According to Forbes, Willamette University has often been followed with the title “Oldest University in the West,” but this can mean many different things depending on what you define as the West. In order to understand why WU is considered to hold this title, one must first look at the history of this school.
According to WU’s website, WU was first founded by the missionary Jason Lee as a Methodist mission in 1834. It’s mission was to educate the local Native children. However, it failed because of the missionaries lacked a lot of cultural understanding of the area. Then in 1841, the institution became the Indian Manual Labor Training School, but it was eventually closed by the Methodist Mission Board in 1844. After being renamed the Oregon Institute, it became Willamette University on Feb. 1, 1842. The year of its foundation is why WU is considered the oldest university in the West.
“I’ve not found any information that contradicts the claim that Willamette was the first university in the West, and I’ve only seen confirming sources over the years,” said Media Relations and Director Adam Torgerson.
However, there are several different sources that define what is considered the western part of the United States, as well as which school is the oldest in the West. These differences can vary from site to site, and are often difficult to clearly define.
If the West is just considered the West Coast, then WU is the oldest in the West since it is closely followed in age by only two other colleges.Business Insider reports that the oldest university in Oregon is Willamette University in 1842, followed by Santa Clara University in California in 1851 and the University of Washington in Seattle in 1861.
One common way to define the regions of the United States are the boundaries drawn by the U.S. Census Bureau. Since the 1950’s, the U.S. Census Bureau has continually maintained that the United States is divided into four main regions and nine subregions. The fourth region of the U.S., the West, consists of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. However, the West can be further divided into two sections: the West Coast and the Mountain Division.
The trouble here is that WU has used “the West” differently. In one of WU’s MBA brochures, WU is claimed to be the “first university west of the Mississippi River.” But if we use this for the basis of information, Saint Louis University, founded in 1818, would be the first university founded in the west, not WU. This is followed by Southwestern University, founded in 1840; only two years before the founding of WU.
The trouble here is that WU has used “the West” differently. In one of WU’s MBA brochures, WU is claimed to be the “first university west of the Mississippi River.” But if we use this for the basis of information, Saint Louis University, would be the first university founded in the west, not WU.
These conflicting definitions do not help in clarification of which university is the oldest one, but does confirm that WU isn’t the only one around. WU may be the oldest university on the West Coast, but it certainly isn’t the oldest in the western United States.