methodist missionaries during the early years of white settlement in Salem grew up to be tribal leaders and treaty signers. That includes children who attended the earlier school in the Willamette Valley set up by Jason Lee, the first Methodist missionary to come to what is now Oregon.

But there’s little written record of day-to-day life at the labor school, particularly from an Indigenous perspective.

“What was this like at this school - we really don’t know,” Edwards said.

By 1844, the missionaries were recalled by the Mission Board of the Methodist Church and the school was sold to the Oregon Institute, later becoming Willamette University.

In 1872, the original labor school building burned to the ground, and its exact location has been a mystery since. Maps from the era have offered little help in pinpointing the location.

“A lot of what we’re working with ... probably made a lot of sense of people 150 years, 160 years ago as it was being written, but today we’ve renamed things, the creeks aren’t following the same exact path as previous, and that can make a huge difference," Edward said.

That’s where Scott Pike and his students come in.

Pike is a professor of environmental science and archaeology at Willamette, and is leading the project on the university’s side. His hope is to establish where the foundation of the labor school was, and dig several small test pits on campus to search for artifacts from the period.

A small excavation in the early 2000s by another Willamette professor, Dave McCreery, unearthed a few artifacts from the period like hand-forged nails, according to a grant application with the state. That work also found a brick foundation that may be from the labor school.

“This is basically all we have to go on,” Pike said.

He said to date, there’s been no evidence found of outhouses or other outbuildings that must have existed on the site. Because the site is located on the middle of Willamette’s campus, excavating a large section isn’t practical.

“Excavation’s very expensive and it’s also very destructive,” Pike said.

But using radar, he hopes to locate and map the foundation using geographic information systems software.

“We should find buildings if there were any there,” Pike said. The radar device gives a readout of depth below the surface, allowing archaeologists to peer back in time and see where soil has been disturbed or other substances - like brick foundations - may be buried.

Pike’s students will also participate in a larger excavation on the nearby Willamette Heritage Center campus where evidence suggests the original parsonage was located. That excavation builds on work Pike and his students performed in the spring, using radar to identify the likely site of the original building foundation.

It’s expected to take place between February and April 2022.

Pine said earlier work to install irrigation at the center has turned up pieces of pottery and other artifacts on the site.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what else gets dug up,” she said.

The center will process and curate artifacts that are discovered, working with the tribe.

Edwards said the project will give students an opportunity to learn about tribal archaeology and how to engage with and document history that can be sensitive. He hopes the effort will lead to a better understanding of “this very brief moment of time.”

“That then gets us to an understanding of what were the conditions like. We have one perspective that’s sort of written about in the record,” he said, referring to the settler and missionary written records from the period.

He’s hopeful the project will lead to a better understanding of the era and the experiences of Indigenous people.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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