UPDATES: Excavation begins at former Oregon Indian mission sites

An engraving of the old handicraft school of the Oregon Indian Mission. It later became the Oregon Institute for Settler Children and was eventually served by the first campus of Willamette University. (Courtesy of the City of Salem)

The City of Salem will begin excavations at two sites of the former Oregon Indian Mission Handicraft School, built on the grounds of present-day Willamette University.

The boarding school only operated for two years, but was attended by Native American children from across the Pacific Northwest, according to a friday statement from the city.

Focusing on the boarding school and its administration building, the work is part of a city-led archaeological project and is set back to help give context to the buildings history, according to the statement.

Methodist Episcopal Church missionaries built the structures southeast of the mission headquarters in present-day Salem. The buildings were among the oldest and largest in the area and helped establish “community structures that endure to the present day.” the city website noted.

According to a article published by Willamette in 2017, it was difficult for the school to find students it could retain on a regular basis or who would permanently convert to Christianity. The school “enforced western dress” and the students had a high death rate from diseases passed on by European settlers.

When the mission closed in 1844, the boarding school followed suit. European settlers, including missionaries, raised funds to purchase the school building and charter the Oregon Institute, a new school for settler children, according to the city’s website.

The state legislature granted a charter in 1853 to Willamette University, whose former boarding school was the campus until Walter Hall was built between 1864 and 1867.

A fire in 1872 destroyed the old boarding school building, the city’s website said.

The Methodist Church used the old administration building as its rectory, which was moved twice and has since remained on the grounds of the Willamette Heritage Center.

Beginning this month, archaeologist Ross Smith will oversee fieldwork by volunteers from the Oregon Archaeological Society and students from Willamette University. Greek students visiting the university will do photogrammetry, converting images into digital models, the statement said. Volunteers will record and process all artifacts uncovered during excavations and store them in “archival quality” materials in the collections of the Willamette Heritage Center.

The project is partially funded by a grant from Oregon Heritage, the state’s office of historic preservation, awarded to Willamette University.

-Ardeshir Tabrizian

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