Learning from Katharine Lee Bates

America the Beautiful sheet music
America the Beautiful sheet music. Courtesy of the Library of Congress,


Poet and Professor Katharine Lee Bates is most well known for her poem “America.” Better known as "America the Beautiful," it would be set to music fifteen years after publication. A cross country trip inspired the famous lyrics. Bates travelled from her home in Massachusetts through the prairies of Kansas to the bright lights of Chicago before ending in the mountains of Colorado. Specific lines in the song reflect stops along the way- Can you guess which ones?

Bates started writing poetry as a teenager. She graduated from Wellesley with a degree in English in 1890 and then studied at Oxford University. She became the head of the English department at Wellesley. She was an avid traveler, writing about trips to Syria, Spain, and of course, across the United States. She also was active in her community. After visiting Chicago’s Hull House, she and her life partner, Katharine Coman, helped found Denison House in Boston. She also helped establish the first kindergarten in Wellesley. “American the Beautiful” like some of her other poems, expressed her hope for a more just society.

To learn more about Katharine Lee Bates go to this article or The Places of Katharine Lee Bates.


  1. Analyze the use of language to convey emotions in poetry and compare the work of multiple poets

  1. Design and research a trip with multiple points along a continuous route

  1. Describe places and experiences that are important to you using descriptive language

Inquiry Question:

How can we be both critical and hopeful of our society? How can we use language to inspire ourselves and others to act for change?

Activity 1: Ode to a Place

In “America,” Bates was inspired by the places she visited on her trip across the country. She used vivid phrases to capture the beauty she saw. Listening to the song, one can picture different landscapes.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!

This was not the only poem that celebrated a specific place. In “The Falmouth Bell,” Bates celebrates her childhood home:

Never was there lovelier town
Than our Falmouth by the sea.
Tender curves of sky look down
On her grace of knoll and lea. . . .1

Read Bates’ poem and pick out the lines that most inspire you. How does she use language to convey her feelings about the place?

Think about a place that is important to you. Close your eyes and picture yourself there. What do you see? What makes the place important? What does the place make you feel?

Write a poem or a song about that place. Remember to include descriptive language that tells your listener why the place is so special.

Activity 2: Plan an Itinerary

In Katharine Lee Bates’ time, you couldn’t hop on an airplane to get to another part of the country. Horse drawn carriages, early automobiles, boats, and especially trains allowed people to plan routes that took them through new states and cities. Scheduled to speak at Pike’s Peak in Colorado, Bates took the opportunity to go through Chicago, Kansas and other parts of the United States. This trip inspired her, even beyond her famous poem.

Think about where you would want to visit. Then, using a map, do some research on 3 to 5 places you could stop along the way. NPS’ Discover our Shared Heritage Travel Itineraries are a great place to start. What new things could you see? What would you do in each of those stops? Plan out an itinerary and share it with your family or class. Who knows where your future travels will take you?

Place Things to See
Starting Point:
Stop 1:
Stop 2:
Stop 3:

Activity 3: Comparing Visions

Bates’ poem “America” not only celebrates the United States, it lays out hope for continued improvement. It is one of many poems that celebrates and complicates America’s legacy. Historian Jill Lepore puts Bates’ poem in a larger tradition.2 Looking at other poems about America, discuss the following questions:

  1. What vision of the country is shared between these poets?

  1. Where do these poems describe different experiences of the United States?

  1. What emotions do these poets connect to America?

  1. What poem do you identify with and why?

For You O Democracy3


Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,

I will make divine magnetic lands,

                   With the love of comrades,

                      With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,

I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,

                   By the love of comrades,

                      By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!

For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

These poems are not yet in the public domain, but can be read for free at the link:

Let America Be America Again


Learning to love America


America, I Sing You Back


Activity 4: Volunteer in your Community

Bates and her partner, Katharine Coman, were active in their community. A lot of the problems they tried to fix are still facing us today: poverty, lack of opportunities for immigrant families and unequal access to education. Bates and Coman volunteered at a settlement house in Boston, which provided childcare, job training and education to immigrant families. They also helped establish a local kindergarten. What do you think the most important issue facing your community is?

Do some research about local organizations. Read their mission statement, the actions they take in the community and what volunteers can do. If you’re not sure where to start, the National Park Service has a lot of volunteer opportunities. Then, call or email to volunteer. How can each of our actions help make America more beautiful?

These activities were researched and written by Alison Russell a NCPE intern with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Part of a series of articles titled Curiosity Kit: Katharine Lee Bates .

Last updated: July 23, 2021