America the Beautiful first appeared in print in the weekly journal The Congregationalist, on July 4, 1895. The lyrics were written while on an 1893 summer lecture series at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
Looking at the view of the Rockies from Pikes Peak, its author, Katharine Lee Bates recalls, "It was then and there, 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. When we left Colorado Springs the four stanzas were penciled in my notebook, together with other memoranda, in verse and prose, of the trip. The Wellesley work soon absorbed time and attention again, the notebook was laid aside, and I do not remember paying heed to these verses until the second summer following, when I copied them out and sent them to The Congregationalist, where they first appeared in print July 4, 1895. The hymn attracted an unexpected amount of attention. It was almost at once set to music by Silas G. Pratt. Other tunes were written for the words and so many requests came to me, with still increasing frequency, that in 1904 I rewrote it, trying to make the phraseology more simple and direct."
In addition to simplifying the phrasing and text, Bates made one change in the wording of the third stanza adding beautiful. The new version was published in The Boston Evening Transcript on November 19, 1904. While the poem was sung with a variety of tunes, it has almost exclusively adapted Samuel A. Wards Materna as its melody.
Katharine Lee Bates was born on August 12th, 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Moving to Wellesley as a child, she attended Wellesley high school graduating in 1874. She continued her education at Newton High school and then entered Wellesley College graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College in 1880. From 1880 to 1925, Bates taught at Wellesley College as a professor of English Literature. She also studied at Oxford and earned a masters degree in arts from Wellesley.
Bates was a noted scholar, poet and writer. She was a prolific author publishing many volumes of poetry, books on her travels to Europe and the Middle East and stories, verses and plays for children. She also published several books on Shakespeare and pre-Shakespearean English Religious drama.
In 1915, Bates was a founder of the New England Poetry Club and served as its president. She was involved in social reform activities, working for labor reform and planning the College Settlements Association with Vida Scudder. Bates lived for 25 years with Katharine Coman. She never married and had no children. In 1925, Bates retired and spent the remaining years in Wellesley. Katherine Lee Bates died on March 28, 1929.
Bates remarked on the immediate and lasting success of the song stating: That the hymn has gained, in these twenty odd years, such a hold as it has upon our people, is clearly due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood.