The war on America’s past continues

Statues of pioneers could be the next target of the monument destroyers.

Alexander Adams


In the wake of recent attempts – some successful – to have Confederate statues removed from the US south, what is the future of colonialist statues in the US west? In Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory, Cynthia Culver Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, senses a reluctance to apply to pioneer monuments the ideological zeal that was turned on Confederate memorials. ‘We resist applying the insights of settler colonial studies to American pioneer narratives because to do so would call into question foundational myths of Jeffersonian agrarianism and American exceptionalism, and lay bare white conquest of native lands and peoples.’ She outlines the cases against statues of colonialists, and particularly against female settlers, who took part in the drive to colonise the American west in the 19th century.

Statues depicting women have been criticised by academics and campaigners for being idealising, inaccurate, generalising and stereotypical. There is a sense that campaigners direct such ire at statues of women settlers not just because they embody sexism and colonialism but because they show women as complicit in the act of dispossessing native peoples. There is a residual resentment that – in intersectional terms – a political minority took part in a project to oppress another minority.

The creation of monuments honouring white settlers of the west began in earnest in the 1890s. As the American western frontier was closed and territories became part of the United States, a chapter of national history had been definitively closed, too. Just under 190 monuments have been erected in the US since the 1880s marking pioneer achievements. It was a way of fixing in collective memory the achievements of forebears just at the moment their stories were becoming history. The western territories had been spared the scourge of the Civil War, and its new states had a history that involved war with Mexico, the persecution and flight of the Mormons and the Indian Wars.

In the statuary, common types emerged. Women were the prairie Madonna, the protective mother, the Indian guide leading the way, the nuclear family. Men were resolute fathers, the epitome of bravery and stoic defiance. Competitions, touring exhibitions, newspaper features and book publications circulated them, encouraging other communities to commission similar statues. Alexander Phimister Proctor’s statue of a male pioneer was an acceptable manifestation of the conquering of the west. Bearded and dressed in buckskin clothing, the pioneer wears European boots and carries a rifle. He straddles the wisdom of the natives and the technological superiority of settlers, explaining how the west was won through a combination of old knowledge and new materials.

Culver Prescott notes the example of James Earle Fraser’s sculpture The End of the Trail (1890s), which depicted an exhausted American Indian on a tired pony. Fraser had apparently developed a deep sympathy for native peoples after witnessing an army eviction. It seems the sculptor intended to elicit sympathy for evicted Indians, yet it was interpreted by contemporary observers as a scene of the sad but necessary extinction of a primitive indigenous people, conforming to the social Darwinist reading of history, in which advanced people defeat and displace inferior peoples. This is an object lesson in the variety of interpretations an artwork can elicit, regardless of artistic intent. It should alert today’s social-justice warriors to the dangers of misinterpreting public art and the risk of suppressing art on the basis of misapprehension.

There was a heyday of monument building in the 1920s and 1930s at a time when the first-generation pioneers were a diminishing minority of the population of western states. Culver Prescott notes that this boom in pioneer mother monuments coincided with the rise of the New Woman and the Flapper, presentations of femininity circulated in the mass media that undermined social assumptions. In the 1940s, the boom in pioneer statues came to an end. The beaux-arts style (idealised realism) fell out of fashion and Modernist art – such as Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and other styles – became more common and accepted.

In recent years, boards of trade and museums have sited new monuments in western towns as part of efforts to attract tourists. Monuments – many of little aesthetic worth or integrity – are sometimes part of a marketing plan to establish towns as sites of attraction for those wishing to trace the pioneer trails. In Oklahoma, towns developed large and elaborate statues in extensive statue groups as they competed for commerce and heritage tourism, and sought to distinguish themselves from other suburban commuter developments. Pioneer Mother Monuments examines the example of Schaumburg, Illinois as a case history.

In the early decades of the 20th century, many women’s associations in the American west adopted projects to celebrate pioneer mothers as civilisers of native people and uncultivated male settlers. Interestingly, this movement is an example of first-wave feminism, which is now at odds with radical third-wave feminism, which is hostile towards what its adherents consider gender-stereotypical roles. What could be more conventional for a woman than motherhood? For many feminists, the depiction of women as mothers is problematic. Depictions of women feeding, protecting and instructing children are considered demeaning. Such activities, even when undertaken willingly or happily, are viewed by some feminists as a limitation, a reduction of women to near domestic servitude. Anything that reinforces gender roles is objectionable – even if the specifically celebrated qualities (stoicism, compassion, loyalty) are admirable ones.

Opposition to these settler symbols has more than a touch of misanthropy about it. Pioneer women faced great hardship and carried terrible responsibilities caring for relatives in dangerous circumstances. The recognition of such privations in public monuments should have been a testament to the importance and fortitude of female pioneers, which would have been welcomed by campaigners for gender equality. The problem is that today, ‘pioneer’ is a term redolent of white colonialism. In intersectional terms, women are oppressed, but settlers are oppressors; ethnic whiteness tips the balance and so the depicted individuals fall into the territory of the privileged hegemonic.

Pioneer Mother Monuments includes many illustrations that convey well the character of the sculptures under discussion. Maps show the distribution of sculptures and an appendix lists the 187 monuments, with data. Yet readers will also encounter terms and concepts that are derived from gender and race studies, yet are not explained as such. ‘Inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are words that denote not actual inclusion and diversity, but anti-majority action under the auspices of countering the hegemonic colonial American narrative.

The subject of public statuary in the American west is a fascinating and fruitful area for study. If writers can set aside their ideological framework (as much as possible), and instead present us with the facts, sensitive analysis and various viewpoints, then informed and independent readers can draw their own conclusions. Pioneer Mother Monuments displays Culver Prescott’s considerable dedication, diligence and seriousness, but it will not be suitable for many readers. Some readers will find the political assumptions behind the writing too insistent and prominent.

Will monuments of pioneer mothers be the next target of monument destroyers? In the near future, individual pieces may be targeted and removed due, not to feminism, but to anti-colonialism, which has more general political and social traction among the US public. It is easier to persuade people that positive representations of settlers in some way whitewash historical fact of displacement and brutalisation of American Indians than it is for feminist academics to turn a statue of a woman in a sunbonnet into a political flashpoint. Culver Prescott admits that removing statues is ‘erasure’, but argues that the majority of pioneer statues should remain in place, not because of respect for cultural heritage, but because removing statues of women would lower the percentage of women represented in public art overall. She suggests the addition of new interpretative plaques would provide suitable space for wider views and defuse some calls for removal.

Culver Prescott shows that the main public divisions on the subject of pioneer statues are along political and regional lines rather than racial ones. Political liberals and city inhabitants (especially of university towns) tend to be sceptical of pioneer statues; rural inhabitants, Christians and conservatives tend not to find the statues offensive. Contrary to the Civil War memorials, indications are that the majority of people do not feel very strongly about pioneer monuments, which is a heartening indication of an underlying patience and tolerance in the US.

As university graduates steeped in identity politics become more prominent, activists will find more influential allies ready to accede to demands to remove statues. Statues of Columbus and other explorers have already been removed; eventually, ideologues will come for pioneer monuments, too. Despite polling evidence showing local populations support the retention of Civil War memorials, statues were removed by campaigners, politicians and civil administrators. This tyranny of the passionate minority over the moderate majority proves John Stuart Mill’s chilling maxim: ‘One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests.’

Alexander Adams is an artist and writer. Visit his website here.

Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory, by Cynthia Culver Prescott, is published by University of Oklahoma Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty Images.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


aidan maconachy

29th July 2019 at 8:51 pm

Western civilization is seen as the resident evil by “progressive” academics and pundits speaking from a place of woke authority. It’s easy to pull things down and pour derision on a civilization that has essentially facilitated everything modernity takes for granted… incuding the ivory towers inhabited by some of the wokest of the woke.

The blame game is going well beyond academic/ideological argument to something that is extremely nasty and primal… blaming of “white people” for the alleged sins of the fathers. In liberal media the use of the “n” word is seen as something worse than taking the name of God in vain, but referring to whites as “deplorables”… “red necks”… or worse is fair game in some circles.

Western civilization with its wars, exploration, conquests and settlements… helped to jettison our world to a new level. Our technological and industrial advances could never have been achieved otherwise. Were less technologically advanced peoples somehow “above” the sins the West has been accused of… the “noble savage” meme. No of course not. If they had been able to trade in spears and arrows for the military resources of the Raj they would have immediately turned it on their neighbors… probably with much worse consequence.

The rise of Western civilization was an incredible achievement, one that should be celebrated, not buried. It is a legacy being threatened by a mob distinguished by outrage and misplaced righteousness. Meanwhile of course these same icons-of-correctness leach off the many benefits that come with Western affluence without any embarrassment at all.

Winston Stanley

29th July 2019 at 5:55 pm

Obviously it is up to a society what statues they have. They can be put up and taken down as attitudes change or become more assertive. There is nothing wrong with that per se.

Statues in Britain tend to be of an imperialist bent. It is up to us whether we decide to keep them. Statues have always been about forming the present more than commemorating the past.

Trafalgar Square was all about reinforcing the self-image of Britain as the dominant imperial power, a self-image that no longer applies. There is no reason why we cannot replace it with something more contemporary or just remove it.

Or if people want to keep it then it can be retained. It is up to a society whether they keep or remove statues, there is no metaphysical law about it. It is a part of human freedom to have control over statues.

Gerard Barry

29th July 2019 at 1:49 pm

The level of self-hatred (which I see as a sign of cultural decadence) in Western countries is reaching endemic proportions.

Amelia Cantor

29th July 2019 at 11:34 am

Of course the war continues. The enemy — white cisgender males and their “civilization” — hasn’t been conquered yet. Fortunately, more troops are arriving by the hour and more future troops are being born on enemy soil.

Demography is Destiny, folks. Whites are on their way out, communities of colour are on their way in. And in more ways than one!

Philip Humphrey

29th July 2019 at 12:20 pm

Fortunately immigrant populations tend to “go native” after several generations, gradually taking on the cultural norms and outlook of the host culture. That’s why the leftists are so desperate to sow division by identity politics, they want the host culture destroyed.

Amelia Cantor

30th July 2019 at 12:35 pm

Look, I know that reality and rightards are not even on nodding acquaintance, so I don’t expect an answer to this:

How many “generations” has the black community been in the United States? And how much have they “taken on” the cultural norms of whites? Does the black community vote Republican, back gun ownership and support the Orange Rapist in the way that whites do? Hmmm?

And how’sabout other communities of colour? Would the Orange Rapist be in the White (ha!) House now if only communities of colour had been allowed to vote? Hmmm?

That’s why the leftists are so desperate to sow division by identity politics, they want the host culture destroyed.

Yeah, we’re so desperate we’re trying “identity politics”, which don’t work in the slightest. And we’re so stupid that we destroying our own cause by welcoming millions upon millions of new Republican voters in from Mexico and Africa. Stoopid, stoopid leftists! Communities of colour are “natural conservatives” and Trump’s reign will be guaranteed in perpetuity.

Or maybe not. Anyway, as I said: I don’t expect an answer. But feel free to give me some more good laughs.

Hana Jinks

29th July 2019 at 4:52 pm

War is inevitable with the demographics of that destiny.

Thanks fascist , leftie, humanist self-worshippers.

Winston Stanley

29th July 2019 at 5:45 pm

USA birth rates are at an all-time low of 1.7 per woman, way beneath replacement level. Non-Hispanic whites have the lowest birth-rate in USA, that is up to them. Non-Hispanic whites are now a minority of babies born in USA, so you may as well get over that one.

Hana Jinks

29th July 2019 at 8:43 pm

Can you stop being such an apologist for the diversity-communists? It really is most unbecoming.

Japan is proof that a decline in birthrate in a mature economy can be managed, quite apart from having to import unskilled, third-world economic migrants that rape everyone and blow them up.

I’m seeking legal advice about an incident today that is worthy of these pages involving myself, the police, and a walking black letterbox. It’s pretty serious. Head of security at the shopping centre happens to have conspired with the police to fit me up. Guess which religion of peace he subscribes to?

It’ll be a national story…maybe international.

Winston Stanley

29th July 2019 at 10:47 pm

Mass immigration is driven by capitalist development and by the contrary tendencies for the birth rate to fall while the need for labour increases, to expand the economy and to maintain profitability, especially when productivity growth is historically low as today. It is not driven by communism, which is unsurprising, seeing as we live in capitalist societies and not communist.

The USA is headed by a minority white population, regardless of whether immigration continues there, because of birth rate disparities. A majority of babies born in USA are already of other ethnic backgrounds.

Japan has over two million immigrants and it changed its policy last December to allow for more immigrants to sustain the economy. The previous policy was to increase the birth rate and to get robots to do the work but that has not worked out. The Japanese birth rate remains collapsed at 1.42 per woman and there is no sign of robots taking over jobs in the near.

Seriously, you got nicked for mouthing off at a Muslim woman at the shopping centre? You need to calm down, your religion is going to get you into trouble. Religious fundamentalism can make people reckless and even heedless of the law or their own safety. It is a shame that you do not have a priest to advise you, but that is Protestantism for you.

As Japan’s population gets older and smaller, the government is struggling to balance its own deeply conservative views on immigration with the need for new and younger workers. Public opinion is on the side of change. Despite perceptions of xenophobia, a 2018 Pew survey revealed that 59% of Japanese believed immigrants would actually make the country stronger.

This week, Japanese lawmakers approved a policy change proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that will create new visa categories to allow an estimated 340,000 foreign workers to take both high-skilled and low-wage jobs in Japan over the next five years.

While this represents a major shift in Japan’s approach to immigration, many experts argue it doesn’t go far enough.

Japan is already a “super-aged” nation — meaning that more than 20% of its population is over 65 years old. Just 946,060 babies were born in 2017, a record low since official records began in 1899, while an increase in deaths accelerated the population decline.

The decline means a shrinking cohort of workers is left supporting an increasingly elderly population in need of healthcare and pensions.

Winston Stanley

29th July 2019 at 10:50 pm

* headed FOR

Hana Jinks

30th July 2019 at 11:41 am

Sorry..some of those “the’s” should be “they’s”.

The relevance to him him being an islander is this. After I’d pointed out that the security dude was obviously a woman-bagger too and they’d tried the racism one on, …l asked him about how if l really was a real bad racist and said some utterly vile things about his heritage, well wouldn’t that be sticks and stones? I mean, you wouldn’t be able to attack me in a bar for these words would you? And dude obviously IS a muslim…

They just gave me a funny look as dude smiled.

Amelia Cantor

30th July 2019 at 12:36 pm

Thank you, Winston. Whites are dying out fast and the future belongs to communities of colour and the Democratic party.

But don’t expect reality to affect the closed minds of rightards. They’re not going to break the habit of a lifetime and admit the truth!

Hana Jinks

31st July 2019 at 8:48 am


The post got modded out about what happened, and no, l didn’t abuse her, and wouldn’t abuse anyone.

Hana Jinks

1st August 2019 at 10:43 am

One of the filth was an islander.

Stephen J

29th July 2019 at 8:42 am

What I do not understand about those that would destroy history rather than try to understand it seem sublimely unaware that they are completely bonkers.

Winston Stanley

29th July 2019 at 6:16 pm

People would say that they want to remove statues b/c they understand history in a contemporary or personal way, as did the people who put up the statues.

There is no single “right” way to understand history, even in the making. Interpretation is always relative both at the time and later on. Values, attitudes and interests compete and change.

In that sense, public statues are often a function of power, the attempt to reify and to make permanent particular attitudes and the dominance of particular interests. Statues can also just be art and memory but there tends to be more to it than that.

Ven Oods

29th July 2019 at 8:28 am

Interesting article. Like the author, I fear that this swathe of erasure will continue until everyone is safely wirhin the New-think bubble and resistance is not only futile, but impossible.

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