American Pioneer (1915-1980)

The American Pioneer, A Reverie by Solon Borglum, ca. 1915 / unidentified photographer. Solon H. Borglum and Borglum family papers, 1864-2002. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The American Pioneer, also known as  The Pioneer, was sculpted by rancher-turned-sculptor Solon Borglum (1868-1922). Borglum sculpted The American Pioneer for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco, California. (His older brother Gutzon would later carve faces of four United States presidents into Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.) When the exposition was over, this statue and several others were unceremoniously taken to a dump. Locals in Visalia managed to save The American Pioneer from destruction, placing it in Mooney Grove Park. However, the statue was damaged in an earthquake in 1980 and not repaired. Tragically, the only remain of the statue is the stone base which is located on a grassy knoll at the main entrance to the park.

Borglum’s American Pioneer was an older bearded man, evoking an American national patriarch.[1] His dignified pose atop a prancing horse evoked the nineteenth-century equestrian monuments to military leaders.  Clad in rough Anglo-American clothing, he was armed with a rifle and ax that spoke to his work ethic, his economic aspirations, and his contributions to manifest destiny. With the rifle he would hunt to support his family, and will protect his family from both wild animals and wild Indians. With the ax he would transform untamed forests into civilized farmland and build a log cabin, that lasting symbol of white civilization. The statue merged martial pageantry and rough frontier realities. The statue at once honored white settlers for their willingness to face frontier privations – the “fine old men and women came first and made a way for us”[2] – and celebrated the mastery of “civilized” white society over the “untamed” wilderness and native peoples. The pioneer’s advanced age indicated that the frontier period had passed, giving way to a more settled and civilized society.[3]

Borglum’s American Pioneer stood at the entrance to the Court of Flowers. It received a good bit of attention from fair visitors, including that of California native and United States Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane. In his remarks at the fair’s opening ceremony, Lane argued that the spirit of the American pioneer lived on in twentieth-century imperialism. Lane pointed to Borglum’s American Pioneer statue as embodying those characteristics of civilized white manhood.

The greatest adventure is before us, the gigantic adventure of an advancing democracy, strong, virile, and kindly, and in that advance we shall be true to the indestructible spirit of the American Pioneer.[4]

Borglum’s American Pioneer and its counterpart, James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail, both spoke to the end of an era. They declared at the exposition that the frontier spirit lived, but was reborn and recast as leaders of the twentieth-century project of American imperialism.[5]

Both fair organizers and visitors interpreted Borglum’s and Fraser’s statues as depicting the demise of indigenous peoples and coming of white civilization. One declared that “The symbolism of the ‘Pioneer’ and ‘The end of the Trail’ is … a very fine expression of the destinies of two great races.”[6]

Like most PPIE art and architecture, The American Pioneer was made of plaster and abandoned after the fair closed. The Tulare County Board of Forestry acquired the heroic-sized sculpture for only the cost of shipping it from San Francisco to Visalia: $150. The statue was placed on a stone base in Mooney Grove Park in the late 1910s. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. It was severely damaged by an earthquake on May 28, 1980. While pieces of the statue are rumored to survive in private collections, only the stone base remains at the main entrance to Mooney Grove Park.


Related Monuments:

Frank Happersberger, Lick Pioneer Monument, 1894

Douglas Tilden, Admission Day Monument, 1897

James Earle Fraser, End of the Trail, 1915

Charles Grafly, Pioneer Mother, 1915


San Francisco Pioneer Monuments Walking Tour powered by Clio

Northern California Pioneer Monuments Driving Tour powered by Clio



[1] Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

[2] Elizabeth Gordon, What We Saw at Madame World’s Fair: A Series of Letters from the Twins at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to Their Cousins at Home (San Francisco: Levinson, 1915), 53.

[3] Burton Benedict. The Anthropology of World’s Fairs: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Berkeley: Scholar Press, 1983.

[4] Quoted in Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition: Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal (Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company, 1921) Vol. II: 269-70.

[5] Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (Oxford University Press, 1986).

[6] Quoted in Douglas Cazaux Sackman, Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America, New Narratives in American History; Variation: New Narratives in American History. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 250.