Monday, February 25, 2008
Western Settlers & Pioneer Women
(Text and photos by Cindy Prescott) I stumbled into studying Pioneer statues as I was finishing a dissertation that compared the gender and family roles the first two generations of white settlers in western Oregon's Willamette Valley (1845-1900). I got interested in Oregon pioneer organizations and pioneer monuments as reflections of idealized images of early settlers. I was particularly interested in how women's actual roles on the early frontier got collapsed into an idealized "Pioneer Mother" type. I soon discovered that the statues in the Willamette Valley looked a lot like other "pioneer mother" statues erected across the country at the same time (ca. 1927-1940) -- most famously the NSDAR "Madonna of the Trail" series (which I'd first encountered in Springfield, OH, on a historic preservation project years before).
The Pioneer Mother monuments in Oregon seemed to fit 2 basic types. In the first, young mothers tried to protect their children from the hazards of overland trail/frontier life, as in Avard Fairbanks' "Old Oregon Trail" (note the wagon forming a Madonna-like halo as the mother protects her son), and Leo Friedlander's "The Covered Wagon". In Friedlander's, the son is imitating his father, trying to "thrust our frontiers to the setting sun"; the mother tries to hold him back from the dangers of trail life. These women in some ways echo the NDSAR's "Madonna of the Trail" and Ponca City, OK, "Pioneer Mother," but they are less bold, and certainly don't carry rifles.
The second type I discovered were seated grandmothers in more domestic poses. These focused on a later time period, after the initial frontier era, and emphasized women's proper place within the domestic sphere.
You can read more of my analysis of these images in chapter 6 of my book, Gender and Generation on the Far Western Frontier (Univ. of Arizona Press, 2007).
I'm now working on a national survey of existing pioneer woman monuments nationwide. I'm particularly intrigued by a shift toward more maternal and domestic imagery in later statues, such as the one on the North Dakota Statehouse lawn, in which the mother is contained within the family circle, and looks over her shoulder to her husband for guidance and protection, rather than looking boldly forward.