In the summer of 1893 Katharine Lee Bates was a visiting guest lecturer at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Quite a trip for a woman who was born in Massachusetts in 1859, and was now head of the English Literature Department of Wellesley College, also located in Massachusetts.
Miss Bates was the only daughter in a home with several brothers. Her father, a Congregational minister, died a month after Katharine was born. And yes, her name is spelled Katharine. Her brothers decided to enter into business so as to provide for their widowed mother and to make sure that little “Katie” had the opportunity to receive the best education. Katie was also a very bright and gifted child, excelling in her studies. She was in the second graduation class of Wellesley College in 1880.
The state of Colorado is known as the “Centennial State” because it was established as a state in the year 1876, the 100th anniversary of our nation. So Miss Bates has come to visit this new state in 1893. She had never seen such spectacular scenery as she found in Colorado. Being adventurous, she and several friends decided to go up Pikes Peak, all 14,115 feet of the mountain, located a mere ten miles from Colorado Springs.
The vista she took in was so stunningly beautiful that the poet in her cried out for expression. She sat down and penned, “Pikes Peak.” This mountain is named for explorer Zebulon Pike who took an expedition into southern Colorado in 1806. In her own words she described her reaction to Pikes Peak: “One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.” She later jotted down the poem on the back of an envelope in her hotel room.
You may be thinking that you have never read or even heard of this poem. But I guarantee that you are very familiar with the words, and may well be able to recite at least the first verse. How can I be so sure? Because the poem was revised two more times by Miss Bates: once in 1904 and the final version in 1913. It was first published for a church paper on Independence Day, July 4th 1895. It was so popular that it was soon published under the title, “America.” Shortly after the turn of the century, Miss Bates’ poem was joined to the music of Samuel A. Ward, church organist and choirmaster. It was released as a patriotic song in 1910, with a new title, “America the Beautiful.”
Until the National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” was officially established in 1931 by an act of Congress, other songs were frequently used as the national anthem. One such song was “America the Beautiful.” Two other favorites were, “God Bless America,” and “My Country Tis of Thee.” There are still many Americans today who strongly believe that “America the Beautiful” is the preferred choice as the national anthem.
The final version of the poem written by Miss Bates has four verses. Everyone knows the first verse: “O Beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed his grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.” In this verse you can easily detect the impact her trip to Colorado had made on her. She left from the New England seacoast traveling through the Ohio Valley and into the mid-west where she would gaze upon “amber waves of grain and fruited plain” as far as the eye could see. And of course there would be the “purple mountain majesties” in Colorado.
Ah, but it is the third verse that I am drawn to! “O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life! America! America! May God thy gold refine till all success be nobleness and every gain divine!” Here was a woman born in the heart of New England where the Revolutionary War had begun. The “shot heard ’round the world” was fired at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Concord, Massachusetts in 1775. She was born eighty-four years later a few miles away in Falmouth. She would have been six years old when the Civil War ended. No doubt she grew up hearing of the many battles fought in defense of the Union as veterans sat around the cracker barrel at the country store, or met in the parlors of the homes of friends and family reliving the shot and shell of the hell we call the Civil War. The names of local men who performed heroic deeds would have been known to every school child. Though quite old by the time Miss Bates would have heard the stories, there would have been some residents who were still alive who had fought alongside of George Washington during the Revolution (1775-83). Or who had repelled the British a second time in the War of 1812. And even the Mexican-American War (1846-48) would have produced many veterans from New England. The phrase, “May God thy gold refine,” most likely is a tribute to the sacrificial quality of character found in the men who fought for freedom. They were living proof of the Bible verse, John 15:13, that says “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Katharine Lee Bates was so beloved an American that, though she had many accolades bestowed upon her in her lifetime, she would have been most pleased in knowing that two schools were subsequently named after her: one in Wellesley, and a second in Colorado Springs – from shining sea, to purple mountain majesties. And it all started with a poem written about the majestic grandeur of Pikes Peak!