At the corner of Gracely and Thornton Avenues in Sayler Park, just a couple of blocks from the Ohio River, an Indian sentinel has watched over Cincinnati’s westernmost neighborhood for nearly a century. It has been there for so long, and is such a well-known landmark, that it is listed on Cincinnati’s historic register.
The statue has been variously known as Tecumseh, the Sayler Park Indian, or the Fernbank Indian, and it was originally intended to depict a Late Woodland Indian, one of a people who lived in the area when white settlers first arrived, though some people say that the attire is not correct—the Indian is wearing “white man’s clothes.” (Some people also say it was a generic “Indian chief” statue on hand at the J. L. Mott Foundry on the Harlem River in New York City.)
The official name of the statue is the J. Fitzhugh Thornton Memorial, and it was erected by J. Fitzhugh’s wife, Eliza Thornton, as a memorial to her husband after he died in 1907. The statue, on a high pedestal, was erected in a triangle (called Thornton Triangle, Cincinnati’s smallest park) in front of the Thornton home. The statue was dedicated on January 15, 1912.
In the great flood of 1937, the statue was almost entirely submerged by the rising waters of the nearby Ohio River, and just three years later it was hit by a car and damaged. The Sayler Park Indian survived both ignomonious events, but according to Sayler Park resident Amy Searcy, when it was hit again by a slightly tipsy driver in the mid-1960s, the city felt it was beyond repair and sold it to an antiques dealer (some say a junk dealer) in southeast Indiana.
The people of Sayler Park rose up as one to protest the loss of their eponymous Indian, and according to Searcy, the city found the original statue and the community raised the funds needed to buy it back from the antiques dealer so it could be reinstalled in Thornton Triangle.
But the statue had seen better days, and in 2002, extensive repairs were needed, which led to the purchase of a new statue, recast in bronze, which was installed on the pedestal and dedicated in 2003. The original statue now stands in a corner of the Sayler Park Recreation Center.
So the memorial remains to J. Fitzhugh Thornton, an early and prominent resident of the Village of Fernbank, which became part of Sayler Park when the area was incorporated into the city in 1912. The area became a Cincinnati neighbhorhood not long after a dam and lock were built on the Ohio River at Fernbank, and about the same time as the statue was originally erected. So, for the entire history of the neighborhood of Sayler Park, the Indian has stood gazing northward, away from the river and toward the city’s westernmost community.