Three times during his active life, newspapers reported Sheldon Jackson's death. Once they even printed his obituary. The heroic missionary finally accommodated the newspapers on this day, May 2, 1909, when he did actually die after an operation.
Sheldon became a missionary in United States territory because his Presbyterian mission board turned him down when he asked to go overseas. He was lacking in physique, they said. And it is true that he had weak eyes and was frequently sick.
The young man proved them wrong. Although barely five feet tall, Sheldon was a dynamo of energy. No other missionary could top his achievement in the Americas. Beginning his work as a teacher with Choctaw Indians in Oklahoma, he planted over 100 Presbyterian churches in ten states or territories--Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. As if that were not enough, he set up schools in Arizona and New Mexico.
But the work for which he is best remembered began on another frontier: Alaska. After organizing churches and schools for his mission in this northern territory, the hard-working missionary accepted a government position as General Agent of Education in Alaska.
At that time, the U. S. government sought to assimilate Native Americans. It saw education as the best way to do this. In many areas, Indian children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools. Although Sheldon agreed that assimilation was needed, he refused to break up families, certain it would do irreversible harm. Instead, he opened schools in Eskimo villages. The government realized it did not have enough money to build all the necessary schools. And so, with full legal authority, Sheldon contracted with mission agencies to do the work. In turn, the missions provided more than half the funding for the schools. However, missionaries were not allowed to evangelize in classrooms.
Nonetheless, Sheldon urged moral instruction. "The training of the schools should be extended to the heart as well as the mind and hand," he wrote. "The teacher who would be true to his mission and accomplish the most good, must give prominence to moral as well as intellectual instruction."
Sheldon appealed to major Protestant denominations for help. Many pitched in. Sheldon also lobbied continually for admission of Alaska as a state to the union and laid the foundations for that to happen. He educated Americans about the territory and helped establish a nature society.
Concerned that the Aleuts lacked food resources, Sheldon made what was probably his greatest contribution to the people he loved. He introduced domesticated reindeer from Siberia into Alaska. 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.
- Haycox, Stephen W. "Sheldon Jackson in Historical Perspective: Alaska Native Schools and Mission Contracts, 1885-1894." The Pacific Historian, Volume XXVIII, Number 1, pages 18-28. http://www.alaskool.org/native_ed/articles/ s_haycox/sheldon_jackson.htm.
- "Jackson, Sheldon." Dictionary of American Biography.
- "Jackson, Sheldon." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, 1968.
- "Sheldon Jackson." http://www.netstate.com/states/peop/people/ak_sj.htm
- Tower, Elizabeth A. "Reading, Religion, and Reindeer: Sheldon Jackson's Legacy to Alaska." Anchorage, AK, 1988. http://www.yukonpresbytery.com/histories/ sheldonjackson.html
- Various other encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated July, 2007