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Reverend Sheldon Jackson (1834–1909) was a Presbyterian missionary who also became a political leader. During this career he travelled about 1 million miles (1.6 million km) and established over 100 missions and churches in the Western United States. He is best remembered for his extensive work during the final quarter of the 19th century in the massive, rugged and remote U.S. territory which in 1959 would become the 49th state, Alaska.

Contents

Youth, education, early career

Sheldon Jackson was born in 1834 in Minaville, in the Town of Florida, in Montgomery County, New York. He graduated from Union College in 1855, and from the Presbyterian Church's Princeton Theological Seminary in 1858. He became an ordained Presbyterian minister.

As he began his extensive missionary career, Reverend Jackson first worked in the north-central and western United States, which were still vast and lightly populated areas during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and in the years soon thereafter. His work there helped establish dozens of new congregations churches. However, an area of the United States even more challenging awaited him.

North to Alaska

Map of USA highlighting Alaska.png

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 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".[1]

In 1877, Jackson began his work in Alaska. He became very 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 and caring 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 federal government’s law enforcement presence in the vast territory.[2] In his twenty years of service between San Francisco and Point Barrrow, 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.[3] 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".[4] The Bear and Captain Healy were reportedly inspirations for author Jack London's famous novels of the Alaska Territory.

Captain Healy and 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.[5] 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 ironically his own educational efforts would accelerate), 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.

Death, legacy

Sheldon Jackson died in 1909. Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska is named after him.

Also, 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.

References

Works

Additional reading

  • Alaska and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service: 1867-1915, By Truman R. Strobridge, Dennis L. Noble, Published by Naval Institute Press, 1999, ISBN 1557508453
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