On the fridge in my grandmother’s kitchen is a small photo from the ’80s of my aunt, then a student, perched on the shoulders of the UO’s iconic pioneer statue. That grainy shot was my first glimpse of campus.
Hustling down 13th Avenue on the first day of classes, I felt confused and increasingly frantic in the unfamiliar landscape. Casting a nervous glance about my surroundings, I caught sight of the face I had seen so many times while playing with magnets on my grandmother’s fridge. With about two minutes to make it to my next lecture, I paused in the midst of busy foot traffic and took solace in the confident gaze of the bronze pioneer man. I thought about how my aunt had posed for a picture on the same statue 30 years before, and figured that if she could rock being a Duck, so could I.
Several weeks into fall term I noticed that the buckskin-clad pioneer wasn’t missing out on any late-night festivities—someone had updated his rugged attire with a glow-in-the-dark necklace. Rumors were circulating that the pioneer statue had served as a model for Jebediah Springfield, the fictional founder of Homer Simpson’s city in The Simpsons. After catching a glimpse of the statue in the opening credits of Animal House, I realized that the stoic frontiersman was distinctly entrenched in the culture and history of the UO.
In 1918, a Portland lawyer named Joseph N. Teal commissioned renowned American sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor to create a statue for the UO campus that would serve as a reminder of the pioneers whose legacy “should ever be an inspiration to the youth of the country.” Proctor searched for over a decade to find the perfect model, hoping to convey the real spirit of the Old West. He befriended grizzled fur trapper Jess Cravens, who agreed to lend his figure to the piece.
Although the statue depicts a man fully clothed in buckskin garments and rustic accessories, Cravens posed entirely in the nude and Proctor added the apparel later. The two moved to Oregon around the same time, and Cravens actually married his wife in Proctor’s backyard.
The first statue to grace campus, Pioneer was installed in the spring of 1919, and unveiled before a crowd that included several Oregon pioneers and their descendants.
It wasn’t until later that I realized the pioneer man had an equally stoic friend, a statue known as The Pioneer Mother, who represents the symbolic end of the journey. The two statues stare at one another in eternal silence, anchored in the beginning and the end of pioneer history.
To me, Pioneer is less a celebration of Manifest Destiny and more a reminder of our individual legacies on the UO campus and beyond. I hope that the thousands of students who walk past that statue are inspired by the courage and hard work that it embodies, but it is also comforting to know that this noble bronze pioneer was a naked Davy Crockett-esque character at one point—just as human as the rest of us.
—By Chloe Huckins
Chloe Huckins is a junior journalism and anthropology major from Portland.