Madonna of the Trail (Vandalia, IL)
Madonna of the Trail, Vandalia, Illinois. Photo by Cynthia Prescott.
Madonna of the Trail plaque. Photo by Cynthia Prescott.
Madonna of the Trail monument base. Photo by Cynthia Prescott.
Backstory and Context
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.
Vandalia was selected to receive the Illinois Madonna because the town was the state capitol from 1820-1839. It was also the end of the old National Road.
When construction of the National Road (also known as Cumberland Trail) began in 1811, the federal government intended for it to reach from Cumberland, Maryland, to St. Louis, Missouri. By 1836 it had reached the Illinois state capitol at Vandalia. But federal funding ended before the road was completed. Illinois officials preferred a route that would connect Vandalia to the Mississippi River at Alton, and further construction got bogged down in debate. By the time the federal government formally transferred control of the Illinois section of the road to that state in 1856, the state had turned its attention to canals and railroads. Vandalia remained the terminus of the now neglected National Road.
Bartlett, Helen. "The Madonna of the Trail." Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 103 (1969),.
Daughters of the American Revolution. Twenty-Second Report of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution: March 1, 1918, to March 1, 1919. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1921.
Bauer, Fern Ioula. The Historic Treasure Chest of the Madonna of the Trail, J. McEnaney Printing; Springfield, Ohio, 1984.
Medlicott, Carol, and Michael Heffernan. “‘Autograph of a Nation’: The Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Old Trails Road, 1910–1927.” National Identities 6, no. 3 (2004): 233–260.
Prescott, Cynthia Culver. Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory. University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.
Hardin, Thomas L. "The National Road in Illinois." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 60, No. 1 (Spring, 1967): 5-22.