The harm of hallowed ground

Why do we fight over places where bad things happened?


Most of us live far from the island of Manhattan in New York City, where a local zoning matter has turned into a national argument about what might be built near "hallowed ground" or a "sacred place." But it is the sort of controversy that pops up often in the West, from Martin's Cove in Wyoming to the San Francisco Peaks of Arizona.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, four American passenger jetliners were hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists. One plane plowed into the Pentagon. Passengers stormed the cockpit and brought another plane down in rural Pennsylvania.

The other two were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, collapsing both towers. All told, nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks -- 2,753 of them in New York at "Ground Zero."

That's the "hallowed ground" we hear about when right-thinking politicians denounce the "Ground Zero Mosque," which is actually two blocks away and is more of a community center than a mosque. And within those blocks are bars and strip clubs and fast-food joints -- hardly anyone's idea of the sacred. But most of the contention from the Newts and Sarahs of this world ignores mere facts, and focuses instead on "hallowed ground."

Just what does it take to sanctify a piece of real estate? Native Americans speak of traditional holy places, as with the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Ariz. The Navajo say they mark the boundary of their homeland and offer a place to collect herbs for healing ceremonies. The Hopi say the three 12,000-foot summits are home for half of each year to ancestral kachina spirits who bring rain.

Since I don't know enough about Native American cosmology or theology to address this any further, I'll look at my own cultural traditions as to "hallowed ground." And in general, outside of a churchyard, it seems to mean "something really terrible happened here."

President Abraham Lincoln used a variant of the phrase on Nov. 19, 1863, during his brief remarks at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg. Pa. Something terrible happened there -- the bloodiest battle of America's bloodiest war with nearly 60,000 casualties, about 8,000 of them fatalities.

As Lincoln explained, it wasn't the invocations of the preachers, but all that blood shed by Americans shooting at other Americans, which made for holy ground: "We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it...."

The Civil War gave us some other "hallowed ground." Or so says a history of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, which calls it "America's most sacred ground." It wasn't the site of a battle; it's a burial ground for warriors, and that started as an act of spite.

Arlington was a plantation owned by Robert E. Lee, who resigned from the U.S. Army to command the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Arlington was occupied early in the war by Union soldiers. They may have respected Lee's military skill, but otherwise held him in low esteem. The plantation house was used as a field hospital. And to be sure that Lee would never want to return to the estate, Union Gen. Montgomery Meigs began burying Union dead on the grounds -- more than 16,000 before the end of the war.

So we have bloody battles and spite to sanctify American ground in the East. How about out here in the West?

Consider Martin's Cove, about 55 miles southwest of Casper, Wyo., and the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center. While it may be rather out-of-the-way today, four major pioneer routes ran through it -- the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Pony Express, and the Mormon Trail that took Latter Day Saints from Iowa to Salt Lake City.

Some of those LDS pioneers made the trek, not with teams and wagons, but pulling 300-pound handcarts. One group of nearly 600 Mormons, the Martin Handcart Company, left Iowa City in late July of 1856 -- too late to beat the weather, which caught them with a Wyoming blizzard in early November. They found some shelter against a bluff near the Sweetwater River, but were stalled for five days. Perhaps 56 pioneers died of cold and exposure before they could resume their journey.

The Mormon Church bought an adjacent ranch and has tried to buy Martin's Cove from the federal Bureau of Land Management. When the BLM balked, Mormon lobbyists got Congress to order a 25-year lease to the church, which in turn inspired litigation from the ACLU and the Alliance for Historic Wyoming.

Why the LDS push for the property? ElDean Holliday, who managed the church's visitor center in 2005, explained that "It's sacred to us because so many people have died here." As a history buff, I'm all for preservation. And it's important we remember the horrors of massacres like Sand Creek and Ludlow. But I don't understand how tragedy creates a sacred spot.

For all I know, my own home might sit on such land. In late April of 1855, Col. Thomas Fauntleroy led a punitive expedition against the Utes north out of the San Luis Valley and over Poncha Pass. They surprised 150 warriors at a bonfire. One U.S. soldier died and two were wounded; about 50 Utes were killed.

Some accounts put the "battle" right where I live, on a lot presumably sanctified by blood shed 165 years ago, although somehow I've missed experiencing any reverence or awe on that account.

Perhaps that's because I was raised in a different spiritual tradition, by parents who were hard-shell Baptists. Though I've strayed far from that straight and narrow path, I still remember being taught that God was everywhere, so no physical place was any more or less sacred than any other. In Sunday School, we learned that God buried Moses in a secret spot , so that the grave could not become any sort of shrine or sacred place.

Given that, it's hard for me to see any tangible spot as hallowed or sacred -- especially when it was the site of death, bloodshed, tragedy and horror. And I suspect we'd suffer less tragedy and bloodshed if people gave up on the concept of “hallowed ground” and quit fighting over it.






Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Hallowed Ground
Sep 02, 2010 09:43 AM
I emphatically disagree with the author on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to start, but I will just say that these sites serve to define us. Would he advocate ignoring or forgetting the sites of the Holocaust? These are defining moments in our collective history...our very history itself. Shall we just ignore our history? These sites are fundamental to our understanding of who we are as people, as Americans. The type of thinking that would ignore sites of tragedy is irresponsible in the extreme and is a very slippery slope that I feel the author fails to understand in all of its complexity.
Hallowed ground?
Sep 02, 2010 03:18 PM
Chris, I hope you or someone else can answer these questions for me.

How far does this hallowed ground extend beyond Ground Zero? Two blocks? Four? A mile radius? What is an acceptable distance to build a mosque/community center?

What kinds of buildings are forbidden in this hallowed ground? Mosques? What about a church? What about strip clubs or adult bookstores? What about a clothing shop owned by a Muslim?

What kind of act has to happen for ground to be hallowed? Terrorist attacks? Okay, then Oklahoma City is a hallowed ground, right? So would you oppose a church being built near the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building?

What about all those places Quillen mentions? Is every place Americans die in numbers “hallowed ground?” Please tell us what we should allow and not allow to built in these areas. Thanks.
How far
Sep 03, 2010 06:34 AM
Niko; I really don't care about the distance, or the type of structure that is "allowed" on a property. What I object to is the idea that we should not honor these places at all. I believe that if someone deems a property important to them or their beliefs, then it is incumbent upon them to try to save it. Unfortunately for some, we still live in a modified form of a democracy, which means that occasionally you will disagree with something that the majority of people feel is important.
red herring
Sep 02, 2010 03:23 PM
The hallowed ground argument is a red herring anyway. The real reason there’s resistance to the Cordoba Center is fear, intolerance, and hate of Muslims. As Quillen points out, there are already strip clubs closer to Ground Zero. If you really wanted this ground to be sacred, wouldn’t the same people oppose those too? And how come Ground Zero is the only place we’re invoking the hallowed ground argument when Americans have tragically died in great numbers in other areas in America? Why is the hallowed ground argument come up when Islam in involved but never in any other situation?

What frustrates and angers me most about this issue is that often American demand that moderate Muslim leaders stand up against extremists in their midst. Iman Rauf is doing just that, but we attack him.

Read about his history of denouncing violence and extremism. Here’s a start. Sufi Muslims are being persecuted and attacked by Al Qaeda and other radical groups.

Check out his organization’s website. They have a great section on women’s empowerment:

We demand leaders like Rauf, yet some of us still criticize him and oppose him spreading his tolerant views amongst Muslims. When we reject these moderate views, what message do we send? This is exactly the kind of Muslim we should be supporting. Let’s stand with him and against the extremists. Not building this community center is exactly what Al Qaeda wants. THEY WIN in their goal of inspiring fear in Americans. Tolerance and liberty are enemies of radical Islam. Let the center be built.