The project began when a group of Missouri women decided to mark the Santa Fe Trail route. In 1911 the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) set out to mark the “Old Trails Road” stretching from Maryland to California. DAR women worked with the National Old Trails Road Association to mark the old Santa Fe Trail and other western migration routes. In keeping with gender norms of that period, the men of the National Old Trails Road Association “handle[d] the basic and practical side of the question,” while the DAR’s national committee “handle[d] the historic and sentimental side.”1 In 1927, Association president (and future U.S. President) Harry S. Truman and President Coolidge received congressional approval for the creation of a national memorial highway stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Initial plans called for painted mileage markers throughout the route. Inspired by Alice Cooper’s 1905 Sacajawea statue for Portland, Oregon, DAR women abandoned mileage markers in favor of 10-foot-tall pioneer mother statues. Twelve identical statues would be placed in the 12 states through which the “Old Trails Road” passed.
National DAR Commission chairperson Arlene B. Nichols Moss and her artist son worked with architectural sculptor August Leimbach to design the DAR statues. Sculptor August Leimbach envisioned a scene in which she is looking for her husband whom she believes to be in danger.
Each Madonna of the Trail strides purposely westward, dressed in a simple homespun prairie-style gown and wide-brimmed sunbonnet. Like other Pioneer Mother statues erected during the late 1920s, the 12 DAR statues balanced strong, active roles for women with softer maternal symbolism.
The statues were cast from algonite (a form of cast stone produced from a mixture of crushed marble, Missouri granite, stone, cement and lead ore) at the cost of $1,000 per statue. The statues were placed along key white migration routes, such as the early-19th-century National Road (later U.S. Route 40) and Santa Fe Trail (later the infamous Route 66). But the precise location of the monument within each state was selected based on both the site’s historical significance and the influence of local DAR and National Old Trails Association chapters.
The Ontario and Upland DAR chapters dedicated California's Madonna of the Trail on February 1, 1929. Eighty-one-year-old Carolyn Emily Cook, who migrated overland to California as a young child, unveiled the statue. One hundred carrier pigeons were released as Clark removed the covering.
A parade celebrating the dedication told the history of California over more than a century of Euro-American settlement. It emphasized progress from a Native American past to white-dominated present.
Over time, most Americans forgot about the Madonna of the Trail statues, including Upland's. But the more diverse suburban Upland,
California’s population became, the stronger that community’s investment grew
in their Pioneer Mother Movement-era statue.
Established in the 1880s, postwar interstate highway construction
transformed agrarian Upland into a bedroom community for burgeoning Ontario. Whites, African Americans and Latinos
escaping nearby Los Angeles’ rapid growth and urban unrest converged with
immigration from Latin America and Asia. By the early 21st century, Upland’s population--like that of
Southern California overall--grew quite diverse. But Upland remained much more white than
neighboring Ontario, which was 69.0% Hispanic or Latino, and only 18.2%
As Anglo-Americans lost their majority status,
Uplanders embraced their Madonna of the
Trail as an emblem of white middle-class cultural norms. One Upland resident proclaimed in 2011 that
the Madonna was crying because she--along
with her community--had recently discovered that the size of City Manager Robb
Quincey’s annual salary. Similarly, that same year a local columnist
likened a coming Shakespeare production to seeing “a full frontal nude Madonna of the Trailin the
middle of Euclid Avenue.”3 Upland's Madonna of the Trail thus enjoys renewed relevance nearly a century after its erection.