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Sheldon Jackson (May 18, 1834 – May 2, 1909) was a Presbyterian minister, missionary, and political leader. During this career he travelled about one million miles (1.6 million km) and established more than one hundred missions and churches, mostly in the Western United States. He is best remembered for his extensive work in Colorado and thereafter during the final quarter of the 19th century in the massive, rugged, and remote Alaska Territory, which in 1959 would become the 49th U.S. state of Alaska, and his efforts to suppress Native American languages.

Sheldon Jackson
Sheldon Jackson.jpg
Sheldon Jackson (c. 1895)
Born(1834-05-18)May 18, 1834
DiedMay 2, 1909(1909-05-02) (aged 74)
Resting placeMinaville, New York
ResidenceIncluding, among others:

LaCrescent, Minnesota
Denver, Colorado
Park County, Colorado

Sitka, Alaska
Alma materUnion College
Princeton Theological Seminary
OccupationPresbyterian clergyman
Spouse(s)Mary Vorhees Jackson (married 1858)
Parent(s)Delia Sheldon Jackson (mother)
RelativesAlexander Sheldon (grandfather)


Youth, education, early careerEdit

Sheldon Jackson was born in 1834 in Minaville in Montgomery County in eastern New York. His mother Delia (Sheldon) Jackson was a daughter of New York State Assembly Speaker Alexander Sheldon.

Jackson graduated in 1855 from Union College in Schenectady, New York, and from the Presbyterian Church's Princeton Theological Seminary in 1858. That same year, he became an ordained Presbyterian minister and married the former Mary Vorhees.[1]

He wanted to become a missionary overseas, but the Presbyterian board told the 5-foot Jackson, who had weak eyesight and was often ill, that he would be better suited for duty in the United States.[2] He hence first worked in the north-central and western United States, which were still vast and lightly populated areas during the American Civil War and thereafter. Jackson's first assignment was at the Choctaw mission in Oklahoma Territory, where he worked until poor health forced him to go back East in 1859. After his recovery he was appointed to La Crescent in Houston County in southeastern Minnesota, where he extended his field hundreds of miles beyond the actual station. He spent ten years in Minnesota and Wisconsin, having organized or assisted in the establishment of twenty-three churches.[1]

Jackson's travels took him throughout the American West. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, a huge territory was opened to him. In the summer of 1869, Jackson went on a missionary tour using the railroad and stage lines, establishing a church a day.[1]

Based in Denver, Jackson became the Presbyterian missions superintendent for Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah Territory, Arizona Territory, and New Mexico Territory. He published from 1872 to 1882 the Rocky Mountain Presbyterian denominational newspaper, which included pictures of places in the West. Ultimately Jackson supervised the building of churches in at least twenty-two Colorado locations, including Greeley, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Monument, Ouray, and Fairplay in Park County in the central portion of the state. He frequently visited frontier areas to preach, such as the mining camp on Mount Bross in South Park, Colorado.[2]

A friend once said of Jackson and his dedication to the cause of Jesus Christ: "He would not hesitate if he thought he could save an old-hardened sinner, to mount a locomotive and let fly a Gospel message at a group by the wayside while going at a speed of forty miles an hour." [2]

However, an area of the United States even more challenging awaited him.

North to AlaskaEdit

Map showing Alaska position relative to lower 48 states
Photograph of Sheldon Jackson, third from right, on USS Bear

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 U.S. 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".[3]

In 1877, Jackson began his work in Alaska. He became 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 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 law enforcement officer of the U.S. government in the vast territory.[4] In his twenty years of service between San Francisco and Point Barrow, 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.[5] 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".[5] The Bear and Captain Healy were reportedly an inspiration for author Jack London, and feature prominently, along with Jackson, in James A. Michener's famous novel about Alaska.

Captain Healy and the 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.[6] 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.[6]

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 his own educational efforts accelerated), 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.

Education policyEdit

In 1885, Jackson was appointed General Agent of Education in the Alaska Territory.[7] 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."[8] (emphasis added)

The legacy of Jackson's educational policy is clearly evident in the now moribund state of Alaska's indigenous languages.[9] 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.[10]

Jackson was arrested and jailed in Sitka, for obstructing a public highway with a fence and building used for a school that he had constructed for the education of Indian children. The officials who charged him did not want the Indians educated. But the next year, President Grover Cleveland, Harrison's political rival, fired four territorial officials responsible for Jackson's arrest and dismissed the false charges against Jackson.[2]

Death and legacyEdit

Jackson died on May 2, 1909, in Asheville, North Carolina, sixteen days short of his 75th birthday. He had been planning a trip to Denver at the time of his death to attend meetings three weeks later of the Presbyterian general assembly, to visit some of the chapels that he had built in Colorado, and to renew acquaintances with old friends. He is interred in his hometown of Minaville, New York.[2]

The former Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska was named after him. 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).

In 1874, while in Fairplay in Park County, Colorado, Jackson built the still standing Sheldon Jackson Memorial Chapel, renamed the South Park Community Church, a one-room Victorian Gothic structure, listed in 1977 on the National Register of Historic Places.[2]

Archival collectionsEdit

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.

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 maintains three to four thousand Alaskan artifacts collected by Jackson during his lifetime.


  1. ^ a b c "Guide to the Sheldon Jackson Papers".
  2. ^ a b c d e f Laura King Van Dusen, "Sheldon Jackson's Fairplay Church: One of More than One Hundred in Western U.S.; Jackson Arrested, Jailed in Alaska; Contributed to Settlement of the West", Historic Tales from Park County: Parked in the Past (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2013), ISBN 978-1-62619-161-7, pp. 69-77.
  3. ^ Have you been to the "polar bear garden"? The Wise Guide
  4. ^ "Captain Michael A. Healy, USRCS".
  5. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-07-24. Retrieved 2008-12-12.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ a b "Passing free - BCM - Summer 2003".
  7. ^ "Sheldon Jackson in Historical Perspective".
  8. ^ Dauenhauer, Richard. 1982. Two missions to Alaska. Pacific Historian 26(1).29-41.
  9. ^ Krauss, Michael E. 1980. Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present, and Future. (Alaska Native Language Center Research Paper 4). Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
  10. ^ 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.


Further readingEdit

  • 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

External linksEdit