Women’s History Month: Pioneer Mother Memorial

pioneer mother memorial in golden gate park

We’re celebrating Women’s History Month by featuring some of the most influential and noteworthy women who have played a role in making our parks system the best in the country. This week, we take a closer look at the Pioneer Mother Memorial in Golden Gate Park, the only sculpture of a woman in the park.

Located near the Pioneer Log Cabin is the huge figure of a cloaked woman with outstretched hands and two youthful innocents, a boy and a girl. The sculpture is a symbolic tribute to all mothers who braved the journey West over land or sea. The piece was created a year before the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), where it was placed to overlook the entrance to the Palace of Fine Arts colonnade. The date of 1914 was significant because the U.S. Congress proclaimed the establishment of Mother’s Day that year. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, chaired the Pioneer Mother Monument Association that came up with the idea of creating the piece. The $25,000 cost was funded from the pennies and nickels donated by children, and by popular subscription, with the largest sum given by the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West.

Dr. Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president of the University of California at Berkeley, wrote the inscription on the base, beginning “Over rude paths beset with hunger and risk she pressed onward toward the vision of a better country.” The base, modeled in 1915, also has bas-relief plaques depicting modes of transportation for the pioneers’ journey West and whimsical, traditional-appearing moldings that are in fact cactus leaves, pine needles, and pinecones; its corners feature cattle skulls and daggers, symbolizing the perils some experienced during the long journey.

Sculptor Charles Grafly was selected by the association from a competition of nine entries including one by Daniel Chester French, a leading sculptor of the day and creator of the Starr King Monument. Grafly created the main figure from a live model in his studio in Gloucester, Mass. and submitted several designs in maquette form to the association, which reside in the collections of the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, Wichita, Kans. The Roman Bronze Works of Brooklyn, N.Y, cast the final pieces.

When the Panama-Pacific International Exposition closed, the bronze languished in storage at the Palace of Fine Arts, its dress marred by graffiti. Proposals were made in 1926, 1928, and 1936 to move it to the park, but the park commission rejected each scheme. The piece was exhibited again on Treasure Island for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) near the Tower of the Sun, and then was moved to the park in 1940 under the auspices of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, who really wanted it placed in the Civic Center. The statue was rededicated on December 8, 1940, in its current spot. The sculpture sits on a newer concrete pedestal with a bronze plaque that was created in 2004.

The Pioneer Mother Monument’s design probably inspired a dozen cast stone sculptures known as “Madonna of the Trail,” which are spread across 12 states from Maryland to Southern California. Sponsored by the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, the pieces were installed during 1928 and 1929. They mark the route of the National Old Trails Road, a symbolic ocean-to-ocean highway.

– Historian-in-Residence, Christopher Pollock

pioneer mother statue