One of the few monuments erected to a generic pioneer man in the early 20th century, this statue of a white frontiersman dressed in buckskin was dedicated on the University of Oregon campus in 1919. A companion pioneer woman was erected a decade later in the women's quad. A century later, the statue would become broiled in debate for its glorification of white settlement.
In the early 20th century, communities across the United States
put up public statues honoring western pioneers. Oregon rancher, attorney, and
civic leader Joseph N. Teal sought to celebrate early Oregon settlers by erecting
a bronze monument. Teal viewed Oregon settlers as western counterparts to the
earliest English settlers in North America. He therefore asked prominent
sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor to create a sculpture modeled on Augustus
Saint-Gaudens’ famous 1899 bronze tribute to The Puritans. But the Paris-trained artist instead turned to
imagery drawn from his own western youth.
Phimister Proctor, as he was known, was born
in Ontario, Canada, in 1860. His family gradually migrated south and west via
covered wagon until arriving in Denver, Colorado, in 1871. As a young man
growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Proctor prized hunting and
fishing ahead of his art. Even as an older man, he routinely abandoned his
eastern studio to embark on large game hunts in the West. He studied living
wild animals and dissected dead ones—many of which he shot himself—to reproduce
their musculature accurately. For the
Oregon pioneer monument, Proctor hired an old trapper named Jess Cravens from
near Burns, Oregon, to serve as his model.
Proctor’s resulting 1918 statue for the
University of Oregon campus features a heroic-sized rugged buckskin-clad frontiersman
carrying a rifle and whip, striding purposely into the West and the future.
Viewers appreciated that Proctor’s Pioneer
appeared ready to conquer nature, American Indians, or anything else that might
stand in his way. The Oregon Daily Journal praised Proctor’s
“faithful visualizing and reproduction of the frontier type.”1
At the statue’s 1919 dedication, Oregon
Historical Society president Frederick V. Holman gave a speech praising Proctor’s
statue and celebrating what he considered white Oregon settlers’ racial
superiority. He declared that
“There were great numbers of savage Indians to be
encountered and forced to respect the rights and property of these immigrants.”2
Such justifications for white settlement on Native lands were
typical of that era, but would become controversial a century later.
A decade after sculpting The
Pioneer, Proctor created a seated Pioneer
Mother as a companion to the swashbuckling Pioneer. Pioneer Mother was
placed in the center of what was then known as the Women’s Quad, facing toward The Pioneer.
Today, The Pioneer is an important campus landmark, but few students know that
the Pioneer Mother exists.
In recent years, some have begun to challenge the long beloved Pioneer statue. In 2011, students
adorned the statue with a rainbow-colored balloon arch to mark National Coming
Out Day, which encourages students and others to identify publicly as
homosexual, bisexual or transgender. The juxtaposition of virile masculinity
and homosexual pride was striking but short-lived. The balloons were removed
from the statue within forty-five minutes.
Even more recently, as the nation debated removing
Confederate monuments due to their racist origins, students and faculty have
drawn attention to the racial underpinnings of the Pioneer’s origins. In April 2018, University of Oregon students
installed temporary exhibits that responded to the Pioneer and Pioneer Mother.
The Pioneer installation was called Destiny Manifested. Students layered
objects inside a plexiglass pedestal at the base of The Pioneer to represent the unforeseen consequences of white
settlement. The following year, protestors sprayed the statue in red paint, and
dozens of students and faculty called for its removal. Meanwhile, the
university formed a “presidential
working group to review campus monuments, plaques and public art installations
and recommend whether any changes need to be made to those features to
recognize the diverse histories of our community.” It aimed to release its findings in Fall 2019.3