Snippet of History's Women: The Arts: Katharine Lee Bates - An Academic’s Patriotic Verses

The Arts: Katharine Lee Bates - An Academic’s Patriotic VersesKatharine Lee Bates
An Academic’s Patriotic Verses
1959–1929 A.D.

When Katharine Lee Bates jotted down the words of America the Beautiful, while standing on the summit of Pikes Peak in 1893, she already had a national reputation as a prestigious woman academic. Indeed, while today we know her mostly as the author of the words of the beloved patriotic hymn, at the time she was already the author of a best-selling novel, as well as numerous poems and articles.

Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts in August, 1859 as the daughter of a Congregational minister and his wife, Katharine was raised (after her father’s death) by her mother and an aunt. Both had graduated from a major women’s college of the time. At a time when many girls only received a basic education, Katharine attended various high schools until 1876 when she enrolled in a key women’s college, Massachusetts’ Wellesley College where she graduated with her bachelor’s degree.

After that Katharine taught at various schools, then in 1889 her young adult novel Rose and Thorn was published by a church organization, and proved very popular. Her work was unique because at that time when most young women seemed to prefer works of sentimental romance, Katharine’s novel depicted poor and working class women, as characters as a way to introduce readers about social reform. Following that, Miss Bates published another story collection in 1889 that included a poem that featured Mrs. Santa Claus as the chief organizer of Christmas Eve.

Then in 1890 using the profits from her novel Miss Bates traveled to England to study at Oxford University for a year, and upon her return to Wellesley she earned an M.A. then became an associate professor there. She also continued to regularly contribute to national publications.

While continuing to teach at Wellesley for many years, Miss Bates also continued to advocate for social welfare issues benefiting women, working classes and immigrants. After World War I she supported world peace and was especially active in the establishment of the League of Nations.

She died in Wellesley, Massachusetts in March, 1929.

However, while well known in her time as an important female academic, she was also known—and honored as we do—as the author of the words of the patriotic hymn America the Beautiful. And the story of its creation began when she took a working vacation to the west.

According to one source, In 1893 Miss Bates was asked to teach a summer course, at a Colorado college. Though traveling alone as a single woman was unusual at the time, Miss Bates wanted to see the American west, that she had only read about. On her way there she took time to visit two popular tourist venues.

The first stop was at Niagara Falls to see the power and majesty of the location. Then she stopped in Chicago to visit the Columbian Exposition, a commemoration of the discovery of America, by Christopher Columns 400 years before. Already a popular tourist destination, the Exposition was a vast complex of beautiful buildings, dramatic exhibits, fun rides and mass crowds. It was traditionally the origin site of the ice cream cone, the hot dog, and the first Ferris wheel. Then besides touring these features, Miss Bates and others were amazed and inspired at a special program, where a choir of thousands of voices sang My Country, ‘Tis of Thee followed by a fireworks display.

Miss Bates continued west to Colorado, to assume her teaching duties at the college, but after a few weeks she took time off to play tourist with a trip to the summit of Pike’s Peak. There in a mule drawn wagon she joined other sightseers for the long journey up the mountains. When they financially reached the top the view was literally breathtaking and one author (Ace Collins) described what she saw. “From a point near the summit,” he wrote, “the teacher looked out into a clear sky. Beneath this canopy of blue she saw snow capped mountains, flat wheat fields that fed a nation, tiny towns, large rivers and reads that seemed to disappear over the edge of the world.” Her experience at Niagara Falls had been amazing but this view was even more so.

Miss Bates later wrote to a friend: ”All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”

As she took in the scene her lifelong habit of making notes caused her to begin to jot down the words that were flowing through her mind. Then, as often happens with a writer’s inspiration, she resumed her routine and only looked at her notes somewhat later. Again, to quote Mr. Collins, “Yet what she read did not initially impress her. As she would tell others, the words simply didn’t measure up to what she had witnessed.” Still, after polishing the lines, she sent the finished piece to a publisher and to her surprise the Congregationalist magazine published America the Beautiful in July, 1895.

At the time many magazines and even newspapers published poetry—much of it unmemorable—that was not the case for Miss Bates’ poem. There were hundreds of appreciative notes from subscribers, and as it was reprinted nationally, many readers begin to try to pair the words to existing melodies.

Then in 1904, when Rev. Clarence A. Barbour embraced the idea of finding the right melody, and after much research finally realized that he had found the right one. It was a melody titled Materna composed by the late Samuel Ward and Miss Bates’ words and Mr. Ward’s music were paired to a performance in Rev. Barbour’s church in Boston. Then in 1910 the combination was published in a best-selling book of hymns. From there American the Beautiful entered American cultural history.

However, as popular as it was, neither Miss Bates, or Mr. Ward’s family apparently never sought any royalties from the many performances, They really believed that since it seemed God was behind the hymn’s creation they did not seek financial advantage. They believed, as Mr. Collins put it, “…the song was and is God’s gift to America.”


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Hymns That Inspire America; Songs That Unite Our Nation, Zondervan, 2003

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