Madonna of the Trail (Lexington, Missouri)
Madonna of the Trail. Photo by Cynthia Prescott.
Backstory and Context
In the late 1920s, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) commissioned twelve identical Pioneer Mother monuments in the late 1920s for a dozen states stretching from Maryland to California. In part because there were so many of them spread across the nation, Leimbach’s statues would become arguably the best-known American pioneer mother monuments ever erected.
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 Missouri statue stands in Lexington, the so-called "History City," overlooking the Missouri River. It stands near the site of the 3-day Civil War Battle of Lexington. The town was located on the Santa Fe Trail and the route of the Pony Express. The statue was dedicated September 17, 1928, by Harry S. Truman, a judge in neighboring Jackson County and president of the National Old Trails Road association.
A Lexington, Missouri, woman depicted the local Madonna of the Trail in a tableau included in the pageant that opened the General Federation of Women's Clubs triennial convention at Kansas City in 1938.
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.
Bartlett, Helen. "The Madonna of the Trail." Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 103 (1969).
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.