Purple Mountain Majesties

From the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak, "America the Beautiful" was born.
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Credit: AGE Fotostock

Credit: AGE Fotostock

In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates, a 33-year-old professor of English literature at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, traveled by rail across the country to Colorado Springs, where she lectured at Colorado College for the summer session. Before the end of her stay, she and a few colleagues chose to summit the famed “fourteener,” Pike’s Peak.

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Though the Cog Railway began its operation of hustling tourists up the mountain two years earlier, Bates found herself on a horse-drawn wagon that read “Pike’s Peak or Bust” across the tailboard. The horses were changed out with a team of mules for the final ascent, and at last, Bates was graced with the view that inspired the poem that would come to be regarded as “an expression of patriotism at its finest.”

“It was then and there,” Bates recounted, “as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.”

She completed the poem that evening, and it was published for the first time on July 4, 1895, in The Congregationalist newspaper. It was printed again in 1904 with revised lyrics, and again in a 1911 collection of her poems titled as the version we are still familiar with today.

The poem was sung to just about any melody a person could make fit, until 1910, when it appeared for the first time as hymn No. 266 in the volume Fellowship Hymns, with music originally composed in 1882 by Samuel Augustus Ward, titled “Materna.” “Materna” was originally created to accompany the words of the hymn, “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem,” but once paired with “America the Beautiful,” its fate had been determined. In 1926, in an effort to find music to officially accompany the poem, the National Federation of Music Clubs held a contest for a new composition. Not one entry sufficed, and “Materna” became the de facto musical accompaniment. 

Though penned nearly 80 years after the “Star-Spangled Banner,” it was not until 1931 that our National Anthem was made official. And now, just as it was then, there are those who believe “America the Beautiful” would have been an appropriate choice, as it speaks to the country, in its entirety, and has even been referred to as the “national heartbeat set to music.”

As Lynn Sherr, ABCNews correspondent and author of America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation’s Favorite Song, describes the ballad, “it talks about country, a land and its people…. It talks about the possibilities of this nation.” Possibilities that Bates proclaimed through brotherhood.

For American Cowboy’s 20th anniversary, we identified the four values we hold most dear to our way of life and listed first is Respect for our fellow man…. Our brotherhood, if you will. 

The notion is as timeless as the purple mountain majesties that still appear at dusk, and the amber-colored grain that will forever wave in the winds that continue to blow from one shining sea to the other. It is the notion that truly does make America beautiful.

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This article is from the American Cowboy Code of the West Collector's issue. Purchase your copy here.

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