An Artist-in-Residence's exploration of the park's collections
Created by Kate Rosendale as the Artist-in-Residence for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park - Seattle Unit and as a thesis project for a master’s degree in Museology from the University of Washington.
"...in July, 1897, the news from alaska came of the big Klondike Rush
and day and night after that my thoughts were not on my work.
I wanted to make a better home for Leah and our baby boy."
- John Hielscher, September 1, 1912
The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle has thousands of objects and documents in its collections. Some are from the 1890s and were actually used in the gold rush; others were created later. Some of the objects are tools and practical objects; many more are photographs, artworks or other manners of recording the gold rush.
I had the opportunity to explore the collections, comb through all of these objects in depth and learn more about them. I was interested in learning about what the park had and where it all came from. As the first artist in the residency program for this park, I was able to dictate what my project would look like and create something other than a more traditional drawing or painting inspired by the park and its location.
I wanted to use my residency to explore new ways of revealing museum collections and collections information to a wider audience, as well as experiment with using illustrations and data visualizations as vehicles for storytelling. My main goal for this project was to illuminate the objects in the collection, especially those that may not be on display, and present them in a way that provides more context.
I began by going through the collections information of the park and seeing what all of the objects actually where. I was surprised by some of the things that I came across (like a horse’s tooth, which ended up making a lot of sense, all things considered), but was interested in the breakdown of all of the objects and the stories behind them.
So what does the park have, exactly?
Many of the objects in the collections belonged to a single prospector from the gold rush, John Hielscher. Relatives of his donated his belongings and documents to the park in 2008 in what is now referred to as the “Hielscher collection.” All of his tools, his letters, his belongings came to the park in the steamer trunk that the Hielschers had kept them in. Not only is this collection full of information about life in the Klondike, it also expanded the breadth and reach of the park’s collections overall.
How the collections grew each year
The Hielscher collection contains 1,237 objects, letters and documents, all connected to one individual. Because everything is tied together and linked to a single person, they give you a rich picture of the life that he lived.
John Hielscher lived in Seattle when news of the gold rush broke and headed to the Klondike on the Signal steamship at the end of 1897. He left his wife, Leah, and young son in Seattle and, although he didn’t strike it rich mining for gold, made a living in the Klondike and Alaska for 15 years before returning to Seattle for good. Hielscher worked as a prospector at first, but also ran hoists along the trail to the Klondike and ran markets in Alaska, making short trips back to Seattle to see his family when he could.
Letters of Gold, a short video by the North Coast and Cascades Network, goes into more detail about the magnitude of the collection and the conservation that has to go into preserving the objects in it.
What's in the Hielscher collection?
For me, some of the most interesting pieces of the collection are the letters that Hielscher wrote to his family and friends. He wrote often and the letters provide a fantastic insight into his mindset and attitude throughout his travels.
Like many people heading to the Klondike from Seattle, Hielscher had to cross the Chilkoot Trail to get into Canada for the first time. The group that he was traveling with took months to cross the 33-mile long trail, but still were some of the fastest people from their ship, the Signal. Hielscher’s letters from these months range from thoughts about the weather to describing the difficulty of the trail and marveling at the fact that his group is making such good time, despite the odds.
Letters from the Chilkoot Trail
Although the gold rush only lasted a few years, Hielscher didn’t return to Seattle for good until 1912. He kept a continuous correspondence with his family while they were apart, updating Leah about his businesses and sending drawings to his children about life in Canada and Alaska. The Hielscher collection contains 294 letters that Hielscher wrote to Leah, Ernest and Herbert during their 15 years apart. A major theme running through the letters is one of homesickness and missing his family.
Hielscher’s letters throughout the years
Although he didn’t strike it rich prospecting, Hielscher did manage to make a living thanks to the gold rush. Even as his time in Alaska was drawing to a close, Hielscher remained unsure if the time away from his wife and children was really worth the sacrifice.
"it is 12 years this month that I first left home for alaska
did it pay would it have been better
that we never would have heard from this country…"
- John Hielscher, January 15, 1910
Hielscher’s journey is unique, but he was still one of the thousands of people who gave up everything in the hopes that they would find gold in the Klondike. Reading his letters and going through the collections for this project opened my eyes to the different ways that the gold rush influenced the lives of people in the 1890s and beyond. Learning about Hielscher’s experience made me realize the reach of the gold rush for people from all walks of life.
There are stories between each line
and when Leah, the boys and I come this winter
and if anyone cares to hear them, I will tell them,
so goodby, will see you this winter.
- John Hielscher, September 1, 1912
The primary information on this page came from examining the objects in the collections firsthand. All of John Hielscher's quotes have been pulled from his letters verbatim. Additional information about the Chilkoot Trail came from Archie Satterfield’s Chilkoot Pass: A Hiker’s Historical Guide to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (Alaska Northwest Books, 1973).
Stories Between Each Line was created by Kate Rosendale as the Artist-in-Residence for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park - Seattle Unit. Thanks to Tarin, Kelsey, Brooke, Julie and everyone at the park and the university for all of their help and support throughout the process!
Last updated: May 14, 2016