Historical Research is a Journey

I first became interested in pioneer monuments as an advanced graduate student at UCLA. My doctoral dissertation traced changing gender roles and ideology among the first two generations of white American settlers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I wanted to find out how migrating west over the Oregon Trail and growing up on the frontier affected men’s and women’s work roles and their identity as men and women. I quickly discovered why other historians had focused on the overland experience: hundreds of journals and letters survive from Oregon Trail emigrants. Far fewer such personal writings are available to reveal what life was like once people arrived in Oregon. My adviser, Stephen Aron, suggested that I supplement my traditional primary sources (diaries, letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, and court documents) with material culture sources.

Material culture is a broad category encompassing all of the “stuff” produced and used in the past. In particular, I became interested in textiles (especially women’s clothing and quilts) and public statues depicting those early white settlers. I examined several pioneer monuments that were erected in the Willamette Valley in the early twentieth century. In the final chapter of my dissertation (which in 2007 I published as a book, Gender and Generation on the Far Western Frontier), I argued that these statues depicted not the realities of frontier life, but the ways that white Oregonians wished to imagine that their mothers and fathers lived.

As I explored those statues (including A. Phimister Proctor’s Pioneer and Pioneer Mother on the University of Oregon’s campus, and several works in or near the state capitol in Salem), I realized that a number of similar statues were erected throughout the western United States in the 1920s and 1930s. But just how similar were Oregon’s statues to those erected elsewhere? I set out to write a second book that would focus on these statues of what I call the Pioneer Mother Movement.

Like my dissertation project – and perhaps most historical studies – this project took on a life of its own. As I traveled the Great Plains in search of pioneer mother monuments erected in the 1920s and 1930s, I met local residents who told me I really ought to visit this or that other statue, most of which had been erected much more recently. At first I ignored such recommendations, but soon began to politely snap a couple photos of the statue in question just in case it should prove useful. As my collection of such photos grew, I filed them away for what I thought might make an entertaining epilogue to my book, which otherwise remained focused on monuments erected between 1927 and 1937.

When my collection of postwar monuments grew to outnumber those of the 1920s and 1930s, and I discovered pioneer monuments that were erected as early as the 1890s, I realized that I needed to re-conceptualize my project. No longer a fairly straightforward and safe study of a decade of remarkably similar monuments, my book project grew into a sweeping examination of changing western memory and national identity from the 1890s to the present. While gender ideology remains central to my analysis, race and religion became key themes. I also grapple with settler colonialism, heritage tourism, modern art, new urbanist architecture, and changing American family ideals, to name but a few.

Altogether I’ve identified more than 150 pioneer-themed monuments erected across the United States over some 125 years. (And even one as far away as Australia!) Because I can’t do justice to all 150 monuments within the pages of my book, I am building this website as a way to make them available to a wider public. And, as I’ll detail in a future post, this website enables me to continually add more monuments as I learn about them, even as my book manuscript winds its way through the publication process.

To date I’ve visited 84 of these statues and plaques (and the sites of a few others that had been removed for various reasons). Friends and relatives have photographed a dozen more for me. And I know of dozens more that I have not yet reached. Do you know of a pioneer monument that I’ve missed? Can you provide a photo of a monument not currently pictured on this site? Please email me at <cynthia.prescott@und.edu>, or share in the comments below.