Sheldon Jackson (1834–1909) was a Presbyterian missionary who also became a political leader. During this career he travelled about 1 million miles (1.6 million km) and established over 100 missions and churches in the Western United States. He is best remembered for his extensive work during the final quarter of the 19th century in the massive, rugged and remote U.S. territory which in 1959 would become the 49th state, Alaska.
Youth, education, early career
Jackson graduated from Union College in 1855, and from the Presbyterian Church's Princeton Theological Seminary in 1858. He became an ordained Presbyterian minister. In that same year, he also married Mary Vorhees.
As he began his extensive missionary career, Reverend Jackson first worked in the north-central and western United States, which were still vast and lightly populated areas during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and in the years soon thereafter. Sheldon Jackson's first assignment was the Choctaw mission where he worked until poor health forced him to go back East in 1859. After his recovery he was appointed to LaCrescent, Minnesota, where he extended his field hundreds of miles beyond the actual station. He spent ten years in Minnesota and Wisconsin, organizing or assisting in the organization of twenty-three churches.
Jackson's travels took him to Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. He also traveled to Arizona, Mexico, Texas and Nevada. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the later part of the 1860s, a huge territory was opened to Jackson. In the summer of 1869 Jackson went on a missionary tour using the railroad and stage lines, establishing a church a day.
However, an area of the United States even more challenging awaited him.
North to Alaska
Reverend Jackson found his major life's work in the new territory of Alaska. In 1867, US Secretary of State William H. Seward, during the administration of President Andrew Johnson, had negotiated the Alaska Purchase from Russia. The huge territory, with 20,000 miles of coastline, was initially called by many skeptics "Seward's Folly".
In 1877, Jackson began his work in Alaska. He became very committed to the Christian spiritual, educational, and economic wellbeing of the Alaska Natives. He founded numerous schools and training centers that served these native people. His protégés included the Rev. Edward Marsden, a Tsimshian missionary among the Tlingit.
Reverend Jackson had considerable common ground with another important American in the region. Captain Michael A. Healy of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, commander of the USRC Bear, was also known for his concern and caring for the native Alaskan Eskimos. During this time, Captain Healy, who had been the first African American to command a U.S. ship, was essentially the federal government’s law enforcement presence in the vast territory. In his twenty years of service between San Francisco and Point Barrrow, he acted as a judge, doctor, and policeman to Alaskan Natives, merchant seamen and whaling crews. His ship also carried doctors and provided the only available trained medical care to many isolated communities. The Native people throughout the vast regions of the north came to know and respect this skipper and called his ship "Healy's Fire Canoe". The Bear and Captain Healy were reportedly inspirations for author Jack London's famous novels of the Alaska Territory.
Captain Healy and Reverend Jackson became allies of a sort. During visits to Siberia (across the Bering Sea from the Alaskan coast), Healy had observed that the Chukchi people in the remote Asian area had domesticated reindeer and used them for food, travel, and clothing. With the reductions in the seal and whale populations which had arisen from growing commercial fishing activities, and to aid Eskimos for transportation, Reverend Jackson and Captain Healy made numerous trips into Siberia and helped import nearly 1,300 reindeer to bolster the livelihoods of Native people. These became valuable tools in the provision of food, clothing and other necessities for Native peoples. This work was noted in the New York Sun newspaper in 1894.
While Captain Healy was more of a law enforcement officer, Jackson was a humanitarian. Convinced that Americanization was the key to their future, Jackson actively discouraged the use of indigenous languages, traditional cultures and spiritualities. Because he was worried that Native cultures would vanish with no records of their past (a process which ironically his own educational efforts would accelerate), he collected artifacts from those cultures on his many trips throughout the region.
Jackson believed that political means would further his goals for the Alaskan people. He became a close friend of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison. He worked toward the passage of the Organic Act of 1884, which ensured that Alaska would begin to set up a judicial system and receive aid for education. As a result, Sheldon Jackson became the First General Agent of Education in Alaska.
In 1885 Jackson was appointed General Agent of Education for the then newly acquired Territory of Alaska. Concurrent with the values of the expanding colonial administration, Jackson undertook a policy of deliberate acculturation. In particular, Jackson advocated an English-only policy which forbade the use of indigenous languages. In allocating $25,000 of federal education monies in 1888 he wrote, "[N]o books in any Indian language shall be used, or instruction given in that language to Indian pupils." In a letter to newly hired teachers in 1887 he wrote:
- It is the purpose of the government in establishing schools in Alaska to train up English speaking American citizens. You will therefore teach in English and give special prominence to instruction in the English language…. [Y]our teaching should be pervaded by the spirit of the Bible." (emphasis added)
The legacy of Jackson's educational policy is clearly evident in the now moribund state of Alaska's indigenous languages. Decades of punishment for speaking Native languages resulted in greatly decreased transmission, with the result that few indigenous Alaskans still speak indigenous languages in the 21st century.
Also, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, located on the Sheldon Jackson College grounds, is the oldest concrete building in the state, and houses much of Sheldon Jackson's collection as well as other examples of Tlingit, Inuit, and Aleut culture.
Sheldon Jackson Street is found in the College Village subdivision of Anchorage, a neighborhood next to the University of Alaska Anchorage campus where the streets are named for colleges and universities (the street forms a loop with Emory Street).
The Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a collection of Jackson’s correspondence, journals, photographs, photographs, scrapbooks, notebooks and miscellaneous indices and ephemera. Additional correspondence by Sheldon Jackson is also held at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Among Jackson’s personal papers include photographs by Eadweard Muybridge and H.H. Brodeck. The Presbyterian Historical Society also holds the Sheldon Jackson Library, which was Jackson’s personal library donated by him to the historical society. The Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska maintains three to four thousand Alaskan artifacts collected by Jackson during his lifetime.
- Presbyterian Historical Society Finding Aid to the Sheldon Jackson Papers
- Finding Aid to the Sheldon Jackson Papers
- Finding Aid to the Sheldon Jackson Papers
- Have you been to the "polar bear garden"? The loc.gov Wise Guide
- Haycox, Stephen. 1984. Sheldon Jackson in historical perspective: Alaska Native schools and mission contracts, 1885-1894. Pacific Historian 28(1).18-27. 
- Dauenhauer, Richard. 1982. Two missions to Alaska. Pacific Historian 26(1).29-41.
- Krauss, Michael E. 1980. Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present, and Future. (Alaska Native Language Center Research Paper 4). Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
- Krauss, Michael E. 2007. Native languages of Alaska. The Vanishing Voices of the Pacific Rim, ed. by O. Miyaoka, O. Sakiyama & M.E. Krauss. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Alaska, and missions on the north Pacific coast (1880; Digitized page images & text)
- Alaska and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service: 1867–1915, By Truman R. Strobridge, Dennis L. Noble, Published by Naval Institute Press, 1999, ISBN 1-55750-845-3