George Henry Atkinson was an early Oregon missionary and educator who founded Pacific University. He was also involved in the creation of the public school system in Oregon.
Atkinson was born on May 10, 1819 in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1843 and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1846. He married his wife, Nancy Bates, the same year. One year later, they travelled as missionaries to the Oregon Territory via ship around Cape Horn. The Atkinsons initially settled in Oregon City, where he helped to organize and build its Congregationalist Church. He would serve as its minister for 15 years. There he would help to found the Clackamas Female Seminary, an early women's college that survived for a few years before shutting down due to lack of funds. At the same time, Atkinson was involved in developing public education in Oregon. He authored the state's first school law in 1849, modelling its organization on New England schools. Atkinson would later serve as the first superintendent of schools in Clackamas County, and then as the superintendent for Multnomah County.
In 1849, Atkinson helped to write the charter for Tualatin Academy in Forest Grove, along with co-founders Tabitha Brown and Harvey Clark. Tualatin Academy was a secondary school open to both male and female students; mostly the children of pioneers from the Oregon Trail. Atkinson was instrumental in adding a post-secondary wing named Pacific University to the school several years later. He continued to work in the interests of Tualatin Academy and Pacific University for the rest of his life. As a member of the Board of Trustees, he helped to recruit and hire much of its faculty, including its first president, Sidney Harper Marsh.
In his later years, Atkinson worked to retain an off-reservation boarding school for Native American children in Forest Grove. The Indian Industrial Training School, which opened in 1880, housed children who were taken from tribes in Washington, Alaska, and other areas of the Pacific Northwest. The children were taught trades such as farming, blacksmithing and domestic work, and were taught to talk and dress like white Americans. Atkinson attempted to keep the school, which was under the control of the Indian Affairs section of the Department of the Interior, near Pacific University, which supported its operations. Ultimately, the school was moved to a location near Salem in 1885, where it was renamed the Chemawa Indian School.
George Atkinson died on February 25, 1889.