Daughters of Old Westport Memorial
Westport businessmen wanted to put up a life-sized stone wagon train to mark the centennial of the Santa Fe Trail. Instead, local women raised the funds for this 1920 tribute "To the Pioneer Mother." It was one of the first pioneer mother monuments erected in the United States.
Backstory and Context
To mark the 1912 centennial of the Santa Fe Trail, a group of Westport businessmen formed the Westport Improvement Association. The Improvement Association sought to install a monument to that trail in Westport, Missouri. The men worked with the Kansas City Historical Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the Confederacy, other genealogical organizations, and the National Old Trails Road Association to raise money for a Pioneer Monument Fund. Together these voluntary organizations hosted a Santa Fe Trail and Battle of Westport Reunion and Carnival. They envisioned a life-sized stone sculpture including five yoke of oxen and a “prairie schooner with wagon-master and bull-whackers and the faithful dog in the rear.”1 They planned to install it at the site of the City Hall of Westport, which stood on the Santa Fe Trail route.
Plans for a stone sculpture depicting commercial traffic over the Santa Fe Trail soon faded. But while the other organizations involved in the centennial event soon turned toward other projects, the Daughters of Old Westport were determined to erect a pioneer monument in their community.
The Daughters of Old Westport was a group of neighborhood women descended from the earliest settlers of the town. They ran a doll booth to raise money for a carnival at the Westport reunion. Their $181 in profit became the start of an eight-year fundraising campaign.
Instead of a life-sized stone sculpture, the Daughters of Old Westport settled on a more modest design. It was similar to those erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in this era. The Westport women installed two bronze bas relief plaques on a large boulder, which they placed in the heart of Westport’s historic business district.
Instead of celebrating the men who hauled goods between Missouri and New Mexico, the Daughters of Old Westport commemorated the first women who settled in their town. Sculptor Merrell Gage’s central bas relief depicts a white mother with her two young children. She holds a rifle to defend her children against wild animals and the Native Americans these white settlers displaced. Text in the upper right corner dedicates it “To the Pioneer Mother.”
On the back of the boulder, an accompanying dedication plaque features a male trapper and American Indian reminiscent of those that appeared in earlier pioneer monuments elsewhere in the American West. The Daughters of Old Westport Memorial was one of the first monuments to pioneer women erected in the United States. Dozens more would follow later in the 1920s.
“About Town.” The Kansas City Times, September 29, 1960.
Prescott, Cynthia Culver. Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory. University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.