Posted on Jun 12, 2008



Recent news of the closing of Sheldon Jackson College in southern Alaska has caused some to wonder about the man for whom it was named.

The Rev. Sheldon Jackson in May 1899. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska State Library Photograph Collection.)

He was the Rev. Sheldon Jackson, Class of 1855, Presbyterian missionary, health and education advocate for Alaska’s natives and reindeer importer. Much is known of William Henry Seward, Class of 1820, who rose to Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln and became a key driver in the purchase of what would become the 49th state. Jackson is a less well-known figure but is vitally important to Alaska’s history. Jackson, a native of Minaville in New York’s Mohawk Valley, was born May 18, 1834. He arrived at Union in 1852 as an 18-year-old sophomore, and, according to letters to his parents, immersed himself in the academic and spiritual offerings.

“We recite Greek at 6 a.m., Latin at 11, Botany at 2 p.m., Trigonometry at 4 and have chapel at 5,” he wrote in one letter.

He became a student leader, was elected clerk of the House of Representatives of Union College, vice president of the Adelphic Literary Society, and a member of the Geological Society.

Many letters refer to his interest in religious life. He wrote of chapel services and prayer meetings in his room. In his junior year, he received communion at a Presbyterian church near his hometown and after graduating from Union took up the study of the gospel ministry at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. That experience cemented his desire to pursue missionary work.

“A feeling came upon him which he had never had before, that he should relinquish everything for Christ and be content to labor amidst the greatest deprivations and dangers, if only he could win souls to Christ,” wrote Willard E. Rice, minister of the Union Presbyterian Church in the pamphlet, Sheldon Jackson: Union Worthies Number Fifteen (Union College, 1960).

He was ordained in Albany at a service presided over by Union President Eliphalet Nott in 1858. Three weeks later, Jackson married Mary Voorhees and the couple set out for an assignment from the Presbyterian Board to work with the Choctaw tribe in what is now Oklahoma. Jackson suffered ill health in what was then a malarial area, so he was moved to remote Minnesota, where by 1869 he had launched some 200 new churches.

But he would find another calling in Alaska, a territory purchased by the federal government from Russian Empire in 1867 through the labors of Seward. A writer in the Union Alumni Monthly in 1912 suggested that Jackson ultimately vindicated “Seward’s Folly.”

For a decade after the purchase of Alaska, little was done for the native peoples in terms of education, government and alleviation of poverty. Jackson established a mission in 1877 in Wrangell, Alaska. In nearby Sitka, he launched a church and a boys industrial school for Tlingit Indians in an old military barracks. He also traveled north along the coast, above the Arctic Circle, finally to Point Barrow, where he established a church, a school and a hospital.

The school in Sitka became a boarding school in 1917 and Sheldon Jackson College in 1944. Before closing down in July 2007, Sheldon Jackson College was the oldest educational institution in continuous existence in Alaska. The college had about 100 students and 100 staff and faculty and closed due to excessive debt.

In the mid-1880s, Jackson was appointed general agent for education in Alaska by the U.S. government, a position he held for 23 years. When he resigned, he was credited for advancing the cause of education among natives.

Perhaps his most unexpected role came in response to the lack of food for the Eskimo. Jackson found the solution in the importation and domestication of reindeer. Undaunted by ice flows, ridicule and lack of funds, he raised $2,000 to begin a program to import animals from Siberia and Norway. Congress, convinced of the merits, appropriated funds to import 1,200 reindeer.

Jackson found time for other projects too. He inaugurated the first canoe mail service in 1883. He founded the Alaskan Society of Natural History and his collection of native artifacts is today the Sheldon Jackson Museum. The museum erected with Jackson’s help in 1897 was the first concrete building in the state and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

In 1901, still plagued by ill health, Jackson handed over his Alaskan work to his colleagues and took up a leadership post in the Presbyterian Church. He died in 1909 in Asheville, N.C., and was laid to rest in Minaville.