What’s in a Name? Louisville’s City Parks as Sites of Learning

In the third installment of “The Monuments Among Us” series (see Sara Porterfield’s post on Bears Ears here and Travis May’s discussion of British memorials here), Erstwhile editor Alessandra Link reflects on three city parks in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Link makes abstract and concrete connections between the Kentucky frontier mythology enshrined in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the creation of several Louisville parks bearing Indian names.  Link re-imagines these parks as sites of learning, potential staging-grounds for frank conversation about Kentucky’s complex pasts and presents.

Daniel Boone, Kentucky’s darling, arrived in Chicago in the winter of 1893. Boone died seventy-three years before, but he continued to animate the pioneer mythology of both the Bluegrass and the United States. In Chicago that winter you could find him cast in bronze, peering out from the Kentucky State Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Civic and business leaders across the United States organized the expo to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas (it opened a year late). The fair displayed a young nation’s industrial acumen and modern ambitions. For Enid Yandell, the young female sculptor from Kentucky who carved Boone out of stone, the fair would be a springboard for her career in a male-dominated discipline.[1] The exposition also showcased the work of a prominent landscape architect: Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted added the design of the exposition grounds to his impressive list of projects, which included Central Park in New York City and several parks in Yandell’s Louisville, Kentucky.

boone in cherokke park

Enid Yandell’s Daniel Boone statue, created for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, now presides over Cherokee Park. Daniel Boone Monument, Cherokee Park, Louisville, KY, between 1900 and 1910, Library of Congress.

In Chicago that same winter Frederick Jackson Turner, long heralded as the founder of western American history, delivered his famous frontier thesis at the annual meeting of the American History Association. He defined the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” and characterized American history as a process of westward movement and settlement onto “free land.” Turner’s manifesto contained most of the hardware of western American mythology: savage Indians on the brink of extinction, enterprising white male pioneers, untouched wilderness. Turner did not name him outright, but Boone was there too. Cast as the “Lone Scout” figure, Boone figured in Turner’s narrative as a rough-and-tumble frontiersman who shed his European sensibilities and forged a new, uniquely American identity in the wilderness. Turner also referenced the Bluegrass when he invited his audience to “stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file—the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur trader and hunter, the cattle raiser, the pioneer farmer–and the frontier has passed by.”[2] According to Turner, the Indian would suffer the same fate as the bison that once trekked through the Bluegrass: extinction. Turner’s thesis did not spring from his imagination. He captured a prevailing national sentiment and put it into words. After his Chicago proclamation the frontier would become the guiding philosophy of western American history, a monument to the American past in its own right, one with ties to Kentucky landscapes and historical figures. In words and in stone, Turner and Yandell memorialized Kentucky and cemented its place in the frontier history of the United States.

People often marvel at how I—a Kentuckian—came to study the American West. My short answer is simple: in some times and in some places, Kentucky is the West.  A longer response involves Yandell, Turner, Boone, and the lasting frontier mythology set—among other places—in the salt licks and bluffs of the Bluegrass. Historians have long rejected the pageantry and ethno-centrism of Turner’s thesis. They have peeled back the gilded veneer of Kentucky’s role in that story too, revealing the violent underbelly of conquest and colonization that are central themes in Kentucky’s and the United States’ histories.[3] The land was not free. The march anything but single file. But the myth, however choked by this scholarly work, lingers. I’m reminded of it every time I set foot in one of Louisville’s Olmsted-designed city parks: Cherokee, Seneca, Iroquois, Shawnee, and Algonquin. The parks bear Indigenous names, but they do not tell the story of conquest and colonization that explains how Indigenous homelands became city parks.

Kentucky tends to many stories. Some—like Boone’s—have reached local and national prominence, often as a tangled web of fact and fiction not easily teased out. Others rest beneath the surface, requiring what Julia Frankenbach calls “the right kind of digging.” Historians do this digging, and the book is the classic medium with which they share their excavations. My recent work with tribal leaders, the Center of the American West, and the National Park Service evaluating Indigenous representation at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park has me turning to these city parks with their Indian names and imagining the stories they might tell. How could Louisville’s parks act as mediums for sharing historical knowledge? For building bridges between the name and the past and present of the communities they reference?

Naming public space is bound up in the cultural fabric of a community. Names can bestow honor and respect, reflect community values, and be entry points into larger historical conversations and public dialogue. Names of prominent public spaces are monuments in and of themselves, and provide opportunities for visitors to confront particular stories about a community, event, or individual. It is no wonder, then, that the city of Louisville debated the naming of its parks. In August of 1891 a board of six prominent city business leaders met to discuss the names of three main parks that flank the city to the east, south, and west. Concerned Louisvillians wrote in to local newspapers to share their thoughts on the matter. After some debate, the commission settled on the names of tribes that historically populated Kentucky: Cherokee, Shawnee, and Iroquois. The commissioners explained that they chose those names so that “the original owners of the soil would be remembered.”[4] Memorialization was important to these commissioners, who included Confederate and Union veterans actively involved in the remembrance of the Civil War. Former Union Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Cowan helped organize a reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg, while Confederate Colonel John B. Castleman prepared Louisville for a Confederate veterans gathering in 1905. Local arrangements for the Louisville event included a barbecue and garden party in Shawnee Park.[5]

But what kind of memory would the park names preserve? A name is a powerful marker of presence, but a name alone, plucked from the stream of history, lacks context and critical engagement with the past. And these parks emerged out of their own politics of memorialization, a politics steeped in the ethnocentrism of the park commissioners. By naming the parks after Indigenous communities, the commissioners continued a longstanding and ongoing practice of associating Indians with nature, and in doing so confined Indigenous peoples to a pre-industrial past. One Louisvillian summed up a defense of the parks’ naming bluntly, in a statement that calls to mind Turner’s frontier between “savagery and civilization.” “A park, like a picnic, is a sort of lapse from civilization,” the author wrote in the Courier-Journal, “it is a response to the demand of the primitive qualities in the cultivated man.” “Given a park and considering its motives and purposes,” the editorial concluded, “nothing could be more appropriate than to give it a savage Indian name.”[6] These commissioners, aided by the local and state governments, created Cherokee, Shawnee, and Iroquois parks for white consumption and leisure. Blacks would be excluded from these parks and Indians honored as “primitive” relics of the past.[7]

Shawnee park

Riverside Drive, Shawnee Park, Louisville, KY, 1890, Library of Congress.

These parks bear names, but not these and other important stories. The histories of Indigenous presence in these parks are not visible. Neither are accounts of violence and treaty-making and unmaking that begin to explain how Indigenous lands became recreation spaces for city whites.


Iroquois Park, on the top of Observation Hill, looking toward Louisville, Kentucky, 1922, Library of Congress.

Today Kentuckians participate in a national conversation about public monuments. Some Louisvillians (myself included) call for the removal of a Confederate Col. John Breckenridge Castleman statue in Cherokee Park. Most recently, state commissioners delayed removing a plaque from a statue of Jefferson Davis that calls him a “hero” and “patriot,” uncertain of their legal right to do so. While the commissioners drag their feet on the Davis monument, another inspiring Kentuckian is addressing monuments to women. Shocked at the lack of state monuments to women (the first Louisville monument to a woman was erected two years ago), Asya Akca founded Monumental Women, a non-profit dedicated to commissioning monuments to women in the state and beyond.

FullSizeRender 2

Winter at Iroquois Park, 2017. Photo by author.

When I think of Akca’s initiative, I’m reminded of the hidden potential of Louisville’s parks. Thousands of visitors enjoy these beautiful places. Might they be the spaces for a historical reckoning? Could we make these recreational spaces sites of learning?

Cherokee, Shawnee, and Iroquois parks provide opportunities. Kentucky has a rich history of Indigenous presence. Woodland, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures made homes here long before Boone, George Rogers Clark, and other colonists arrived.[8] In the Late Archaic period, present-day Louisville was the site of a vibrant and sizable Indigenous settlement. Floodplain sloughs there created oxbow lakes perfect for fishing, while the Falls of the Ohio offered a shallow pathway through the Ohio River that bison and their hunters used as a major river crossing, leaving a trace that extended from the grasslands and salt licks of central Kentucky to Illinois.[9] Iroquois Park might offer story boards or a lecture series devoted to the former name of the space, “Burnt Knob,” which harks to Indigenous controlled burns of the forests to regenerate growth and sustain the ecologies that supported their communities.[10] Iroquois and Shawnee parks could also recount the bloody confrontations between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Shawnee which tore through the Bluegrass on the eve of European settlement.[11] The parks would include conversations about the Delawares, Miamis, and Foxes who also occupied the Bluegrass, and the Treaty of Greenville signed in 1794, in which tribes who had allied with the British against the United States in the Northwest Indian Wars had little choice but to cede their homes in the Ohio Valley.[12] Visitors would learn about the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which resulted in the forced removal of Shawnees, Miamis, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and others west of the Mississippi.[13] With these stories, the park names would serve as entry points into conversation about the past.


Fall at Cherokee Park, 2017. Photo by Lynne Link.

These histories would provide an important backdrop for contemporary Indigenous activities in the parks. Park officials should invite Indigenous peoples to these spaces to participate in activities of the educational, spiritual, and recreational varieties. Indigenous artists could erect public art works. The Trail of Tears Commemorative Park in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is already engaging in this kind of activity. Every year the park hosts an intertribal powwow and Cherokee “Remember the Removal” cyclists. Contemporary Indigenous presence in Louisville’s city parks serves as a powerful antidote to the mythic elixir of the Kentucky frontier, a tonic that guided the naming of the parks in the 1890s but does not have to structure our parks’ future. Chicago in 1893 might have memorialized the Kentucky frontier, but Kentucky parks today ought to tell a different set of stories.

[1] See “Kentucky’s Sculptor Enid Yandell,” Smithsonian Archives of American Art, August 31, 2015, accessed November 28, 2017 at https://www.aaa.si.edu/blog/2015/08/kentucky%E2%80%99s-sculptor-enid-yandell.

[2] See John Mack Faragher, ed. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).

[3] See Stephen Aron, “The Significance of the Kentucky Frontier,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society vol. 91, no. 3 (summer 1993), pp. 298-323.

[4] Louisville Post, August 13, 1891, from ledger in Temple Bodley Collection, Mss A. B668 72-73a/b, The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

[5] “Opponent of Pickett at Gettysburg Dies,” The Kentuckian, August 30, 1919, p. 5; and “Louisville Arrangements,” Confederate Veteran, April, 1905, vol. XIII, no. 4.

[6] Courier-Journal, August 2, 1891, from ledger in Temple Bodley Collection, mss A. B668 72-73a/b, The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky. Recent studies of Indigenous media representations show that the “historical Indian” still dominates mainstream conversations about Indians. See Peter A. Leavitt, Rebecca Covarubbias, Yvonne A. Perez, Stephanie A. Fryberg, ” ‘Frozen in Time’: The Impact of Native American Media Representations on Idenity and Self-Understanding,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 71, issue 1, (March 2015), 39-53.

[7] See Eric Barnette, Parks for the People! Profit, Power, and Frederick Law Olmsted in Louisville (Louisville, Kentucky: Holland Brown Books, 2017).

[8] R. Barry Lewis, ed., Kentucky Archeology (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

[9] Lewis, Kentucky Archeology, 64; and Samuel P. Snell and Angie R. Kreiger, “Lost and Forgotten Historic Roads: The Buffalo Trace, a Case Study,” U.S. Forest Service Report, accessed November 30, 2017 at https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5444947.pdf.

[10] Temple Bodley, “Notes on the park system of Louisville,” Mss A B668.48, Temple Bodley Papers, The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

[11] A. Gwynn Henderson and David Pollack, “A Native History of Kentucky,” in Native America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Daniel S. Murphree, vol. 1. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood Press, 2012).

[12] See Michael N. McConnell, A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and Its Peoples, 1724-1774 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); and Gregory Dowd, A Spirited Resistance:  The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815, (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

[13] See John T. Bowes, Land Too Good For Indians: Northern Indian Removal (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016); and Mary Stockwell, The Other Trail of Tears: The Removal of the Ohio Indians, (Yardley, Penn.: Westholme Publishing, 2016); and Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, eds., The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St.Martins, 2005).


3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Louisville’s City Parks as Sites of Learning

  1. Reblogged this on Musings on Borders and Violence and commented:
    I love Alessandra’s thoughts on using existing monuments and historical sites to tell histories based on multiple perspectives. I find this line of thinking particularly compelling as I think about monuments to Spanish conquistadores in NM, and, more specifically, about the naming of Pancho Villa state park in Columbus, New Mexico.

  2. Pingback: Moving away from monuments: Doing southern history well at two South Carolina house museums | Erstwhile: A History Blog

  3. Pingback: Reckoning with the Past: Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as Model | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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