Think Confederate Monuments Are Racist? Consider Pioneer Monuments

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?

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.

By contrast, there has…

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