Dedicated to the mothers of covered wagon days, Vandalia’s Madonna of the Trail statue was one of 12 monuments erected in the United States to mark major migration paths.
In addition to the National Road, four other major trails: Boone’s Lick Road; Braddock’s or Washington’s Road; the Old Trail and the Santa Fe Trail, were considered the major east-to-west migration routes.
In 1927, a project was under way in the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) to mark these trails in some manner. Members of this group had raised $12,000 to fund 3,095 red, white and blue mile markers, to mark each mile east to west of what was designated the Old National Trails Road.
Mrs. John Trigg Moss, a member of the NSDAR is credited with the idea of a statue – a tribute to pioneer women and mothers.
She attended the dedication of the statue of Sacajawea in Portland, Ore., where major suffrage leaders of the day, including Susan B. Anthony, spoke on women’s rights.
One of the speakers, Abrigail Scott Duniway, reminded the group that Liberty was always represented as a woman, and a light bulb went off in Mrs. Trigg Moss’s head.
She convinced the national committee that a statue would fit in with what they wanted to do to mark the Old National Trail Road, and would last a lot longer than 3,095 wooden posts.
On each statue, two side panels on the base contain inscriptions telling the historical significance of the place marked by that particular Madonna statue. The front bears the words, “Madonna Of The Trail – N.S.D.A.R. Memorial – Pioneer Mothers – Covered Wagon Days."
On the base of Vandalia’s Madonna, the south face reads, “The Cumberland Road Built by The Federal Government Was Authorized by Congress And Approved By Thomas Jefferson in 1806. Vandalia Marks The Western Terminus.”
On the north face, Lincoln is honored, “At Vandalia, Abraham Lincoln, Member of Illinois Legislature, First Formulated These Basic High Principles Of Freedom And Justice, Which Gave The Slaves A Liberator, The Union A Savior.”
The Oct. 16, 1928, dedication and unveiling of the Madonna brought 10,000 people to Vandalia. School children were given the day off, with credit, because the history lesson they would learn that day would be one they would never forget.
The Madonna statue, surrounded by a square of sidewalk, stood in front of the Vandalia Statehouse until 1939. Over the objection of the local Chamber of Commerce, the statue was moved by the state to the southwest corner of the public square, and stands there today.
A tin box holding 1928 newspapers from various Illinois towns, the program from the original dedication, a Vandalia postcard and a map of the Old National Trails Road remain as a time capsule in the base.
The Madonna represents the thousands of women, our great-grandmothers, who traveled these trails, traces and roads, many walking with a babe in arms and a toddler clinging to her skirts, as depicted by the statue.
The next time you travel down Gallatin Street, take a minute and stop to read the inscriptions. Ponder, won’t you, what the words say. Look, really look, at the lady, The Madonna of the Trail.