Madonna of the Trail: Monuments and the Real Women They Represent

Written by: Julie Maresco


She left her beloved world behind;

To embark on a trail that was seldom kind,

And with it came sickness, grief, and sorrow

All for the dream of a brighter tomorrow.

Poem by: Julie Maresco

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     I really do learn something new about the NSDAR every day. I don’t know about the rest of my fellow chapter members, but I had never heard of the Madonna of the Trail Statues before taking the DAR Members Course and I am so excited to share what I’ve learned. There is a lot of information about the statues that you can search for on the internet, so I wanted to share not only about the statues, but also about my research on a real-life Madonna of the Trail.

     My first question when I heard about these statues was simple: “What on earth is a Madonna of the Trail and what does it have to do with DAR?” Well my research answered that question and it turns out they have everything to do with DAR. In 1911, the NSDAR formed the National Old Trails Road Committee to establish the Old Trails Road as a great National Memorial Highway. The following year, the National Old Trails Road Association was organized and the roadway officially became known as the National Old Trails Road. The Association wanted to recognize the contributions of pioneer women by erecting statues and placing one in each of the twelve states along the road from Maryland to California. The committee chair, Judge and future U.S. President Harry S Truman, guaranteed the expense of the erection of the monuments and their design was completed in 1927.

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     An acquaintance of the committee’s Chairwoman Arlene B. Nichols Moss recommended the sculptor August Leimbach from St. Louis, Missouri, to design the statues. The committee accepted and approved his design for twelve statues of a mother with her son tugging on her dress below her, a baby in her left arm and a rifle in her right arm. The statue represents the hard work of the pioneer women and their ability to care for a family under the most trying of circumstances. These women were brave and loving wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. They left behind their whole lives to accompany their families across the country to find more opportunities and settle out West.

     One of the closer monuments to us here in New York is located in Beallsville, Pennsylvania. It was dedicated on December 8, 1929, and is still in its original location along US 40. I intend to visit this monument one day in the near future. I find these monuments beautiful and inspiring, but they became even more special once I learned about the actual women to whom they are dedicated. I wanted to learn about a real pioneer woman from Pennsylvania who I could think about when I finally stand before the statue of the Madonna of the Trail. My research led me to the diary of pioneer woman named Agnes Stewart Warner, and its pages provided me with so much insight into what the life of a Madonna of the Trail really entailed. 

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     Agnes Stewart kept a diary of her seven-month trip from Pennsylvania to Oregon in 1853 that detailed her difficult experience. Agnes missed her friends and was quite sad to be leaving her life in Pennsylvania behind. She also faced several hardships along her journey. The first she wrote about was when her party was crossing the Missouri River. Four men who were crossing the river with their oxen all drowned after their boat capsized. This was a traumatic experience for Agnes and the members of their wagon party.

     She also saw a gruesome scene while camping along the Blue River in modern-day Nebraska where a woman’s grave was dug too shallow and was dug up by wolves. Along the trail, death became all too familiar for Agnes and yet she was able to still find beauty and wrote about beautiful summer flowers and finding peaceful moments whenever she could. 

     Once her party reached Oregon, they decided to take an arduous route that took them over the Cascade Mountain Range. They lost the original trail and had great difficulty reaching their final destination. Members of the party were nearly starving with minimal rations of rice and practically inedible meat by the end of their journey.

     Agnes Stewart married Thomas Warner, who was also a member of the wagon train, and together they had five children. Her life in Oregon appeared to be rewarding, but the journey to get there was demanding, challenging, and dangerous.

     Agnes. and the other many women like her, faced certain hardships that included leaving their lifelong friends and neighbors behind, dealing with storms and bad weather, losing their oxen to sickness and accidents, becoming ill themselves, constantly being exposed to death, fear of being attacked by Native Indian Tribes, not having enough water, and the wear on their spirits and mental wellbeing. Nonetheless, these women were strong and resilient and they created a sense of home for the men and children on these journeys. They absolutely deserve our utmost gratitude and respect for their great sacrifices.

     When you think about the Madonna of the Trail, think of women like Agnes who suffered greatly all for the dream of creating a better future for herself and her family. These women were a great example of how formidable the American Spirit truly is.

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Churchill, Claire Warner. “The Journey to Oregon—A Pioneer Girl’s Diary,” Oregon Historical Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 1 (March 1928): 77-98.






3 thoughts on “Madonna of the Trail: Monuments and the Real Women They Represent”

  1. Hello Julie! I am working on the New Members course, writing an article on the Madonna’s of the Trail. Would it be okay with you for me to use your poem and reference your article? I love the “slant” that you took and highlighting a pilgrim mother!


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