From murals and statues to Paducah’s official flag and seal, Native American iconography representing the people who lived on the land that became part of the Jackson Purchase Area surrounds the city. Indigenous People’s Day recognizes the history and cultures of the people native to the American continents.
In March, the Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives adopted resolutions that declared the second Monday of October Indigenous People’s Day to recognize the contributions Indigenous people have made to the state and to the nation. On Friday, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation declaring Monday Indigenous People’s Day. The Associated Press said Biden was the first president to issue that proclamation.
While there are no federally recognized tribes that reside in Kentucky, there are still people in the state who descend from Indigenous groups from across the continent. There are also some historical records that indicate some of the activities of the people who lived on these lands for thousands of years before European settlers arrived.
Local Indigenous history
Much of what is known about the tribes that inhabited western Kentucky has been learned through archeological records, written accounts from European settlers and oral history and traditions passed down from generation to generation within a tribe.
The Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission, formed in 1996 to recognize Native American contributions and influence in Kentucky’s history and culture, outlined an educational document to guide teachers who wish to teach Native American history in their classes.
According to the commission’s Native history document, the Eastern Woodlands people were most likely residing in Kentucky and nearby states by the end of the Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists found evidence indicating Indigenous people were hunter-gatherers for more than 8,000 years and were nomadic. By around 1,000 BCE (Before Common Era, another term used for Before Christ), gardening was also incorporated in many lifestyles, and homes became semi-permanent.
Richard Parker, vice president of the Jackson Purchase Historical Society, said these people were present until the rise of the Mississippian people. Archaeologists classify these people as those who lived west of the falls of the Ohio River near Louisville. According the KNAHC’s educational document, these people were the ancestors of the tribes that were living in Kentucky when European settlers arrived in North Carolina and Tennessee in the 16th century.
These people took advantage of the floodplains and developed farming techniques. The Mississippians grew crops like corn and squash in addition to hunting and gathering, according to KNAHC’s educational document.
One site the Mississippians lived is in present-day Wickliffe, where villagers lived from around 1100 CE (Common Era) to around 1350 CE. Parker said the Mississippians built a mound in Paducah at Rowlandton Mound Site, located near the Greenway Trail.
After the decline of the Mississippians in this area in around 1350 CE, Parker said two native tribes were present: the Chickasaw and the Choctaw. When settlers arrived to the area, Parker said the Chickasaw were the dominant group and controlled the area.
“The Chickasaws waged war against an early attempt by the state of Virginia to establish a fort on the Mississippi River,” Parker said.
The Chickasaw, who Parker said were backed by Great Britain, also allied with the Choctaw and the Cherokee to attack Fort Jefferson, near present-day Wickliffe, in 1781. The attack lasted five days, then settlers abandoned the fort and the tribe forces withdrew.
In October of 1818, Andrew Jackson and former Kentucky Gov. John Shelby, under authority of the United States, bought land in Kentucky and Tennessee between the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers from the Chickasaws. Parker said by the time of the Jackson Purchase, the Chickasaw’s numbers in this area were “very small.”
How Indigenous people are remembered
The 2020 U.S. Census estimates that fewer than 0.5% of people in McCracken County identify as American Indians.
There are still some physical monuments that remain from Indigenous groups in the Purchase Area and nearby. The Wickliffe Mounds State Historical Site allows visitors to see ceremonial mounds and permanent housing that was built by the Mississippian people as well as see some Native American artifacts and art.
The Trail of Tears, the route that Cherokees who were forcibly removed from their lands took as they were relocated to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, went through western Kentucky and southern Illinois. In Hopkinsville, the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park sits on land once used as a Cherokee campground where two Cherokee chiefs were buried. Another former Cherokee campsite is in Princeton.
Paducah was on the waterfront route of the Trail of Tears, and records show at least one group of Cherokee people stopped in Paducah to get supplies. Two plaques detailing this stop are located near the floodwall opening at the foot of Kentucky Avenue.
Paducah gets its name from Native Americans. Although there are statues and plaques around town that allege William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, named Paducah for Chief Paduke, a legendary Chickasaw chief who was said to hunt near this land, a letter from Clark himself challenges this story. In an 1827 letter he wrote to his son on display at the William Clark Market House Museum, Clark states he named the site Paducah in honor of the Padouca nation, which Clark described as “once the largest Nation of Indians known in this country, and now almost forgotten.”
Art on display around Paducah ties into some of the history of the tribes who once lived in the area. There are six murals on the Paducah floodwall that depict some of the routines and events of the people who lived in the area from around 10,000 years ago up until European explorers and settlers arrived. In addition to the Chief Paduke statue on Jefferson Street, there is also the Wacinton hand-chiseled sculpture that faces Park Avenue at Noble Park. According to the city’s website, the structure honors the Chickasaw people who hunted near present-day Paducah until the Jackson Purchase in 1818.
City logos also use Native American images. The city’s flag, with red sides and a white center, shows a blue side profile drawing of a Native American person with braided hair, surrounded by 15 blue stars. The city’s seal shows a Native American person barefoot wearing a headdress and wielding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other.
Follow Hannah Saad on Twitter, @ByHannahSaad or on Facebook at facebook.com/hannahsaadpaducahsun.