FOCUS ON HISTORY: Sheldon Jackson, Mohawk Valley’s reindeer man

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Mohawk Valley native Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary, had a major impact on life in Alaska.

Born in in 1834 in the hamlet of Minaville in the town of Florida, Jackson was the son of farmer and legislator Samuel C. Jackson and his wife, Delia Sheldon Jackson, daughter of New York state Assembly Speaker Alexander Sheldon.

The Jackson name was bestowed on the Erie Canal community of Port Jackson in 1835. Port Jackson was later annexed by the city of Amsterdam and is known today as Amsterdam’s South Side.

Jackson attended Union College and Princeton Theological Seminary. He was graduated, ordained and married within one week in 1858. His wife was Mary Voorhees from Mill Point in Glen. 

Jackson wanted to be a foreign missionary but was turned down by the Presbyterian Church because of poor eyesight and short stature — he was five feet tall. 

According to Troy genealogy/history researcher Rebecca Rector, who provided information for this column, the Albany Times Union reported that Jackson “was diminutive in nature, but became fairly sturdy by forcing himself into the rugged life.” 

Instead of becoming a foreign missionary, Jackson served on the American frontier. He established over 100 churches and missions, including the first Presbyterian churches in Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Arizona. 

In 1877, Jackson went to Alaska and, although he never permanently lived there, was appointed superintendent of education in 1885.

Some academics and native people have criticized Jackson’s English-only approach to education. Professor Stephen Haycox of the University of Alaska said Jackson’s efforts were a detriment to native languages. 

Jackson found the indigenous people were starving. American whalemen had destroyed the whales and walruses the natives depended on for food. The introduction of firearms decimated fur-bearing land animals.

Jackson was editor of the North Star monthly newspaper in Sitka, Alaska. In 1888 North Star reported, “The neglected condition of these [Native] people lay like a heavy weight upon the large and loving heart of Dr. Sheldon Jackson.”

Jackson visited Siberia and found people there relied on domesticated reindeer for food. He raised funds to introduce reindeer herds in Alaska. 

Sent by the U.S. government to Lapland and Norway, he purchased over 500 reindeer and secured a colony of Laplanders to look after the animals until Alaskans were trained in how to raise reindeer. 

Jackson said that “the reindeer is to the far North what the camel is to desert regions.” Union College honored Alaska’s “Reindeer Man” at their 1900 Founders Day. The Schenectady Gazette called Jackson the “dynamic St. Paul of America.”

Jackson collected Alaskan artifacts and this collection became the basis for the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Rosemary Carlton, in a 2006 article, called into question what she said was Jackson’s “duplicitous” collection of traditional artifacts from native peoples he had worked hard to change. 

Toward the end of his life Jackson lived in Washington, D.C., working for the Alaskan division of the U.S. Bureau of Education. His wife died in 1908. Jackson died the next year and is buried in Minaville’s Chuctanunda Cemetery.

Biographer Robert L. Stewart said Jackson was able to “triumph over physical weakness when sustained by high purpose and unfaltering hope.”

Jackson’s daughter, Delia S. Jackson, was a founder of the National Women’s Party, a leader in the fight for women’s suffrage. She died in Washington in 1952.

Time Magazine in 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the 49th state, and placed Jackson as number two on a list of top 10 Alaskans. The magazine praised him for “setting up free public schools for Native American, Eskimo and white children.”

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, Opinion

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