Born in the town of Florida hamlet of Minaville in 1834 and buried at the hamlet’s Chuctanunda Cemetery in 1909, Sheldon Jackson had a major impact on Alaska.
Many praise Jackson for improving conditions for Alaska’s native peoples. He was called the “dynamic St. Paul of America” in Daily Gazette coverage of his achievements in 1934. Elizabeth Tower wrote a sympathetic biography of the missionary in 1988.
Time Magazine in 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the 49th state, and placed Jackson as number two on a list of the top 10 Alaskans. The magazine praised him for “setting up free public schools for Native American, Eskimo and white children.”
In recent years, however, some academics and native people have criticized, for example, Jackson’s English-only approach to educating native speakers. Professor Stephen Haycox of the University of Alaska said Jackson’s efforts were a detriment to native languages. Jackson also has been faulted for his dealings with Native Americans and Mormons in the lower 48 states.
Jackson was the son of a prosperous Minaville farmer and legislator, Samuel C. Jackson, and his wife, Delia Sheldon Jackson, daughter of state Assembly Speaker Alexander Sheldon.
Samuel C. Jackson’s father was a merchant, farmer, legislator and military officer also named Samuel Jackson.
The family name was given to the Erie Canal community of Port Jackson in 1835. Port Jackson was later annexed by the city of Amsterdam and is known today as the city’s South Side.
Sheldon Jackson’s family members were devout Presbyterians. He 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.
Rev. Jackson wanted to be a foreign missionary but was turned down by the church because of concerns for his poor eyesight and short stature — he was just 5 feet tall.
Instead, he became a missionary on the American frontier. He established more than 100 churches and missions, including the first Presbyterian churches in Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Arizona. He traveled more than a million miles in his career.
In 1877, Jackson went north to Alaska and, although he never permanently lived there, was appointed superintendent of education in the territory in 1885.
Jackson found the native people were starving. American whalemen had decimated the population of whales and walruses the natives depended on for food. The introduction of firearms also decimated fur-bearing animals in the interior.
Jackson visited Siberia and found the indigenous people there relied on domesticated reindeer for food. Jackson raised funds to introduce reindeer herds in Alaska.
Sent by the U.S. government to Lapland and Norway in 1898, he purchased more than 500 reindeer and secured a colony of Laplanders to look after the animals until Alaskan natives were trained in how to raise reindeer.
He collected native artifacts and his collection was the basis for the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, which he helped create in 1888. Rosemary Carlton, in a 2006 article, however, called into question what she called 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., where he served with the Alaskan division of the U.S. Bureau of Education. His wife died in 1908. Jackson died the next year.
In 1955, teacher Florence Collins and her class of fifth-graders from Amsterdam’s Vrooman Avenue School produced two programs on the native peoples of Alaska and Sheldon Jackson that aired live on WRGB television.
As one of her students that year, I wore a parka and carried a small harpoon on television.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]