Photo Credit: Frank Kovalchek

LESSON 8: Alaska Nellie: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words



This lesson demonstrates how a historian takes raw information from photos, writings, and other sources and translates this into historical text.  Students will be using road house operator, Nellie Lawing, to understand this process while appreciating that Alaska provides an opportunity for self determination and personal reinvention.  The goal is for students to be able to record and interpret photographs as sources of information.




Alaska Content Standards:


A-4:  Understand that history relies on the interpretation of evidence.

A-7:  Understand that history is dynamic and composed of key turning points.

B-5:  Evaluate the influence of context upon historical understanding.

C-2:  Use historical data from a variety of primary resources.


Inquiry Based Thinking Strategies Utilized:

Observing: Students will take notes based upon photographic evidence.

Interpreting: Students will determine significance of evidence observed.

Imagining: Students will recreate a moment of history based upon knowledge of the event and notes from photographs.

Background Information:

To study “Alaska Nellie” Lawing is to learn about many facets of Alaska.  First, to know Nellie is to understand the vital importance that roadhouses once had in the territory’s early history.  Prior to the building of the railroad, roadhouses provided shelter, food, and a warm place to spend the night when traveling the trails to and from the interior.  During the construction phase of the railroad, periodic road houses along the rail line were necessary to feed and house the workers.  Nellie Lawing was the operator/owner of several successful road houses along the rail road corridor.  With the completion of the railroad and the advent of air travel, road houses became obsolete and, for the most part, faded into historical side notes.  However, not Alaska Nellie.  She was tenacious, she was inventive, and she was determined to be flexible to meet the needs of a changing time.

Which brings us to the second theme of this lesson: the power of reinvention of self.  One of the qualities of Alaska (whether it be in the gold rush times or present day) is that the territory was (and still is) remote enough, far enough, and new enough that it was/is possible to reinvent one’s self.  Miners, construction workers, business people, and entrepreneurs came to the Last Frontier knowing that they could leave their old identities far away – that they could take on a different persona, a different identify than the one they left from where they came.

Nellie Lawing was a complex woman — master of invention and of seizing many identifies.  She was tenaciously authentic and tough to match the land, and yet was quick to put on a show.  It was a reason why her businesses in Lawing continued to thrive long past the glory days of the roadhouses.  But it also explains why she has become so ingrained and significant in the history of Alaska and of the Kenai Corridor.

In this lesson, students will hone their observation skills by examining photographs and comparing how details from the photographs help in the historic interpretation of Nellie’s life and her development as a business woman, a hardy outdoor sportswomen, and a nationally renown entertainer.



1)  Set the Stage: Introduce Nellie Lawing’s legacy

Display the photo of Nellie’s gravestone.  Explain that this is Alaska Nellie’s headstone that can still be seen in the Seward cemetery.   Solicit the identity of the carved figure above “LAWING.” (It’s a pineapple.)  Question:  Why would a pineapple adorn the headstone of an Alaskan pioneer?  Google the symbolism of pineapple and you’ll learn that the pineapple is the symbol for “hospitality.”  Explain that this so defined Nellie Lawing that her friends had this as her graphic epitaph.

2)  Provide the Context: Connect Nellie to the Railroad Roadhouse system.

Use background information and Trails Across Time pg 68-69 to show Nellie’s role in the roadhouse system.

3)  Define the Problem:  The Proof is in the Photos: The Reinvention of Nellie Lawing

Provide photos to students.  Describe that these photos show Nellie over the course of her adult life.  They help show how Nellie continually reinvented herself.

The task that the students first must undertake is to make detailed observations about each photo.  Remind students that every picture is worth a thousand words.  Careful observations and brief notations will provide huge amounts of information.  Look at the clothes, the location, fingers, hair, and items in the photo.  Make note of her relative age.  All of these will help decipher the story that each photo depicts.

Create a chart that, when possible, extends inferences derived from observations.  Inferences  provide logical  meaning to the observations.  Although they may be stretching the interpretation beyond what is definitively known, the inferences should not be far fetched but rather rooted within the photo or the time and place.  For instance, one photo shows two dogs and a cat on her lap.  The inference that  can be logically (if not factually) drawn is that Nellie liked pets.

Once finished, have students write a short  summary for each photo describing their interpretation of each photo.  Make sure that when inferences are included, these are paired with observations from the photographs.

4)  Compare notes:  

Have students compare their notes from the photos.  Look for observations that were based on subtle hints.  Make sure inferences are substantiated with observations from the photo.  Give bonus points for anyone that comes up with the most subtle (but substantive) observation or interesting (but not far fetched) interpretation.

5) Make the Connections:  Connect the historic narrative to the photo

Provide copies of Doug Capra’s historical account: A Magnificent Bedlam of Hollywood and Alaska— The Creation of Alaska Nellie.

Up to this point, we’ve been mainly working with primary sourced documents.  Now it’s time to see how academics take this information to translate into narratives.  Capra’s writing provides an account of how Nellie transformed herself through the years.  Although it is a result of exhaustive research, as students read they will find embedded references that can be related back to photographs.  Make note any information from the writing that they can find evidence in the photographs.  As the students read, they should ask themselves: have they seen this before?

6) Share Again:  Does anything change?

Have students discuss how their interpretations either changed or became broadened with the new information.  Need some help?  Check out the portrait of her with the gold nugget necklace.

7)  Now Join It All Together:  Write the story of the photo

The students have taken observations of the photos.  They’ve read about the transformation and life of Nellie Lawing.  They’ve had the chance to see how historians use researched information to describe history to others.  Now it’s their turn.

Have students select at least one photograph.  Using information from the photo and Capra’s writing, tell the story of that photo.  While it’s critical to include details from the photo, do not let the writing be a listing of what is seen.  When particulars are known facts, state them as such.  However, if interpretation is involved, allow for that with disclaimers such as  “perhaps” or “maybe” or “based on this”.

Don’t feel that it needs to stay with just the photo.  Utilize the historical knowledge provided by the Capra writing.  Include this background information that may not be possible to determine purely from the photograph.

Think of this as writing a long caption for a photo, meshing information justified from the photograph with knowledge gleamed from research.