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SHELDON JACKSON IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: ALASKA NATIVE SCHOOLS AND MISSION CONTRACTS, 1885-1894, Stephen W. Haycox, The Pacific Historian, Volume XXVIII, Number 1, pages 18-28. Used with permission of the publisher, for educational purposes only.


In 1885 Dr. Sheldon Jackson, Presbyterian missionary to Alaska and former superintendent of the Rocky Mountain district of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to be General Agent of Education in Alaska, serving under the immediate supervision and jurisdiction of the U.S. Commissioner of Education. Jackson's responsibility was to make provisions for the education of children in Alaska towns and villages "without regard to race." Under his tutelage, schools were established in most native villages, and separate schools for white and native children in Alaska's few "white" towns. Jackson remained general agent until 1907, and early education in Alaska clearly carried the stamp of his dynamic personality and educational philosophy.1

In its Spring 1982 issue, The Pacific Historian published an excellent article by Richard Dauenhauer comparing Jackson with the early Russian Orthodox missionary, Fr. Ivan Veniaminov, Bishop Innocent (canonized in 1977 as St. Innocent). Dauenhauer argued that Veniaminov, with his emphasis on bilingualism, epitomized a positive, culturally supportive approach to proselytizing and education which was characteristic of the Russian Orthodox mission in Alaska. By contrast, the pursuit of acculturation by Jackson and his fellow Protestants through insistence on the elimination of native languages, and their replacement by English, was individually and culturally destructive, according to Dauenhauer, having cumulative effects which were "disastrous to native self-image and language survival."2

Dauenhauer's contribution is an important one. His article draws a clear distinction between the Russian and American missions in Alaska. Though he did not make it explicit, he relates the Russian Orthodox mission tradition in Alaska to the Roman Catholic tradition in New France and the Spanish borderlands where "accommodation" to native cultures was found in one form or another.3 Unfortunately, however, Dauenhauer failed to develop a sufficient historical context for the two mission leaders he compared, and each consequently appeared isolated from the background and circumstances which explain his actions. With Jackson, this led to substantial misunderstanding of his activities and motivation.

Jackson did not work for acculturation of Alaska's native population in isolation. In many ways he was an unexceptional representative of the late nineteenth-century Indian reform movement in the United States, which accepted acculturation as the best solution to the problems of continuing Indian warfare and the inexorable advance of white settlement. The reform movement was very closely allied with Christian missionary societies between 1868 and 1887. As a Christian Indian reformer, Jackson implemented policies which were clearly less sensitive to native cultural diversity than those of Russian Orthodox missionaries. But in so doing he did no more than the other thousands of federal and private reform activists who fanned out across the American West in the last half of the nineteenth century. They started with a clear idea of what constituted civilized life and a firm conviction that American Indians could be brought to that condition in a single generation. In failing to link Jackson with this reform tradition of which he was a part, Dauenhauer erroneously attributed to him the origin of policies and programs which Jackson only borrowed, in fact, including the executing of contracts by federal officials with private mission societies for federal support for mission schools in Alaska.

Ironically, Dauenhauer did not distinguish contributions by Jackson which constitute significant departures from the reform tradition, departures made in the interest of greater awareness and acceptance of cultural diversity and integrity. Jackson resisted taking native youngsters away from their villages for education and acculturation, for instance.


Humanitarian concern for the fate of Native Americans, as well as the practical consideration of continued mineral and agricultural development, demanded an end to Indian wars in the west following the Civil War. In 1867 Congress authorized a "peace commission" to investigate Indian conditions and complaints, and "to remove, if possible, the causes of war."4 The commission was composed of ranking generals of the army and important civilian leaders. Their report found whites mostly responsible for a tragic history of disregarded treaties, savage wars, and wanton massacres.5

President Grant's response to the commission's report was to develop a completely, new policy intended to pacify the Indians and humanize relations between them and the government. It was called the "peace policy" and, among other features, relied heavily upon Christian organizations to teach agriculture and other "pursuits of civilization," and to provide churches and schools which would lead Indians to understand and appreciate "the comforts and benefits of a Christian civilization, and thus be prepared ultimately to assume the duties and privileges of citizenship" among which cleanliness, literacy, and independence were specified. Mission societies were invited to make recommendations for personnel, including their own, to head Indian agencies and superintendencies. Additionally, a Board of Indian Commissioners was created as an advisory body to assist in development and implementation of the policy. The first board was appointed in 1869, composed entirely of prominent Protestant laymen.6

In appreciating the role of Sheldon Jackson and other Christian Indian reformers, it is important to understand both that the adoption of Christian concepts and values was an integral part of their notion of civilization, and that civil and government leaders had no compunction in this regard over the issue of church-state separation and independence. Evangelical Protestantism was a dominating force in late nineteenth-century American culture, a force which reached its height between 1880 and 1900. Major public figures considered themselves "Christian gentlemen," and America "a Christian nation."7 To reformers of the era, civilization meant not only the adoption of accepted habits of hygiene and dress, education for literacy, and the achievement of economic self-sufficiency; it also meant conversion to Christianity. Moreover, there was considerable rigidity in regard to these values. Appreciation of the principle of cultural relativism would come some time in the future. Given these circumstances, as major historians of Indian reform have shown, the coincidence of a crisis in Indian affairs with the height of public acceptance of the ideal of evangelical unity in America produced consequences "as significant for the Indian as the dramatic military encounters with the plains tribes."8

Sheldon Jackson made his first mission journey to Alaska in 1877. Before becoming interested in Alaska, he had worked as a missionary among Indians in the west for over a decade, and had participated in the founding of fourteen schools and numerous churches. In the next eight years, before he was appointed general agent of education in Alaska, he established Presbyterian mission schools in six Alaska communities and encouraged other denominations to found missions and schools as well. Additionally, he lobbied among religious and political leaders for private and Congressional funds for education in Alaska.9

After his appointment as general agent, Jackson established a number of government schools—e.g., ten in the 1885-86 school year—with an annual appropriation for Alaska educational work provided by Congress through the Bureau of Education. The appropriation was only $25,000, from which Jackson had to pay teacher salaries (from $540 to $1200 per year, depending on qualifications and location of school), traveling expenses, costs of equipment and supplies, and construction of new school buildings. The school-age population in Alaska in 1880 was reported as 11,237 by the U.S. tenth census, and was estimated by Jackson in the early 1890s at between 8,000 and 10,000 students. Even with an increase in the appropriation to $40,000 for the years 1886-87 and 1887-88 (it stabilized at $30,000 in 1888-89 and remained there through most of the next decade), only a small number of government schools could be established and maintained. By the 1889-90 school year there were thirteen government schools; by 1893-94, fifteen.10

As is clear from his annual reports to the commissioner of education, Jackson's objectives for the schools—his educational philosophy—were in most essentials consistent with the policies and ideas of federal and private Indian reformers of the 1870s and 1880s. In his first report as a federal official, in 1886, Jackson outlined his activities and goals. In addition to reading, writing and, where possible, industrial training (carpentry, bootmaking and the like for boys, sewing and other homemaking skills for girls), he included a section on "Moral Training."11 "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."

They [the Indians] need to be taught that both the law of God and the law of the land forbid more than one man and one woman living together as husband and wife; that each family should have a separate home, however small; that lying, stealing, and impurity of speech and behavior are alike offenses to God and man.12

The inclusion of such straightforward references to "God and man" in Jackson's first official report (and subsequent ones) reflects not only his presumption of the propriety of such a view, but also its acceptance by those to whom the report was presented.


Given his history as an Indian reformer and missionary, it is not surprising that Jackson in his educational objectives differed little from other reformers or from policies and practices endorsed by the U.S. Indian Office. On the question of means to achieve the objectives, however, Jackson departed significantly from accepted theory and practice. Federal policy leaders sought to educate as many Indian children as possible away from their tribes and villages. Not only did the Indian Office feel education under such circumstances was more rapid and more thorough, but it also expected that literate Indian youngsters returned to their villages would be effective agents of acculturation.13 An essential aspect of acculturation was instruction exclusively in the English language. Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the famed Carlisle Indian School, believed the civilizing of American Indians could be achieved only through breaking up native villages and never permitting Indian students, once removed from their homes, to return.

Jackson opposed this theory. With other analysts, he felt the dependence of the plains Indians resulting from their loss of freedom of movement and access to food supplies impeded their advance toward civilization. Alaska natives were economically self-sufficient in their villages, Jackson found, and he was determined to preserve their autonomy. Absence of the need for annuities was one reason the Bureau of Education, rather than the Office of Indian Affairs, had jurisdiction over Alaska natives. Their civilization, he argued, could be achieved through education alone.14

Jackson's method was, for the most part, to teach Alaska natives in their own villages, where they would live and work after the process of civilizing was completed. Other observers of Jackson's work agreed. Commenting on the advisability of keeping Alaska natives in Sitka, John G. Brady, Jackson protege and later governor, wrote: "I do not think it would be wise to send boys and girls away from here."15

The significance of this departure from Indian Office policy was recognized some years later, in 1931, when the Department of the Interior transferred Alaska native services from the Bureau of Education to the Bureau (former Office) of Indian Affairs. The commissioner of Indian affairs made this clear in his assessment of the transfer:

The Alaskan education enterprise has been carried out in the past with a different philosophy and a different practice [than that of the Indian Office]. In contrast to the Indian Service, with its boarding schools, the office of Education in Alaska . . . confined its effort to local community schools and a program of education that took into account in an amazing way the health and social and economic life of the native group.16

These remarks were made in the context of failure of the Dawes assimilation policy, and in recognition that the previous half century of activity by the Indian Office had been culturally destructive. By contrast, the less disruptive policies of the Bureau of Education, initiated by Jackson, were seen as far more supportive and accommodating to the natural circumstances of the natives there.


Although numerous publications have discussed Sheldon Jackson's establishment of schools in Alaska, none has explained the details of the contract schools operated by the general agent between 1885, when Jackson was appointed a federal official, and 1894 when contracting was suspended because Congress withdrew its support. There has also been considerable misunderstanding of the system as it was utilized in Alaska. In his article Professor Dauenhauer implied that Jackson acted unconstitutionally in using federal money to support mission schools, and others have made the same criticism. This comes from misunderstanding the close relationship between the evangelical Christian tradition and federal Indian reform in that period. Education was an essential part of the civilizing program of the Indian reformers. In 1875 the Board of Indian Commissioners had proposed a universal common school system to be supplied by the federal government for all its Indian wards.17 However, the Indian population of the states and territories in that year was more than 300,000. By a conservative estimate the government would have needed to provide schools for 66,000 children spread over half the area of continental United States. This represented a financial commitment the government was neither able nor willing to contemplate. But Indian education was nonetheless regarded as necessary!

To try to meet this need, the contract system of funding mission schools was instituted, as already indicated, the federal government providing financial aid directly to religious groups that set up schools in Indian areas.18 Contracting was formally incorporated into federal Indian policy by Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price, who headed the service from 1881 to 1885. and was continued by his successors. Such aid was welcomed with enthusiasm by religious groups, who responded by spending more than the government did on buildings and teachers. To Americans of the nineteenth century, by contrast with those of the late twentieth century, the employment of missionaries as public school teachers seemed quite natural. A basic cultural assumption then was that Christianity was one of the distinguishing characteristics of civilized life.19

It was in this context that Jackson adapted the contract system to Alaska. In his first year as general agent, 1885, Jackson established ten government schools, funded entirely with federal money. Only one was outside southeast Alaska; several were former mission schools which Jackson and other Presbyterians had established before creation of the general agency for education.20 However, with a school population approaching 10,000 students, and a mere $25,000 initial appropriation, Jackson could make only a slight beginning toward his goal of establishing schools for all school-age children. Moreover, his responsibility included providing schools in Alaska's white towns and, because there was yet no organic legislation to sanction taxation, the towns were under no obligation to contribute toward schools. In the face of such an enormous task, and already familiar with the contract system from prior experience, Jackson simply imported contracting to Alaska.

From his first year as general agent, Jackson used contracts as incentive and security for mission societies willing to start schools, but unable to support them through private contributions alone. In 1885-86, in addition to the ten government schools, three of which were "white" town schools, Jackson also executed two contracts with Presbyterian schools in southeast Alaska.21 In 1888-89 there were six, involving five religious denominations; in 1890-94 the number of contracts had been reduced to seven, involving five denominations. The largest number of contracts in any one year was fifteen, in 1891-92, involving eight denominations. In the same year Jackson maintained fifteen government schools. There were as well fifteen schools operated by various mission groups without benefit of any federal support, including several Russian Orthodox schools antedating the 1867 purchase of Alaska.22

Although federal officials had no qualms about utilizing mission schools for public education, nonetheless, overt religious instruction was not permitted. "It is the purpose of the government to provide non-sectarian instruction in the public schools," Jackson wrote in his first report as general agent.23 Under the general heading "Cooperation with Religious Bodies," he informed federal officials that missions were enjoined to "leave all persons to the fullest exercise of their religious liberty." Nor was competition between mission bodies permitted. By a natural division of labor in a land too vast for any one denomination to cover completely, various denominations concentrated their efforts in different regions. Jackson explained this arrangement in his report, and announced his intention to recognize it in contracts. The fact that none of the mission contracts was in a white town also shows Jackson sensitive to the question of religious bias in public schools. Indian, Aleut, and Eskimo parents and children would likely be less sensitive to the issue than white residents in Juneau and Sitka. Jackson did not escape criticism on the issue, even so, for several citizens complained that teachers Jackson hired in government schools tended to mix religious with secular instructions.24

Jackson's funding of contract schools was more economical than was the same type of funding by the Office of Indian Affairs in several states and other territories. Whereas the Indian Office averaged $167 annually for an Indian pupil in a mission school, Jackson paid between $90 and $150 per annum for each pupil boarded at the Sitka Industrial Training School, and an average of $30 per annum to various mission societies for each day pupil.25 In the nine years contracts were used, Jackson paid out $135,404.73. The largest amount to a single school went to the Sitka boarding school.26 The money paid by the government was, in most instances, far less than that contributed to the same schools by parent mission organizations. In 1891-92, for example, contract funds of $28,980 were paid to eight denominations which themselves expended $68,209.61 on the same schools. Episcopalians received $2,480 while contributing $1,187.61 of their own funds, but Presbyterians received $14,800 to match their contribution of $31,724.65. Of $40,000 appropriated for Bureau of Education activity in Alaska in 1891-92, $28,890, or 60%, was paid in mission contracts, a typical portion of the annual budget used for contracting. For some of the mission schools, the federal funding was critical; for others it was merely a token contribution. For the federal government, contract expenses were nearly two-thirds the total federal expenditure in Alaska for education.27 Without contracts, the federal appropriation would have supported far fewer schools than it did.

The contract system of funding Indian schools was terminated by Congress in 1892-93 for a number of reasons. First, the peace policy had ended. It was officially halted by the passing of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Already by that time, however, the policy had failed. Perhaps due in part to lack of experience and naivete, the staffing of Indian agencies with religious men and women did not solve the Indian problem. Second, the Board of Indian Commissioners lost effectiveness as secretaries of the interior and commissioners of Indian affairs increasingly ignored its advice and sought better qualified personnel for the Indian service. Ironically, at the very time the service was relying heavily upon the contract system for its schools, it was easing missionaries and religiously minded reformers out of all other activities of the Indian Office.28

There was also growing anxiety over the constitutionality of the contract system in some circles. That anxiety did not impress most Congressmen at first, and contract funds were easily approved. The question would not die, however, and each year the debate over the legitimacy of contracting grew more serious.29 Finally, in response to the continuing criticism, an amendment was attached to the 1893 Indian Office appropriation act prohibiting the use of monies for contracts with religious groups.30 It is significant that this action did not end contracting in Alaska immediately. Since Sheldon Jackson's activities there were supervised by the Commissioner of Education, the Congressional prohibition of contracting did not technically apply in Alaska, and Jackson continued to let contracts for academic year 1893-94, though in reduced numbers. Congress had signaled its intention, however, and after that year there would be no more contract system in Alaska either.31 The constitutionality of the practice was never tested in the courts, doubtless only because the system ended before a case was brought. Thus, while the system may have offended the constitutional sensibilities of some, it was not technically unconstitutional.

Reconstruction of the historical context in which he developed his ideas helps demonstrate that Sheldon Jackson had what he considered the best interests of Alaska natives at heart in his activities as general agent of education. His belief in the efficacy of acculturation through education, particularly in English, made him typical of late nineteenth-century Indian reformers in America, but in his insistence that Indians be schooled in their traditional villages, he recognized the validity of important aspects of aboriginal culture. The economic self-sufficiency of Alaska natives, and the need for natives to be able to function in their own environment after achieving literacy and education, convinced Jackson that removal of children from their home villages would, for most, be more destructive than helpful. In this recognition of the legitimacy of the native environment, Jackson was closer to the Orthodox and Catholic tradition of accommodation than to the reform impulses of many of his contemporaries. Also, Jackson has been misinterpreted by a number of writers who have analyzed his establishment of schools in Alaska, particularly in regard to his adoption in the 1880s of the contract school system, then used widely by the Indian Office in the states and territories. In utilizing federal funds to support mission schools in Alaska, Jackson did nothing new or unconstitutional. He merely imported to a new field a practice developed by the federal government as a part of the Indian peace policy, a practice which reflected the close relationship in late nineteenth-century America between evangelical Christianity and federal policy.

While a comparison of Sheldon Jackson with Ivan Veniaminov reveals well the difference between the Orthodox policy of accommodation and the Protestant reform policy of forced acculturation, such a comparison can easily lead to a misunderstanding of Jackson's dedication to and contributions toward the preservation and legitimacy of native culture. Sheldon Jackson as a Presbyterian and federal official in Alaska differed from his contemporaries in significant ways on behalf of cultural diversity. Whatever his shortcomings, he should not be viewed as having abused his office and its funds. Jackson's achievement in Alaska was a major one and should be understood without such a confusion, so as fully to appreciate his role as father of the American effort in native education in Alaska.