Competing visions of pioneer womanhood collided in the creation of this statue sculpted by Charles Grafly. The tribute to early Euro-American California settlers was created for San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was forgotten after the fair, but later restored and moved to its permanent location in Golden Gate Park in 1940.
The idea for San Francisco’s 1915 Pioneer Mother monument was planted a decade earlier when a San
Francisco resident viewed the city’s earlier pioneer monument. The sight of San
Francisco’s Pioneer Monument towering
over that city’s ruins in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake inspired in San
Francisco society matron Ella Sterling Mighels a vision of a monument to
pioneer mothers in her city. She worked tirelessly to promote her vision of a
monument to pioneer women as a civilizing influence over the rough-and-tumble world
of gold rush California. Like many women of her time, Mighels believed that
women’s influence should be channeled through motherhood within the domestic
sphere. While many white Californians shared Mighels’ racial vision, they were
slow to embrace her vision of a monument depicting a seated pioneer mother holding
church at her knee.
Mighels’ efforts inspired the creation of the Pioneer Mother
Monument Association (PMMA). Led by President Helen Sanborn, the association
organized a fundraising campaign. They planned to erect a monument “symbolizing
Motherhood, to be dedicated to the Pioneer Mothers of the West – the
self-sacrificing women who, with their little ones at their side, braved the
dangers and underwent the hardships and privations that are always incident to
pioneer life.”1 They
envisioned a woman and two or three children in mid-19th-century
clothing, with a gold miner father in the background or in a bronze relief
panel on the statue’s base.
Mighels and the PMMA struggled to raise support for the
statue until the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) Woman’s Board got
involved. The PPIE Woman’s Board sought to place the monument at San Francisco’s
1915 world’s fair. The PPIE was intended to celebrate San Francisco’s recovery
from the 1906 earthquake. The Pioneer
Mother monument would join the earlier monuments to California men that had
survived that earthquake.
Most PPIE buildings and sculpture were made from plaster.
They were only intended to survive the length of the fair. For example, a larger-than-life
male Pioneer and male Indian at The End of the Trail were headed for a
landfill after the fair until citizens of Visalia, California, claimed them. In
contrast, the Pioneer Mother was cast
in bronze and would remain as a permanent gift to the city of San Francisco.
The PMMA and various California pioneer associations pledged
to fundraise for the project. But tension soon developed between John Trask,
chief of the PPIE’s fine arts department, and the club women sponsoring the
statue. Some of the women questioned Trask’s choice to commission a prominent
eastern sculptor. They believed it should be done by a local artist. But Trask
was a leading figure in the fine arts establishment. He was convinced that no
California artist was qualified for a project of this significance. He gave the
commission to his friend Charles Grafly instead.
Grafly abandoned both Mighels’ image of a hoop-skirted woman
holding church at her knee and the PPMA’s
vision of a pioneer woman in a more practical prairie-style dress. Instead,
Grafly sculpted a woman clad in the fringed buckskin and moccasins that many
easterners associated with the Wild West.
The sculptor surrounded his pioneer women with nude children symbolizing
Grafly’s model produced outrage in San Francisco because it blurred
racial and gender identities. A decade earlier, Portland, Oregon, had welcomed
a sculpture of Sacajawea as a tribute
to white pioneer mothers. But in 1915, San Franciscans balked at Grafly’s
depiction of a white woman dressed in Native clothing. Pressure from the Native
Daughters of the Golden West and other women’s pioneer associations persuaded
Grafly to replace the “costume of a primitive Sioux Indian squaw”2 with
a homespun gown and simple leather shoes. Under pressure from the female
donors, Grafly also agreed to adjust the head covering. But even the final version lacked the wide
brim characteristic of mid-nineteenth-century sunbonnets designed to protect
white women’s fair complexions from the sun.
Some of the clubwomen sponsoring the monument – including
Mighels – also were outraged that Grafly insisted on depicting nude
children. PMMA president Sanborn
insisted that the children’s nudity made it impossible for the organization to
raise public subscriptions to support the monument. But Grafly remained determined to maintain the allegorical quality of the
children at her feet. Philanthropist and honorary president of the PPIE Woman’s
Board Phoebe Hearst and U.S. Senator (and former San Francisco mayor) James
Phelan finally brokered a compromise. They persuaded Grafly to make the boy’s genitalia
“somewhat less conspic[u]ous,”3 and
thus less offensive to Anglo women’s genteel sensibilities.
Public opinion of the revised statue was generally
positive. More than one thousand people
visited the artist’s studio to view the completed statue, which they agreed was
a “symbolical masterpiece.”4 Thousands of California schoolchildren
contributed pennies and nickels toward erecting the monument, including $651.59
in San Francisco and $591.94 in Los Angeles (a total of about $30,000 in 2015
The Pioneer Mother
monument was cast in bronze to make it a permanent fixture in San Francisco,
but it received less attention at the PPIE than did the plaster Pioneer and End of the Trail. After the fair, those pieces were moved to
Visalia’s Mooney Grove Park. But Grafly’s
bronze Pioneer Mother was neglected and forgotten. A
quarter-century later it was discovered, weather-worn and vandalized, in the
near-ruin of the Palace of Fine Arts.
Within three months of its discovery, civic and historic groups helped
to restore the monument, and it was displayed at the Golden Gate International
Exposition before being installed at its final site in a meadow in Golden Gate
Park on December 8, 1940.