Katharine Lee Bates was born on August 12, 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts. She went to the all-women Wellesley College in 1876, graduating in 1880. She taught high school English for five years. During this time she wrote and published a successful novel, Rose and Thorn, in which she included poor and working class women characters to teach about social reform. In 1890 she went to England to study for a year at Oxford University. Returning to the United States, she took a position as associate professor at Wellesley in 1891. After earning her Master’s Degree the following year, she became a full professor of English Literature at Wellesley, where she remained for forty years.
Bates’ writing was that of a true social activist, championing the role of women the poor, people of color, and immigrants. She had seen how the Industrial Revolution ravaged the poor in both England and the United States. She wrote for the New York Times and numerous monthly magazines, wrote children’s stories, travel books, essays, and many books of verse. After being a life-long Republican, she broke with the party when they rejected President Wilson’s plan to join the League of Nations. She saw herself as a citizen of the world and hated the idea of isolationism.
Bates is best known for her poem America the Beautiful, first drafted in the summer of 1893, while teaching English at the Colorado Summer School at Colorado College. Katharine recalled, “…one day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave it 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,” The first draft of the poem was done that summer, and the final version was finished ten years later. It was set to music written by Samuel Ward, who had written the music for his 1892 hymn, Materna.
Today, her statue sits in front of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, keeping a loving eye on Pikes Peak from the top of which came KLB’s inspiration for America the Beautiful. Katharine Lee Bates died on March 28, 1929.
Generously Submitted by John Orsborn, CSPM Volunteer Educator