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Places of Katharine Lee Bates and “America the Beautiful”

Black and white portrait of a woman wearing glasses
Katharine Lee Bates. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Katherine_Lee_Bates.jpg)
The content for this article was researched and written by Jade Ryerson, an intern with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

The opening lines of what became the song “America the Beautiful” first struck Katharine Lee Bates atop Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains. During the summer of 1893, Bates took a leave of absence from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she taught English literature. She embarked on a journey across the United States to lecture at the Colorado Summer School of Science, Philosophy, and Languages in Colorado Springs. Originally written as a poem, many of the lines in Bates’ ode to the American landscape refer to geographical features she encountered during her travels.

On July 4, 1895, Bates published the poem, “America,” in The Congregationalist. By 1904, the poem had become widely popular and was set to different musical arrangements. Its most common pairing was Samuel A. Ward’s “Materna,” the tune that we are most familiar with today. In 1910, the words and music were published together as “America the Beautiful.” Bates published a final version of the song in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1913.

You can listen to a version of "America The Beautiful" performed by the US Navy Band and Sea Chanters, at the Library of Congress website.
color photo of the exterior of a brick church surrounded by fall colors
Wellesley Congregational Church and Cemetery. Photo from the National Register nomination.

Wellesley Congregational Church and Cemetery, MA


Bates graduated from Wellesley College in 1880. She joined the faculty just five years later. After earning her master’s degree at Oxford University in 1890, Bates became the head of the English literature department. Soon after, Bates met Katharine Coman, a professor of history and economics, who became her life partner. They lived together for twenty-five years, until Coman’s death in 1915. In 1922, Bates published Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance, which included poetry about their life together. Their home on Curve Street, “The Scarab,” is still standing. Bates taught at Wellesley until her retirement in 1925. Her poetry, including “America the Beautiful,” brought her national acclaim. As a result, Bates frequently attracted large and enthusiastic crowds whenever she spoke, including at a Woman’s Union meeting at the Wellesley Congregational Church in 1908.

The Wellesley Congregational Church and Cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
Looking along a commercial street with Pikes Peak and foothills in the distance
A view of Pikes Peak from downtown Colorado Springs. Photo by David Shankbone, CC BY SA (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Downtown_Colorado_Springs_3_by_David_Shankbone.jpg)

Pikes Peak, CO


During the summer of 1893, Bates departed from Wellesley to teach at the Colorado Summer School in Colorado Springs. At the end of her three-week stay, she rode a prairie wagon to the top of Pikes Peak, part of the Rocky Mountain range. The rear of the wagon displayed the popular slogan, “Pikes Peak or Bust.” Gazing out from the top, the view from the “purple mountain majesties” captivated Bates and inspired the opening lines of “America the Beautiful.” Although her visit to the summit was brief, Bates later remarked that “all the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with sea-like expanse.”

Pikes Peak was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
Sunset falls across the beautiful Flint Hills with tall grasses showing on the hill
Sunset falls across the beautiful Flint Hills with tall grasses showing on the hill. NPS photo.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, KS


In the first stanza of “America the Beautiful,” Bates describes “amber waves of grain.” She later remarked that this lyric referred to the seas of grass and grain fields in Kansas that she could see from the top of Pikes Peak.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was established in the Flint Hills of Kansas in 1996. It protects a nationally significant remnant of the once vast prairie ecosystem.
Black and white photo of several buildings surrounding a canal
The grounds of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Collections of the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/92514561/)

Jackson Park Historic Landscape District and Midway Plaisance, IL


On the way to Colorado, Bates stopped at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Manufacturing and Liberal Arts Building featured an exhibit about Wellesley College. Bates wrote the section about the English department. Greek and Roman architecture inspired the designs for several exhibition halls. Builders covered the façades with staff, a white material made of plaster and hemp fiber. The Exposition was the first world’s fair entirely powered by electricity, which illuminated the “gleam” of the “alabaster cities.”

The Jackson Park Historic Landscape District and Midway Plaisance occupy much of the original fairgrounds. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Brick exterior of Hull House surrounded by trees
Hull House. Photo by Elisa Rolle, CC BY SA (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hull_House,_Chicago,_IL.jpg)

Hull House, IL


While in Chicago, Bates visited Jane Addams, the pioneer of the American settlement house movement, at the Hull House. Addams’ work aiding immigrant communities deeply impressed Bates. In 1892, she and her partner Katharine Coman had both assisted with the founding of Boston’s Denison House, which was modeled after the Hull House. They also helped to establish the first kindergarten in Wellesley in 1913. Although Coman participated in settlement work more extensively, Bates conveyed her interest in the social good in “America the Beautiful.” The final stanzas of the song offer praise for “heroes proved in liberating strife” and a vision of “nobleness,” and “brotherhood.” These lines became popular among American troops fighting overseas during World War I.

The Hull House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
White headstone for Katherine Lee Bates flanked by American Flags
Gravesite of Katharine Lee Bates, Oak Grove Cemetery. Photo by Elisa Rolle, CC BY SA (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:I_Oak_Grove_Cemetery,_Falmouth,_MA,_USA_(2).jpg)

Oak Grove Cemetery, MA


The refrain “From sea to shining sea!” is perhaps one of the more recognizable lyrics from “America the Beautiful.” Yet, the first version of Bates’ poem reads “And music-hearted sea!” The more familiar wording did not appear until 1910. Although Bates’ trip west concluded at the Rocky Mountains instead of the Pacific Ocean like the song suggests, she was well acquainted with the East Coast. Bates was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, near what is now Cape Cod National Seashore. After her death in 1929, her ashes were buried in Falmouth at Oak Grove Cemetery.

Oak Grove Cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.


Selected Sources:

Military Order of the Purple Heart. “History of and Lyrics to America the Beautiful.” (.pdf) Americanism. Accessed August 21, 2020.

NPR News. “American Anthem: Katharine Lee Bates Asks How We Can Do Better in ‘America the Beautiful.’” Northwest Public Broadcasting. Published April 7, 2019. Accessed August 21, 2020.

Schwarz, Judith. “‘Yellow Clover’: Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Coman.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 4, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 59-67.

Library of Congress. “America the Beautiful.” Song Collection. Accessed September 25, 2020.

Last updated: January 7, 2021