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Sheldon Jackson was born at Minaville, Montgomery County, New York on May 18, 1834.  He was a son of Samuel Clinton and Delia (Sheldon) Jackson, and grandson of Samuel and Louisa (Heyer) Jackson, and of Dr. Alexander and Miriam (King) Sheldon.  Samuel Jackson came from England about 1790.  Dr. Alexander Sheldon was speaker of the New York state assembly for six terms and the last speaker to wear officially the cocked hat of the Revolution.  He was descended from Isaac Sheldon, who settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts, early in the seventeenth century, and whose son Isaac is represented in history as removing from Windsor, Connecticut, in 1654.

Sheldon graduated from Union College in 1855 and from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1858.  He married Mary Voorhees on May 18, 1858, his 24th birthday.

He applied to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions for assignment to Siam or Columbia, only to be turned down because he was “lacking in physique.” He stood just slightly over five feet tall.  Undaunted, Jackson turned his missionary zeal toward the American frontier.  In the course of his missionary career, Jackson would travel almost a million miles in  Minnesota, the Rocky Mountain states, and Alaska. He went on foot and horseback, by railroad and stagecoach, by sailboat and canoe, and even by ox cart and reindeer sled.  He survived severe snowstorms, shipwrecks and Indian uprisings. Three times newspapers reported his death prematurely and once they printed his obituary.

He was a missionary to the Choctaws, 1858-59, and Presbyterian home missionary in western Wisconsin and southern Minnesota, with headquarters at La Crescent, Minnesota from 1859-1864. During the fall of 1863, in the service of the Christian commission, he served in the hospitals of southern Tennessee and northern Alabama. Jackson was pastor at Rochester, Minnesota, 1864-69; superintendent of the Presbyterian board of home missions for western territories, 1869-70; superintendent of the board of home missions for Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Montana, 1870-82; business manager of the Home Mission Magazine, New York City, 1882-84, and U.S. agent to supply the training schools for Indians at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Hampton, Virginia, with Native children from New Mexico and Arizona, 1879-80.

In 1877 Reverend Jackson came to Alaska and was the first Presbyterian missionary to do so.  He never settled in Alaska, nor did he spend a great deal of time there as an actual missionary.  But, Jackson adopted the neglected territory and until his death, became totally committed to the spiritual, educational, and economic well-being of the people of Alaska. 

Jackson worked continually for admission of Alaska as a state to the union and laid the foundations for that to happen. Recognizing the importance of close contact with the nation's capital, he moved to Washington D.C. and was the first and perhaps the most effective lobbyist Alaska ever had. He educated Americans about the territory and helped establish a nature society. By publicizing Alaska's needs, he spearheaded passage of the Organic Act of 1884, hoping to include both civil government legislation and a proposed public educational system in the same act for Alaska. The act provided Alaska with a United States District Court staffed by a judge, a marshal, a district attorney, and four commissioners, all appointed by the President.

The act also provided the one thing that Sheldon Jackson wanted most -- federal aid for education in Alaska. Jackson soon nominated himself and received the official designation as the General Agent for Education for Alaska with an office in Washington, DC. He displayed the same energy towards establishing schools that he showed previously in organizing churches.  Jackson organized a free school system for Native American, Eskimo, and white children. He succeeded in the next 20 years in bringing school facilities to all corners of Alaska. To get the task done, Jackson recruited missionaries to open schools in the isolated areas of the territory.  Under Jackson's system, separation of church and state vanished in Alaska for a considerable period of time. Missionaries were paid from government educational funds to run their schools, while the goal of their teaching was not only to educate but to evangelize.

Reverend Jackson soon found himself coordinating two types of schools. Several denominations had already started mission schools. Jackson drew up written agreements with the Interior Secretary designating them as "contract schools," sometimes receiving partial financial support from the government. In addition to mission schools that directed their efforts to the native population, Jackson started 'public day schools" in Juneau, Sitka, and other cities with mixed populations.  In spite of his powerful contacts in Washington, a large portion of the financial support for the schools in Alaska continued to be provided by religious groups. Jackson did not restrict his appeals to Presbyterians. Other Protestant denominations soon were involved in the Alaska missionary effort.

Active in Alaskan politics, Jackson aided in organizing Alaska's territorial government and establishing mail routes. He was the moving spirit in the "missionary" party.  Another early Presbyterian missionary, John Brady, was appointed governor of the territory. Together with Brady, Jackson became such a strong force in Alaska that at times the territory was accused of being run by the Presbyterian Church.

With the decline of seal hunting, many groups of Aleuts and Inuits had fallen on very hard times.  Concerned that the Aleuts were facing poverty and starvation, Jackson made what was probably his greatest contribution to the people he loved. In 1892, in an effort to supplement dwindling food resources, he introduced domesticated reindeer from Siberia into Alaska, 171 reindeer being imported that year. This move was bitterly contested by those who opposed helping the Aleuts. But his eventual success is credited with saving the Aleuts from extinction as well as creating a major meat industry. He made numerous trips into Siberia and imported nearly 1300 reindeer to bolster the livelihoods of Alaskan Eskimos.  From 1897-98 Jackson was sent by the general government to Lapland and Norway, where he secured a number of reindeer and Lapp attendants. By further importations and the natural increase, the herd had grown in 1905 to 10,241 in number.

Jackson  traveled extensively throughout Alaska, and collected representative items as he journeyed. He worried that native cultures and their arts and ways of life would vanish, with no records of their past. His collections became the foundation for a museum of natural history and ethnology in Sitka. Today the Sheldon Jackson Museum, located at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, houses many of Jackson's pieces, as well as other examples of Tlingit, Eskimo, and Aleut culture.

In the spring of 1895 Jackson gave $50,000 to establish a Christian college at Salt Lake City, Utah. He was commissioner to the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States seven times, and in 1897 was elected moderator. He assisted in the organization of two synods and seven large presbyteries. He organized the first Protestant (Presbyterian) churches and public schools in Alaska and assisted the missionary societies of the several denominations in the establishment of Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Moravian, Quaker and Swedish Evangelical churches.

Although a public official, Jackson was still a minister of the Gospel.  Between 1869 and 1900 he delivered over 3000 missionary addresses. He founded and was owner and editor of the Rocky Mountain Presbyterian, published at Denver, Colorado, 1872-82, and also founded and was owner and editor of the North Star at Sitka, Alaska, 1887-93. He organized the Alaska Society of Natural History and Ethnology in 1887; became vice-president of the Alaska Historical Society and also of the American Sabbath Union, and an officer and member at different times of about thirty scientific, historical and literary societies. He received the degree of D.D. from Hanover College in 1874 and that of LL.D. from Union University, Schenectady, New York in 1897.

He authored numerous published governmental and religious reports reports on education, missions, and economic conditions in Alaska, some of which are: Alaska and Missions on the North Pacific Coast (1880); Annual Reports on Education in Alaska (1881-1900); Difficulties at Sitka in 1885 (1886); and Annual Reports on the Introduction of Domestic Reindeer into Alaska (1890-1900).

Reverend Sheldon Jackson died in Washington, D.C. on May 2, 1909 following surgery.  He is buried in the Florida Reformed Church cemetery in Minaville, New York along with his wife, children, parents, brothers, and sisters, - a multitude of kindred.  He was present at the centennial of the formation of the church in 1908, and delivered an historical address.

Throughout his career, Sheldon Jackson was controversial. Supported financially by Presbyterian matrons in the East, he was ridiculed and feared by hard-drinking sourdoughs of Alaska. He was egotistical and often tactless, but persistent and aware of how to apply political pressure. His strongest supporters admitted that he was no angel; his severest critics were amazed at what he was able to accomplish.


Herringshaw, Thomas William. Herringshaw's Encyclopedia of American Biography of the Nineteenth Century, Chicago, IL: American Publishers' Association, 1902, p. 523.
Johnson, Rossiter, ed. Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. Volumes I-X. Boston, MA: The Biographical Society, 1904, p.  28.
Library of Congress. Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910.  Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1999.
Minnesota Historical Society. Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Volume 15. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1872-1920.
Tower, Elizabeth A., Reading, Religion, and Reindeer: Sheldon Jackson's Legacy to Alaska.  Anchorage, AK: 1988.