Monumental task

UND professor’s new project brings America’s bronzed history to life across the West

Cynthia Prescott

UND Associate History Professor Cynthia Prescott spent years creating walking tours and gathering information about pioneer monuments. She’s now sharing her work via an app, web site and a forthcoming book. (Above) She stands alongside a a bust of former UND President George Starcher, sculpted by Arvard Fairbanks, a well-known artist who once served as a visiting professor at UND. His pieces dot the UND campus, U.S. Capitol and the American West. Photo by Tyler Ingham/ UND Today.

Have you ever walked or driven by a historical statue and wanted to know more about it?

There’s an app for that.

Cynthia Prescott has spent years creating walking tours and gathering information about pioneer monuments, and she shares her work via an app, web site and a forthcoming book.

“My goal is to take the research on each statue and make it available to people locally and on vacation,” said the associate professor of history at UND.

Prescott uses Clio, a mobile app which offers historical and cultural information that’s customized by location with walking and driving tours. Her students have also added entries from Grand Forks and their hometowns.

Her web site contains information on 200 statues, an interactive map and timeline, and more.

Prescott’s research reveals the continued relevance of the humanities, noted Debbie Storrs, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. This relevance led to a competitive public engagement seed grant from the Whiting Foundation to continue her work. Prescott’s latest book, Pioneer Mother Monuments: Construction Cultural Memory, is set for release next spring.

Even though it will be published by an academic press, Prescott said she hopes the book is also of interest to the general public.

“When local museums talk about history, they should be informed by the latest research,” she said. “And scholarly research should be accessible to the community.

“As historians, we talk to each other and write books for each other,” Prescott continued. “Many people in the community are interested in history, and scholars often have a narrow field of research. I like to see opportunities to bring the two together.”

Sharing stories

Prescott teaches courses in American women and gender, the American West, and the United States since 1877, among others.

She said she has always been fascinated by people’s stories. As a child, she loved the Little House on the Prairie books and played the Oregon Trail video game.

“I still remember what we read in school about people living on the frontier,” Prescott said. “I was a suburban girl in Ohio, and interested in the people who migrated from Ohio to Oregon on the Oregon Trail.”

In graduate school, Prescott was particularly interested in stories of women in the 1800s. The challenge, she said, was finding sources.

“Women’s stories often weren’t preserved,” she said. “But the people who traveled on the Oregon Trail kept and preserved diaries.” There are more than 700 Overland Trail diaries, but so much scholarly research had been done on them that she wanted to find another research avenue.

“I wanted to know what happened when people got to Oregon,” Prescott said. So she started looking at statues, clothing and quilts as another way to learn about women’s lives in the 19th century.

Pioneer family close up

The Pioneer Family monument at the North Dakota State Capitol was sculpted by Fairbanks and dedicated in 1947. The bronze figures represent a pioneer family and the “Spirit of the West,” with the wagon wheel signifying progress. Photo from pioneermonuments.net.

Remembering frontier

That led to the pioneer monument project.

Many pioneer monuments were erected in the 1920s and 1930s, said Prescott, and the iconic statue of a woman in a long dress and sunbonnet is ubiquitous across the northern plains.

“She was often carrying a baby with her son by her side, armed with a Bible or a rifle,” said Prescott. “The Bible was a symbol of bringing European civilization to the ‘Wild West.’”

Prescott is especially interested in how the statues depict women.

“It’s not an accident that statues of women in sunbonnets and long dresses were erected in the 1920s during the Flapper era,” said Prescott. “The statues were often more about promoting the goals of future society than ‘doing good history.’ They enshrine certain notions and values of proper womanhood. The gender norms of the time were a motivating factor.”

And as times change, said Prescott, so has the way some statues are perceived. She recalls the rash of debate about Confederate monuments and racial implications that took place in the last couple of years.

“Scholars have been talking about that for the last 15-20 years,” she said. “When statues were put up, they meant certain things. Today, people often don’t know that. The Confederate debate helped us realize that monuments mean different things to different people.”

Prescott will give the first in a series of public lectures and walking tours this summer, beginning at the San Francisco Library. Next summer, Bismarck, Portland, Ore., and Denver are on her itinerary. The travel is supported by the UND College of Arts & Sciences Fine Arts & Humanities Scholarship Initiative.

“Prescott’s work was selected for college funding because of its relevance and importance in understanding the human condition,” said Storrs.

Prescott hopes that her work will help bridge the interests of the academic community and the general public.

“I love finding out what people really thought about the statues,” she said. “And I love learning how people lived and sharing those stories.”