INSIGHT: Think Confederate markers are racist? Look at pioneer statues


In San Francisco, there is an an 800-ton monument that retells California history, from the Spanish missions to American settlement. Several bronze sculptures and relief plaques depict American Indians, white miners, missionaries and settlers. A female figure symbolizing white culture stands atop a massive stone pillar.

The design of the “pioneer monument” was celebrated in newspapers across the country when it was erected in 1894. Today, however, activists argue that the monument – particularly its depiction of a Spanish missionary and Mexican “vaquero,” or cowboy, towering over an American Indian – is demeaning to American Indians.

Should the city take down part of this 125-year-old monument?

Frank Happersberger’s pioneer monument, San Francisco, California, 1894. Lisa Allen.

COMMENTARY: Our Capitol’s plaque lies about history. Let’s remove it.

Many cities are removing or reinterpreting their Confederate monuments, with the understanding that they commemorate racism. But few Americans realize that pioneer monuments placed across the country are also racist.

As my research and forthcoming book on pioneer monuments since the 1890s show, most early pioneer statues celebrated whites dominating American Indians.

Confederate and pioneer monuments

Since at least 2015, cities across the United States have debated what to do with more than 700 Confederate monuments.

After the Civil War, grieving widows raised funds to place monuments to soldiers in southern cemeteries. But most statues of Confederate leaders and foot soldiers were put up around 1900 by heritage organizations to honor the “Lost Cause.”

The “Lost Cause” is the idea that that the Civil War began as a heroic defense against northern aggression. In fact, the Civil War was primarily fought to defend slavery.

In the past few years, cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana and Baltimore, Maryland have chosen to remove their Confederate statues. Activists tore down a Confederate soldier statue in Durham, North Carolina last year.

 

RELATED: Rename Austin? City report on Confederate monuments raises idea.

By contrast, there has been far less attention on the roughly 200 pioneer monuments erected for similar reasons around the same time.

The earliest pioneer monuments were put up in midwestern and western cities such as Des Moines, Iowa and San Francisco, California. They date from the 1890s and early 1900s, as whites settled the frontier and pushed American Indians onto reservations.

Those statues showed white men claiming land and building farms and cities in the West. They explicitly celebrated the dominant white view of the Wild West progressing from American Indian “savagery” to white “civilization.”

Deviations from that script produced public controversy. For example, Denver residents in 1907 vocally opposed prominent American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies’s plan for a pioneer monument. MacMonnies proposed a large stone pillar surrounded by bronze hunters, miners and settlers similar to San Francisco’s celebrated monument. MacMonnies’s model included a mounted Plains American Indian warrior atop the pillar to show American Indians yielding to white settlement.

But Denver residents expected the figure at the top of the pillar to represent the pinnacle of progress, like “Eureka,” the female figure representing the spirit of California on San Francisco’s monument.

Denver’s residents argued that the monument needed a white man on top, so MacMonnies revised his design, replacing the American Indian warrior with frontiersman and American Indian fighter Kit Carson, on horseback.

ALSO READ: After Charlottesville, Austin’s Confederate monuments get a second look.

By the 1920s, whites controlled most western lands, and they stopped depicting American Indians in their pioneer monuments. New pioneer monuments from Maryland to California focused on western women. Pioneer mothers in sunbonnets stood for white “civilization” winning in the West. And they offered a conservative model of womanhood to contrast flappers wearing short dresses and bobbed hair and women’s growing sexual freedom.

More recent monuments, such as Goodland, Kansas’s “They Came to Stay” and Omaha, Nebraska’s “Pioneer Courage,” do not directly engage racial politics. As their titles suggest, these statues honor pioneer families’ grit, and they teach local history.

But these statues still represent a racist view, ignoring the cost of white settlement on Native lands. Like earlier monuments, they reinforce white dominance and erase ethnic diversity in the American West.

Pioneer monuments today

The recent debate about Confederate monuments has sparked some discussion of pioneer monuments in a few places. In April, Kalamazoo, Michigan removed its 1940 “Fountain of the Pioneers” because local residents disliked its depiction of a white settler looming over an American Indian.

HOW TO SEND A LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Click this link to submit your thoughts. 

After decades of protest, San Francisco is debating taking down the depiction of a Spanish missionary towering over an American Indian from the 1894 pioneer monument.

In the 1990s, activists persuaded the city to place a plaque telling the dark side of California history in front of the statue. But today protesters argue that plaque, hidden by landscaping, is not enough. They want “Early Days” – if not the entire monument – taken down.

The San Francisco Arts Commission agrees, but the Board of Appeals blocked its removal in April.

Each pioneer monument has its own history and local meaning. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But communities are beginning to consider removing or reinterpreting these monuments to white conquest.

Prescott is an associate professor of history at the University of North Dakota.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Letters to the editor: Aug. 20, 2018
Letters to the editor: Aug. 20, 2018

Re: Aug. 15 commentary, “Georgetown’s renewable energy push earns worldwide acclaim.” Kudos to Mayor Dale Ross for taking advantage of the available renewable power in Texas. Yes, for the city of about 70,000, it is doable — but it required future vision and willingness to move away from fossil fuels. It took years for Georgetown...
Commentary: The fix to Texas’s doctor shortage lies abroad
Commentary: The fix to Texas’s doctor shortage lies abroad

The Lone Star State is suffering a severe shortage of doctors. On a per-capita basis, Texas has fewer primary care physicians than all but three states. About 20,000 primary care doctors currently practice in Texas — but the state will need 6,000 more by 2030 to meet the needs of its growing population. Texas medical schools won’t be able...
Opinion: Partying like it’s 1998

And now for something completely similar. For a while, those of us who devoted a lot of time to understanding the Asian financial crisis two decades ago were wondering whether Turkey was going to stage a re-enactment. Sure enough, that’s what seems to be happening. Here’s the script: start with a country that, for whatever reason, became...
Commentary: The lessons learned from CodeNext’s death
Commentary: The lessons learned from CodeNext’s death

CodeNext may be dead, but it should not rest in peace. There is much to be learned from the failed CodeNext process. First, let’s acknowledge that CodeNext got some things right. The process started with a strong critique of the current development code, which is a mess. Austin’s development process is unpredictable and wasteful. It benefits...
Letters to the editor: Aug. 19, 2018
Letters to the editor: Aug. 19, 2018

Thanks, and congratulations, to retired admiral William H. McRaven and the other National Security officials who have spoken out about the decisions being made by the current administration. They, along with some journalists, business leaders, and a few members of Congress, are finally calling to task the current president for decisions that are destroying...
More Stories