This monument honoring early settlers of the American West was sculpted by Avard Fairbanks. Unveiled on the North Dakota State Capitol grounds in 1947. Donated by Harry F. McLean in honor of his father, John A. McLean, the first mayor of Bismarck, North Dakota. It closely resembles other pioneer family monuments erected in the American West after World War II.
On September 25, 1929, the North Dakota Federation of
Women’s Clubs (NDFWC) voted to erect a “statue to the Pioneer Mother on the
grounds of the State House at Bismarck.”1 Similar efforts by women’s clubs and other private donors produced statues
depicting iconic Pioneer Mother statues throughout the United States in the
late 1920s and early 1930s. To raise funds for the North Dakota project, the
NDFWC collected biographical sketches of early female settlers in the state. The
Pioneer Mother Project committee collected a number of biographical sketches,
which were deposited at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, but the
statue project was interrupted by the Great Depression.
About a decade later, Canadian millionaire Harry F. McLean
decided to donate a pioneer monument to honor his father and mother. He proposed to erect it near Washburn, North
Dakota, the county seat of McLean County, which was named for his father, John
McLean. Perhaps because of the NDFWC’s earlier interest in a similar monument, Harry
McLean was persuaded to instead place his proposed statue in his hometown of
Bismarck, where his father had served as that city’s first mayor.
The $50,000 statue was dedicated in 1947 as part of
Bismarck’s 75th anniversary celebration. Sculpted by Avard Tennyson
Fairbanks, the bronze Pioneer Family
Group consists of eight-foot-tall figures of father, son, and mother
holding an infant child. The figures represent a pioneer family and the “spirit
of the west.”2 The wagon wheel behind them represents
progress. They stand on a four-foot granite base across a large lawn from the
state capitol office building.
An inscription composed by the artist appears on the rear of the statue:
No trail too rugged, no obstacle too large, no mountain too
high to stop the sturdy frontiersman, with sureness of purpose, with daring
adventure, and from generation to generation the pioneering spirit moves always
forward and onward to greater goals.
The Bismarck monument depicts a pioneer woman, but it differs
from the Pioneer Mother statue that the NDFWC envisioned in the late 1920s. Working
during World War II, Fairbanks sculpted a nuclear family. The father holds his
son’s hand to depict freedom from fear. Freedom from fear was one of the “four
freedoms” promised by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during that
war. Those “four freedoms” served as
foundational principles for the establishment of the United Nations. Similar
depictions of pioneer families—strong father, angelic mother, bold son, and baby
in the mother’s arms—appeared in public monuments sculpted by Fairbanks and
other artists throughout the Cold War era.