Person

Katharine Lee Bates

Head and shoulders portrait of woman wearing glasses.
c. 1880-1890

Courtesy Schlesinger Library, https://www.flickr.com/photos/schlesinger_library/14549382879/

Quick Facts

Katharine Lee Bates was a professor and writer best remembered as the author of the lyrics to the song “America the Beautiful.” She shared a home for almost three decades with her companion, fellow academic and social reformer Katharine Coman.


Think of a time when you have felt inspired by the natural world. How did you express it?
 

Early Life and Work

Katharine Lee Bates was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts in 1859. Her father died when she was just weeks old, and she was raised by her mother and aunt. Well-educated women themselves, they sent Bates to high school and then to Wellesley College.[1] She graduated in 1880 and took teaching work nearby.

In 1889, Bates published a poem, “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” in a collection called Sunshine and other Verses for Children. Her poem helped to popularize Mrs. Claus in the public consciousness. That same year, Rose and Thorn, a young adult novel that she had written, won a prize. Bates used the prize money to fund a voyage to England. She studied at Oxford University in 1890 and 1891. After returning to the US, she became a professor of English literature at Wellesley and while there, completed her master’s degree.

In addition to teaching, Bates wrote nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. She published in newspapers and magazines like the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly. Active as a social reformer, she co-founded a settlement house in Boston called the Denison House. Denison House was modeled after Jane AddamsHull House in Chicago.[2] Bates became involved in the global peace movement after World War I. She advocated for the formation of the League of Nations and considered herself a global citizen.

Relationship with Katharine Coman

In 1885, Bates met Katharine Coman, a professor of history and political economy at Wellesley. Bates and Coman lived together for many years in a home in Wellesley owned by the Bates family. Bates had dubbed the house “The Scarab" after a visit to Egypt. The two women worked and traveled together. Although Bates destroyed most of their correspondence, surviving letters show a loving relationship. “You are always in my heart and in my longings,” Bates wrote to Coman while studying in England. “It was the living away from you that made, at first, the prospect of leaving Wellesley so heartachy…and it seemed least of all possible when I had just found the long-desired way to your dearest heart.” After Coman’s death from breast cancer in 1915, Bates wrote a memorial and a series of poems dedicated to her.

Cohabitation and close relationships among women were not uncommon in the 1800s. They are sometimes called “Boston marriages.” They allowed women to support each other and pursue career ambitions without being legally, socially, or financially constrained by marriage to a man. Some of these relationships were probably platonic friendships, while others were physically intimate. We cannot know the exact nature of Bates’s and Coman’s partnership, but it was clearly loving and central to their lives.

“America the Beautiful”

In the summer of 1893, Bates took the trip that would inspire her best-known work. She traveled west to teach English for a few weeks at the Colorado Summer School in Colorado Springs. One day she joined a group of teachers for a trip by wagon and mule up Pikes Peak, a summit in the Rocky Mountains. When they reached the top, joy at the beauty of the landscape replaced Bates’s exhaustion. Back at her hotel, she wrote the first draft of the poem that would become “America the Beautiful.”

From her perch on top of one of the “purple mountain majesties,” Bates was able to look out over the prairie grasses and wheat fields of Kansas.[3] She memorialized them in the song as “amber waves of grain.” The line “thine alabaster cities gleam” nods to Bates’s experience visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fair was the first one to be entirely powered by electricity. Bates’s experience as a reformer and her frustration with the inequalities of American life also made their way into the poem. “America! America/God shed His grace on thee,” read the original version, “Till selfish gain no longer stain/The banner of the free!”

Read more about the places that inspired Bates to write “America the Beautiful.”

The poem was set to a variety of different tunes over the years. The version we know today was published in 1910 set to a tune by Samuel A. Ward called “Moderna.”

“America the Beautiful” was well-established as a popular tune by the time of Bates’s death in 1929. She is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Falmouth, MA.[4]

Notes

[1] Wellesley Congregational Church and Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
[2] Hull House was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 23, 1965 and added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.
[3] Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve protects a nationally significant remnant of the once vast prairie ecosystem. It was established in the Flint Hills of Kansas in 1996.
[4] Oak Grove Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places on September 10, 2014.

Bibliography

Faderman, Lillian. To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America – A History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Library of Congress. “America the Beautiful.” Song Collection. Accessed September 25, 2020.
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.
Ponder, Melinda M. Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea. Chicago: Windy City Publishers, 2017.
Schwarz, Judith. “‘Yellow Clover’: Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Coman.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 4, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 59-67.

Article by Ella Wagner, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.