Presbytery of Yukon
(Presbyterian Church U.S.A.)
An Aggressive Man
"God Bless Agressiveness," Sheldon Jackson
In 1857, shortly before his graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary, Sheldon Jackson 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." Young Sheldon accepted the challenge of home missions instead, demonstrating over the next half century that, though standing only slightly over five feet, he could become a giant among men.
Whenever a new frontier opened, Jackson was there, traveling almost a million miles in the course of his missionary work 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.
Jackson established over a hundred churches and missions, including the first Presbyterian churches in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, and Alaska. Although Sheldon Jackson never settled in Alaska, he adopted that neglected northern outpost as his main focus of attention from 1877 until his death in 1909. 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. By publicizing Alaska's needs, he spearheaded passage of the Organic Act of 1884 and the beginning of a public education system. His successful introduction of reindeer into western Alaska may have save the Eskimo race from extinction.
Throughout his career, Sheldon Jackson was controversial. Lionized and supported financially by Presbyterian matrons in the East, he was ridiculed and feared by hard-drinking sourdoughs of the northern frontier. 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.
Sheldon married Mary Voorhees on May 18, 1858, his 24th birthday. He was first sent to work as a teacher in a Choctaw Indian school in Spencer, Oklahoma. Later, he worked in Minnesota before resigning to do "general work in the Church of the West."
Sheldon Jackson and Amanda R. McFarland arrived on August 10, 1877, at Fort Wrangell, where a crude mission and school were directed by a Tsimshian Indian named Clah. Assured of financial support by Jackson, Mrs. McFarland agreed to stay at Fort Wrangell to help Clah, who soon died of tuberculosis.
Jackson lobbied for the Organic Act of 1884, hoping to include both civil government legislation and a proposed 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 in Alaska. He displayed the same energy towards establishing schools that he showed previously in organizing churches.
He 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. Distinguishing between these two types of schools was difficult because Jackson made a special point of recruiting teachers with "missionary spirit". 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.
Sheldon Jackson notes from Reading, Religion, and Reindeer: Sheldon Jackson's Legacy to Alaska, by Elizabeth A. Tower, 1988, Anchorage, AK.
Return to History Index