Our Natural Heritage
In 1821, Hoosiers considered naming their newly selected state capital in the center of the state Tecumseh. After days of debate, the State General Assembly named the selected site Indianapolis – literally, Indiana City or the city of the land of the Indians. Indianapolis "would indicate to all the world the locality of the Town" according to the legislator credited with originating the name. Please see The Indiana Historian: Part I & Part II
When the surveyors led by Alexander Ralston (Ralston's monument) set out to plat the new capital in the New Purchase, only traces of the mound builders who preceded the Indians were still in evidence. The sparsely populated "city" contained a few scattered log cabins surrounded by dense forest. In MAKING A CAPITAL IN THE WILDERNESS Daniel Wait Howe describes how, "The site selected was covered with a dense growth of oak, elm, poplar, ash, sugar, walnut, hickory, beech, buckeye and other forest trees, with a thick undergrowth of spicewood and prickly ash and pawpaws; alders and leatherwood grew on the banks of the streams."
Left: Drawing of the Indianapolis area in 1821, taken from the book, A home in the Woods - Pioneer Life in Indiana, Oliver Johnson's reminiscences of early Marion County as related by Howard Johnson. Note the yellow outline of where Crown Hill would eventually be developed.
Over time the dense forest of Indianapolis gave way to farms and urban development. The grounds we know as Crown Hill changed from forest, to farm, to cemetery.
Right: Photo of early Crown Hill.
The elevation that gives the name "Crown Hill" to the cemetery, popularly known at the time of the cemetery's founding as "Strawberry Hill," was part of the Martin Williams farm and tree nursery. (Below) "The hill, the highest in the county, offers a magnificent view of the Indianapolis skyline. It was a favored picnic spot for the city's pioneers who celebrated the City of Indianapolis semi-centennial at the "Crown Hill picnic grounds." It continues to be a popular destination for tourists and visitors today.
Left: Indianapolis from Williams (Crown) Hill, circa 1861, painted from memory by Christian Schrader. This view is from the top of the Crown looking south towards downtown, and the road on the right is the current Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. The rows of plantings are a tree nursery on the 154-acre farm owned by Martin Williams. Crown Hill purchased Mr. Williams' farm on October 13, 1863, just 18 days after the cemetery's incorporation. To see all the sections that Mr. Williams' farm occupied, please note the file "Map of CHC Property." (From the collection of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.)
Right: Thousands of people tour Crown Hill each year. Pictured here is a school group enjoying a guided tour at one of the most popular sites at Crown Hill - the James Whitcomb Riley memorial high atop Crown Hill.
Crown Hill was founded as "A Rural Cemetery for Indianapolis" in 1863. Rural cemeteries served as the nation's first parks for growing communities dealing with industrialization and urbanization. Crown Hill, like other rural cemeteries, was designed to follow the natural contours of the land. Winding roads through forest areas led to clearings filled with artistic statuary, architectural landmarks, and elegant mausoleums. Families strolled the grounds like tourists to enjoy and get back to nature, see the latest memorials, and learn about the lives of those at rest. Rural cemeteries provided a setting in which to remember the dead and instruct the living, a tradition that is carried on at Crown Hill by the Crown Hill Heritage Foundation.
Nowadays Crown Hill is considered an "urban forest" and is the largest remaining green space inside the I465 beltway that circles Indianapolis. The cemetery is home to 130 species of trees featuring 4,156 inventoried trees with extensive wooded areas and includes more kinds of trees than many people ever have the chance to enjoy in one place. The spring blooms are magical at Crown Hill and the fall colors breathtaking. The sheer size and variety of trees are a treat for all seasons.
Visitors come from around the world to enjoy the trees at Crown Hill and discover Ginkgo, Carolina Silverbell, Goldenrain, Northern Catalpa, American Holly, Mockernut Hickory, the state champ Hornbeam, Hercules' Club, Kentucky Coffee, Weeping European Beech, and more. Students come to gather leaves for their leaf collections. Families who have lost loved ones come to find peace and comfort in the trees. All may catch a glance of the deer, a variety of birds, scampering squirrels, and the occasional fox.