looking back

Looking Back – Pioneer Mother

By Kinen Carvala

The Pioneer Mother monument in Golden Gate Park can be found near the entrance to Stow Lake at JFK Drive. Photo by Michael Durand.

After the 1906 earthquake and fire struck San Francisco, writer Ella Sterling Mighels saw the Pioneer Monument, which featured only men commemorating the history of the colonization of California, still standing at Civic Center. The country also had statues honoring Civil War soldiers who took lives. What about the women who created and supported pioneer and military men? Mothers also undertook the journey west, and Mighels felt they needed to be represented, too.

Mighels was not alone. Starting in the 1880s, there was a nationwide Pioneer Mother monument movement, according to University of North Dakota history professor Cynthia Culver Prescott. 

Mighels had a personal connection; she was born in 1853 of a pioneer mother and father who moved to California because of the gold rush, according to an article by Brenda D. Frink. Mighels wrote throughout her adult life and became a member of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, a patriotic association for women born in California.

Mighels solicited posed photographs from various women to be considered as possible models for female monument ideas. She liked one photo in particular with a mother pointing to heaven while cradling a baby and crouching by an older daughter reading the Bible. It was around that time that mothers were receiving  more widespread recognition for their role in American life. Congress and President Woodrow Wilson established Mother’s Day in 1914.

Affiliation with the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) helped with finances, but it also meant that Mighels became just one of many voices on the PPIE Woman’s Board that took control of the monument project. Funds were raised by popular subscription; the largest donation was from the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. The board chose Charles Grafly as the sculptor, which displeased Mighels despite his classical training at not only the oldest art school in the U.S. (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) but also in Paris. Mighels wrote in letters to U.S. Sen. James D. Phelan indicating that someone from the East Coast could not capture the West’s pioneer spirit. Grafly’s design with an unclothed boy and girl and a mother wearing Native American clothing like buckskin and moccasins didn’t appeal to Mighels. Mighels had hoped the monument would project a maternal image with the mother crouching and embracing the children.

Mighels felt so strongly about women’s roles in the household that she opposed women being granted the right to vote, even as her own organization, the Native Daughters, endorsed women’s suffrage, which was implemented in 1911 in California and nationwide in 1920. (Ironically, Mighels herself had difficulty playing this domestic support role through widowhood, divorce and the death of her adult daughter). 

Mighels didn’t attend the unveiling of the 1915 PPIE bronze Pioneer Mother statue at the Palace of Fine Arts. Other prominent women attended, like philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Grand President of the Native Daughters May Boldemann, and representatives of the Pioneer Women’s Association and Santa Clara Pioneer Society. The entire monument including its marble pedestal was originally 26-feet high (today the monument is on a shorter concrete pedestal). Oxen skulls allude to pioneers’ travails on land while a relief panel of a ship represents those who travelled by sea.

A plaque on the front of the base under the statue reads: “Over rude paths beset with hunger and risk she pressed toward the vision of a better country. To an assemblage of men busied with the perishable rewards of the day she brought the three-fold leaven of enduring society – faith, gentleness, and home with the nurture of children. Benjamin Ide Wheeler.”

The Pioneer Mother monument was moved to Treasure Island for the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) in May 1940 before being rededicated and moved in December 1940 to its present-day location in Golden Gate Park’s Pioneer Meadow near the intersection of Stow Lake and JFK drives. The Examiner reported that the Pioneer Meadow rededication was attended by then-Grand President of the Native Daughters Hazel B. Hansen and Boldemann.

Two out of four panels around the base of the bronze statue are blank because Grafly never received his final payment of $2,500 out of the total $25,000 bill for the statue.

Few female statues followed the Pioneer Mother into Golden Gate Park. Even today, the Pioneer Mother is the only one.

The monument is on the southeast side of Stow Lake Drive, close to JFK Drive.

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