For more than a century, American communities erected monuments to western pioneers. Although many of these statues receive little attention today, the images they depict—sturdy white men, saintly mothers, and wholesome pioneer families—enshrine prevailing notions of American exceptionalism, race relations, and gender identity. Pioneer Mother Monuments is the first book to delve into the long and complex history of remembering, forgetting, and rediscovering pioneer monuments.
In this book, historian Cynthia Culver Prescott combines visual analysis with a close reading of primary-source documents. Examining some two hundred monuments erected in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the present, Prescott begins her survey by focusing on the earliest pioneer statues, which celebrated the strong white men who settled—and conquered—the West. By the 1930s, she explains, when gender roles began shifting, new monuments came forth to honor the Pioneer Mother. The angelic woman in a sunbonnet, armed with a rifle or a Bible as she carried civilization forward—an iconic figure—resonated particularly with Mormon audiences. While interest in these traditional monuments began to wane in the postwar period, according to Prescott, a new wave of pioneer monuments emerged in smaller communities during the late twentieth century. Inspired by rural nostalgia, these statues helped promote heritage tourism.
In recent years, Americans have engaged in heated debates about Confederate Civil War monuments and their implicit racism. Should these statues be removed or reinterpreted? Far less attention, however, has been paid to pioneer monuments, which, Prescott argues, also enshrine white cultural superiority—as well as gender stereotypes. Only a few western communities have reexamined these values and erected statues with more inclusive imagery.
Blending western history, visual culture, and memory studies, Prescott’s pathbreaking analysis is enhanced by a rich selection of color and black-and-white photographs depicting the statues along with detailed maps that chronologically chart the emergence of pioneer monuments.
“Touching on themes ranging from settler colonialism to heritage tourism, Cynthia Culver Prescott’s engaging study relates these monuments to the core beliefs they embodied, such as manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, and explains how gendered narratives of white motherhood helped build and reproduce modern American views of the ideal family.”—Erika Doss, author of Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America
“In Pioneer Mother Monuments, Cynthia Culver Prescott uncovers a long history of debates, silences, and responses to pioneer commemoration, reflecting shifting desires and anxieties prevalent in American culture and mirroring broader historical and art historical trends.”—Alison Fields, author of Picher, Oklahoma: Catastrophe, Memory, and Trauma
“An innovative and groundbreaking study, Pioneer Mother Monuments weaves race, gender, and public memory together and challenges readers to rethink the place of pioneer monuments in our communal landscape. Prescott makes a compelling case for understanding these monuments as visible elements of the nation’s settler colonial history.”—Abigail Markwyn, author of Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition
“Containing numerous photos, maps, narrative descriptions and in-depth explanations, this book not only examines most of America’s mother/women monuments but also uses them to explain imagery, visual analysis, iconic figures, cultural memory, and changes in historic interpretation…”—Roundup Magazine, Western Writers of America
“Utilizing rich narrative description and over seventy photographs, Pioneer Mother Monuments carefully guides readers through an analysis of 185 pioneer monuments erected in the United States since the 1880s…Future conversations regarding pioneer statuary will certainly include Pioneer MotherMonuments, an essential and definitive account of the history of pioneer commemoration in the United States.”—Nebraska History