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Shadowed Ground

Shadowed Ground
America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy

How and why Americans have memorialized—or not—the sites of tragic and violent events spanning three centuries of history and every region of the country.

January 2003
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408 pages | 6 x 9 | 151 b&w photos, 1 line drawing |

Shadowed Ground explores how and why Americans have memorialized—or not—the sites of tragic and violent events spanning three centuries of history and every region of the country. For this revised edition, Kenneth Foote has written a new concluding chapter that looks at the evolving responses to recent acts of violence and terror, including the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine High School massacre, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.


John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize

Association of American Geographers

  • A Landscape of Violence and Tragedy
  • The Veneration of Heroes and Martyrs
  • Community and Catharsis
  • Heroic Lessons
  • Innocent Places
  • The Mark of Shame
  • The Land-Shape of Memory ancl Tradition
  • Stigmata of National Identity
  • Invisible and Shadowed Pasts
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Index

Kenneth E. Foote is Professor and Chair of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he directs the Center for Geographic Education.


This book began in Salem, Massachusetts. Many years and miles have passed since my first visit, but it was in Salem where I first began to think about how tragedy and violence have shaped the American landscape. The idea came to me almost by accident. I had driven north from Boston to visit some of Salem's eighteenth-century homes, the town's legacy of the era of the Yankee trader. At the time I was only vaguely aware of Salem's more distant colonial past and the witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century. For some reason, however, it was the witchcraft episode that caught my attention that day. I suppose I had expected to find it noted distinctly among the historical markers and plaques that usually grace towns like Salem. I was puzzled to discover that very few mention the events of 1692. Most of the town's efforts toward historical self-aggrandizement center on the area's maritime history and its glory years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is the Witch Museum, housed in a former church, but it is less a museum than a small auditorium for a sound-and-light show that tells the story of the witchcraft trials in a series of vivid tableaux.

At some point during the day, I realized that I had come across no indication of the places where the accused witches were executed. One of the victims—the unfortunate Giles Corey—had been crushed to death, and the general location of his pressing, near the site of the colonial jail, was noted. The other nineteen victims were hanged, however. On asking about the location of their execution, I was directed toward a low rise of ground to the south of town called Gallows Hill. In the seventeenth century it lay just outside Salem Town. Today it is dotted with modest homes, except where building is impossible along its craggy slopes. Somewhere on this hill nineteen victims of the witchcraft scare were executed, but no one knows exactly where.

Perhaps I was surprised because other, far less significant events are commonly marked in detail and often with great flourish throughout the United States. I am speaking not solely of the ubiquitous roadside markers but also of the thousands of substantial monuments and memorials that pay tribute to the nation's formative events, heroes, and martyrs—Plymouth Rock, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial. There was nothing of this sort in Salem to mark the witchcraft episode. No official record was kept of the site of the executions, although many of the court and colonial records have survived, and inferences about the location are based on the sketchiest of word-of-mouth descriptions passed from generation to generation.

I found it remarkable that the location of such an important event in the history of Salem and the nation not only was unmarked but had been forgotten entirely. Shame certainly played a part. The witchcraft scare lasted less than a year, from January to September 1692, and the proceedings were almost immediately called into question by the colony's legal and religious officials. Particular exception was taken to the use of spectral—that is, supernatural—evidence in court. Furthermore the young girls who had made most of the accusations began to recant their testimony shortly after the executions. People recognized quickly that something had gone significantly wrong, so much so that the Salem episode effectively ended the prosecution of witchcraft in the colonies. Historians looking back on the events of 1692 now argue that the scare was a direct product of other tensions in the community and that the divide that separated the "witches" from their accusers was not supernatural but rather social.

Given the sense of shame cast over the community by the trials and executions, there could have been little desire to call attention to the site of the executions. The saying "out of sight, out of mind" might aptly describe what took place. Geographer David Lowenthal, reflecting on the meanings people ascribe to place and landscape, has observed that "features recalled with pride are apt to be safeguarded against erosion and vandalism; those that reflect shame may be ignored or expunged from the landscape." With this idea in mind, I began to visit other sites of tragedy and violence in the United States and around the world. Indeed, soon after my first trip to Salem, I found myself in Berlin before the reunification of Germany. There I came across similar places—Nazi sites like the Gestapo headquarters and Reichs chancellery—that have lain vacant since just after World War II and seem to be scarred permanently by shame.

I quickly realized that recognizing issues of shame and pride was only a first step in understanding what had happened to these places. I found that many acts of violence are not expunged from landscape but rather transformed into monuments and memorials. In Germany and other nations that lived under the Nazi reign of terror, the remains of concentration camps have been safeguarded against erosion and vandalism and shaped into powerful reminders of the Holocaust, although often hotly contested ones. Furthermore violence and tragedy have the power to transform landscape and alter its meaning over long periods of time. I now maintain that Salem has never completely resolved how to view the witchcraft scare within its longer history. The question has always been whether to ignore the episode as a brief, shameful anomaly, to recognize it as a valid part of Salem's history, or to honor it as a turning point in American religion. These problems of interpretation moved into the foreground of debate in Salem in the 1980s with the approach of the witchcraft tercentenary in 1992. Three hundred years after the fact, the question of how to mark the anniversary might have been a minor concern. On the contrary, heated public debate arose over the proper course of action. A proposal to erect a public monument to the victims of the witchcraft episode met with resistance. Opponents argued that it was best to let the tercentenary pass unremarked. Why, they asked, should Salem wish to continue to draw public attention to such a shameful event? Over these objections, a memorial was unveiled in 1992 paying tribute to the victims of the witchcraft hysteria. The site of the executions remained unmarked, but by erecting a public memorial, Salem was perhaps, after three hundred years, coming to terms with its past.

The more I thought about Salem and other similar sites, the more I became convinced that I had to look beyond the question of why some tragedies inspire memorials, whereas others are ignored or effaced. This was a first step, but I also had to consider the larger issue of how people view violence and tragedy over long periods of time and develop a sense of their past. I realized that I had to look beyond the immediate aftermath of violence to consider how people, in the long term, wanted to remember each event. The key seemed to lie in understanding how people interpreted the events retrospectively as unavoidable accidents, heroic battles, instances of martyrdom, or senseless acts of violence. I noticed repeatedly that sites were transformed to reflect these retrospective assessments. Drawing again on Lowenthal, I recognized that "the tangible past is altered mainly to make history conform with memory. Memory not only conserves the past but adjusts recall to current needs. Instead of remembering exactly what was, we make the past intelligible in the light of present circumstances." This issue lies at the heart of understanding how these places change. The sites have been inscribed with messages that speak to the way individuals, groups, and entire societies wish to interpret their past. When "read" carefully, these places also yield insight into how societies come to terms with violence and tragedy. The role of violence in American society is a fiercely contested issue, and it seemed reasonable to me, as a geographer, to look to the landscape for evidence about attitudes toward violence.

As a geographer I could not help but notice that the sites themselves seemed to play an active role in their own interpretation. What I mean is that the evidence of violence left behind often pressures people, almost involuntarily, to begin debate over meaning. The sites, stained by the blood of violence and covered by the ashes of tragedy, force people to face squarely the meaning of an event. The barbed wire and brick crematoria of the concentration camps cannot be ignored; they demand interpretation. A bare stretch of ground in Berlin, once the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the headquarters of the Nazi state security, or Gestapo, compels the visitor to reflect on genocide in the twentieth century. In case after case I found that the question of what to do with the site actually precipitates debate and forces competing interpretations into the open. Set in motion is a complex iterative process in which place spurs debate, debate leads to interpretation, and interpretation reshapes placc over and over again.

In selecting examples for study, I began first to consider some of the great tragedies of the past. Every society in every period has borne witness to war, disaster, violence, and tragedy. If I had wanted to study a single period, the twentieth century would have provided more than enough examples. This century alone has produced killing fields unparalleled in history, places scarred by tragedy whose names come to mind all too easily: Verdun, the Somme, Guernica, Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, the Soviet gulags, My Lai, and many more. But attitudes toward violence and tragedy are closely aligned with cultural values. However rich the examples worldwide, the cultural specificity of response to violence and tragedy cautioned against ready comparison of events drawn from vastly different cultures and widely separated periods.

I decided instead to focus on a single nation, the United States. From the hardships of early settlement up to the present day, few periods of its history have been free from tragedy and turmoil. The first "lost" colony on Roanoke Island was an indication of things to come, and over time Americans became intimately acquainted with tragedy and violence. Conflict between the Europeans and Native Americans began early, as did frictions among the European groups competing for territory and influence in the New World. The fears and uncertainties of the seventeenth century were a prelude to those of the eighteenth, a century that culminated in the violent struggle for independence. From nationhood onward the United States experienced wave on wave of war, civil strife, natural calamity, accident, assassination, and crime. The sites of some of the major events, such as the wellmarked battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, are known to many and attract thousands of visitors every year. There are many other sites that have been touched by tragedy and are not nearly so well known. As the United States moved through the upheavals of industrialization and urbanization and faced the pressures of massive immigration and internal migration, it experienced repeated bursts of violence: the Fetterman Massacre and massacres at Sand Creek, the Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee, and Rock Springs; the strikes and riots of Haymarket, Pullman, Homestead, Ludlow, and Lattimer Mines; and even the urban and campus protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Interspersed among these peaks of violence are hundreds of accidental tragedies and natural disasters.

In this book I consider events from all these categories, from sites that reflect the turmoil of America's economic, social, and political development to places touched by natural disasters and accidents. I by no means survey all sites, but I do consider the scenes of some of the nation's worst instances of tragedy and violence, including those associated most closely with the national "past," such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Also included are mass murders, political assassinations, violent labor and race riots, transportation accidents, fires, floods, and explosions. I think that the comparison of such a wide variety of sites can make comparisons difficult, but taken together, all such places offer insights into how society deals with violence and adversity, how people create, sustain, and break emotional attachments to place and landscape, and how Americans view and interpret the past.

The Impress of Tragedy and Violence On Landscape

With so much written about violence and tragedy in American society and history, I find it remarkable that, apart from material on battlefields, little has been written about the fate of the sites themselves. This is unfortunate not just because these places often have interesting histories. Rather, the stories of these sites offer insight into how people grapple with the meaning of tragedy and reveal much about attitudes toward violence. I would never claim that any single site tells the whole story, but patterns do emerge among the many places I have visited and studied. The changes I observed seemed to fall along a continuum that I have divided into four categories: sanctification, designation, rectification, and obliteration. All four outcomes can result in major modifications of the landscape, but of very different sorts.

Sanctification and obliteration occupy the extremes of the continuum. Sanctification occurs when events are seen to hold some lasting positive meaning that people wish to remember—a lesson in heroism or perhaps a sacrifice for community. A memorial or monument is the result. Obliteration results from particularly shameful events people would prefer to forget—for example, a mass murder or gangster killing. As a consequence all evidence is destroyed or effaced. Designation and rectification fall between these extremes. Designation, or the marking of a site, simply denotes that something "important" has happened there. Rectification involves removing the signs of violence and tragedy and returning a site to use, implying no lasting positive or negative meaning. A brief overview of these outcomes will help to explain the factors that shape the impress of violence and tragedy on landscape.


Sanctification involves the creation of what geographers term a "sacred" place—a site set apart from its surroundings and dedicated to the memory of an event, person, or group. Sanctification almost always involves the construction of a durable marker, either some sort of monument or memorial or a garden, park, or building that is intended to be maintained in perpetuity. As I employ the term, sanctification always requires the site's ritual dedication to the memory of an event itself or to a martyr, hero, or group of victims. I use the term sacred to refer to sites that are publicly consecrated or widely venerated rather than those owned or maintained by a particular religious group. Formal consecration is a prerequisite of sanctification. That is, there must be a ceremony that includes an explicit statement of the site's significance and an explanation of why the event should be remembered. Sanctification demonstrates most clearly the relationship of landscape and memory. These places are transformed into monuments that serve as reminders or warnings, the function indicated by the Latin root of the word monument. The site is transformed into a symbol intended to remind future generations of a virtue or sacrifice or to warn them of events to be avoided.

The sanctification of the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery is a good example of this process. The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 claimed the lives of thousands of soldiers, not all of whom could be identified or transported home for burial. A cemetery was created on the battlefield, and Abraham Lincoln attended the consecration to deliver his Gettysburg Address at the close of the ceremony.

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation—or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated— can long endure.

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting-place of those who have given their lives that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our power to add or to detract.

The world will very little note nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated, here, to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that government of people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Few sites are consecrated with such eloquence, but all are interpreted in the same fashion, in words that capture the essence of the sacrifice and explain why the event is worthy of remembrance. Sanctified places can often be recognized by their distinctive appearance in the landscape. First, they are often clearly bounded from the surrounding environment and marked with great specificity as to what happened where. Second, sanctified sites are usually carefully maintained for long periods of time—decades, generations, and centuries. Third, sanctification typically involves a change of ownership, often a transfer from private to public stewardship. Fourth, sanctified sites frequently attract continued ritual commemoration, such as annual memorial services or pilgrimage. Fifth, sanctified sites often attract additional and sometimes even unrelated monuments and memorials through a process of accretion. That is, once sanctified, these sites seem to act as foci for other commemorative efforts. All these characteristics serve to define these sacred sites as fields of care, portions of the landscape that are set apart and tended with special attention. Such sites arise in a variety of situations.

The Heroic Struggle

Sanctified places arise from battles, such as Gettysburg, that mark the traumas of nationhood and from events that have given shape to national identity. Although the commemoration of such sites often stems from a need to honor fallen heroes and innocent victims, I will argue that some tragedies attract added attention because they seem to illustrate ethical or moral lessons that transcend the toll of lives. In essence the victims died for a cause, and the cause, rather than the victims, spurs sanctification. In the aftermath of tragedies, great tensions can arise over interpretation—whether the events are to be viewed in a positive or negative light and whether they illustrate some high moral principle or lesson in human conduct. The "victor" usually gains the first say, although not necessarily the final word. The Civil War prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, was the worst of its kind. By reason of the conditions there, its commandant was executed for a war crime after the Civil War, the only soldier to suffer this fate. Originally viewed as emblematic of Southern atrocities and marked accordingly, Andersonville has through the years been reinterpreted as a monument to American prisoners of war of all conflicts and eras.

In the case of wartime tragedy, the cause of the conflict usually serves to define the principle that is commemorated. The cause may be so clear that there is little debate over the need for sanctification, and consecration may begin before the war is concluded. This occurred at several Civil War battlefields, such as Gettysburg. In the case of an unpopular war, such as Vietnam, acrimonious disputes may ensue, since the cause of sacrifice may be interpreted in several ways. Attempts at sanctification may proceed slowly, if at all, often at first on the private initiative of just a few individuals who are convinced of the event's significance.

Many events other than war generate struggles over meaning. Some of the best examples involve the assertion of rights by minority groups. After riots or massacres, the minority group will assert that the tragedy illustrates principles worth remembering, only to find itself opposed by a more powerful or larger group wishing to ignore the event. The conflict over meaning—and sanctification—becomes a political struggle among social, religious, and ethnic factions. The struggle for control and interpretation of the site may continue for decades. The Haymarket Riot of 1886 engendered such a struggle in Chicago between business and labor. The riot produced martyrs for both sides. The business community claimed as martyrs the police who died in the mêlée, calling them "Protectors of Chicago," even though the police officers helped to precipitate the riot and may have shot some of their fellow officers in the chaos that followed. Eight anarchists were tried and four executed in one of the great miscarriages of justice in U.S. history. These victims became martyrs to the cause of labor. The business community claimed the site of the bombing to erect a policemen's monument and prevented labor from memorializing its martyrs within the city limits. The memorial to the labor martyrs was placed at their grave in Waldheim Cemetery, across the city line in Forest Park. Labor was unable to assert a claim to the site of the riot, but it did not let the business community's plans go unmolested. The policemen's monument attracted vandalism for decades and eventually had to be moved indoors to the police academy after being destroyed twice. All that remains at the site is the defaced pedestal of the police monument.

The labor movement is rich in examples of this sort. Struggles to sanctify the sites of some of the worst massacres of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries succeeded only gradually as the cause of labor gained widespread recognition. Similar battles have been fought over the interpretation of sites associated with the suppression of Native American populations, particularly the sites of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and both are still in debate. The civil rights movement has also succeeded in marking a limited number of sites associated with its struggle, often in the face of great opposition. Even events such as the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II and violent attacks on ethnic groups such as Chinese immigrants have raised difficult issues of commemoration and sanctification. These struggles are the subject of Chapter 9, along with other events whose meaning is still in contention. In addition events such as the shootings at Kent State University and Jackson State University in 1970 illustrate political competition over the meaning of contested places.

Martyrs and Heroes

In the United States death by violence or accident rarely inspires sanctification, unless the individuals are great leaders, heroes, or martyrs. Regardless of whether greatness is judged by reputation, position, or accomplishment, there arises a sense that the achievements of these individuals demand commemoration. The general principle is apparent in the fact that, of the four United States presidents who have been assassinated, the sites of the assassinations of three of these are marked, and the fourth, Garfield's, was marked for about twenty-five years. Furthermore, prominent monuments have been erected to each of the four in the cities where they were attacked. The Lincoln monument is the western terminus of the Mall in Washington, whereas the Garfield monument is at the other end, at the foot of the capitol grounds; both are within walking distance of the assassination sites. The McKinley monument was erected in Buffalo's Niagara Square, the symbolic heart of the city, and the Kennedy cenotaph lies in a similarly significant site in Dallas, two blocks from Dealey Plaza in the Dallas County Historical Plaza.

Other political leaders can gain the same level of attention, and nowadays commemoration is almost routine. Similar attention can focus on other prominent individuals, however, including celebrities. John Lennon's death at the entrance to his New York City residence led to the creation of a small memorial garden—Strawberry Fields—immediately opposite the site in Central Park. As I mention in Chapter 2, whether an individual deserves commemoration is often the subject of heated debate. Tension arises between defenders and detractors of the person's reputation. Almost fifty years were required for the Lincoln monument to be planned and built. During this period Lincoln's standing as one of the most vilified presidents in history changed radically. Lincoln, whose election spurred Southern secession, was termed one of America's "immortals" when his memorial was dedicated in 1922. On the other hand, Garfield's status has been compromised by his short, four-month tenure as president. This is reflected in the marking of his assassination site. For twenty-five years the site was marked in the lobby of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station where the attack took place. When the station was demolished, the small star was removed and never replaced. When the National Gallery of Art was later erected on this site, no attempt was made to restore the marker.

A Sense of Community Loss

Sanctification can ensue when communities are struck by accidents and tragedies such as natural disasters, fires, explosions, crashes, and other accidents. In these cases sanctification is a natural response to the grief of community loss. The creation of memorials both honors the victims of the disaster and helps the community to mourn. Relatively few tragedies result in sanctification, however. Many factors are involved, but the most important is whether the tragedy touches a single, relatively homogeneous, self-identified community, one that comes to view the tragedy as a common, public loss. Members of such communities share a sense of identity based on civic pride, ethnic or religious affiliation, and occupation that encourages them to view the disaster as a loss to the group as a whole rather than as losses to isolated individuals and families.

Most disasters strike heterogeneous populations whose allegiances are divided among many separate groups. Losses may be great, but the victims are not identified with one group and, as a consequence, are mourned individually and memorialized at the grave site. In cases where accidents draw victims from a group or community with a sense of identity, however, a large public memorial is usually consecrated, either at the disaster site itself or at a site of civic prominence. The memorial to the unknown dead at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is a good example. The flood of 1889 was one of the largest "natural" disasters in American history and claimed over two thousand lives. The flood became significant not just for its size but because it devastated a fast-growing industrial community with a strong sense of civic identity. The memorial represents an effort by the entire community to recognize its loss. Although I say more about disasters of this sort in Chapters 3 and 5, I want to note two points here. First, the magnitude of a disaster does have a bearing on whether it will be memorialized, but is only one consideration. A sense of community loss may arise from events that claim far fewer lives than the Johnstown Flood did if the victims belong to a group with a strong sense of self-identity. I present a wide range of events of both sorts in Chapter 3, including the Cherry, Illinois, coal mine fire of 1909, the New London, Texas, school explosion of 1937, the Our Lady of the Angels School fire of 1958 in Chicago, and the Collinwood, Ohio, school fire of 1908, as well as some natural disasters such as the Xenia, Ohio, tornado of 1974. Second, certain types of "accidents" I discuss in Chapter 5 leave few marks on the landscape even when they devastate a community. These accidents are, so to speak, "explained away" and result in rectification, even when they claim incredible numbers of lives.


Designation is closely related to sanctification in that a site is marked for its significance, but this response omits rituals of consecration. In essence, designated sites are marked but not sanctified. They arise from events that are viewed as important but somehow lacking the heroic or sacrificial qualities associated with sanctified places. Creating a park, erecting a sign, or building a marker are ways of designating a site, but such a site gains little long-term attention and is rarely the focus of regular commemorative rituals. Usually there is agreement as to why the site is important, but these reasons are rarely the subject of an elaborate dedicatory address: designated places are unveiled rather than dedicated. Along the continuum running frorn sanctification to obliteration, designation lies squarely between active veneration and direct effacement. This is a pivotal position, and designation is sometimes best viewed as a transitional phase in the history of a tragedy site. The meaning and marking of a designated site may change through time, either toward sanctification or toward rectification or obliteration, for reasons I mention below.

The Minority Cause

Some sanctified sites begin as designated places, often marking minority causes. They may assume meaning immediately for the minority group, but time must pass before the minority cause symbolized by the site is accepted by a larger constituency. In the meantime the site may be venerated informally by the minority. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. Not long afterward the site was marked by the motel's owner. Efforts to do more began almost immediately thereafter, attempts to create some sort of public monument to King as a martyr to the cause of civil rights. Beginning at the grass-roots level, these efforts paid off two decades later in the creation of a civil rights museum and educational center at the site of the Lorraine Motel funded by local, state, and national authorities. In the intervening years King became a national hero whose birthday is commemorated as a national holiday, and the goals of the civil rights movement came to be accepted by a broad spectrum of Americans. The transformation of the assassination site from designation to sanctification mirrored these changes. There are many places that, like the King assassination site, are associated with the cause of minority rights and history. The present political climate allows these long dormant sites at last to be conmemorated. Similar sites can be found relating to Native Americans and a wide range of other ethnic and racial minorities, including Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans. In addition causes such as the rise of American labor have produced designated sites that may be on their way toward sanctification. I draw on the stories of many of these rallying points in Chapter 9.

Places in Process

Some sites are set apart and marked because they are on their way toward sanctification but still "in process." There is little disagreement about the significance of these sites, and it is only a matter of time before public financial support is forthcoming. In a metaphorical sense, these places are undergoing a sort of "canonization," insofar as the reasons for their veneration are being assembled, confirmed, and cataloged. Many national shrines associated with the Revolutionary and Civil Wars followed this path to sanctification. They were recognized immediately as significant sites, but time was required to enlist the resources needed for proper consecration. The Bunker Hill Memorial is one such example, for commemoration on a fitting scale took seventy-five years. The site's designation was begun by veterans of the battle, and the major monument now located there was funded privately. Dedicated in 1843, the monument was ceded to the commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1919 and eventually to the National Park Service in 1976. Designation is not uncommon during periods in which such sites pass from private ownership to public stewardship.

The Unforgettable Event

Apart from marking transitional places, designation is the final outcome for what can only be termed "unforgettable" events. These are unique occurrences, "freak" accidents and tragedies that would lead to rectification or even obliteration if they were not so unusual. These events may claim many lives, but the loss is neither specific to a particular community nor heroic enough to warrant consecration. Designation ensues only by reason of the remarkable circumstances of the tragedy—a one-of-a-kind disaster unlikely to happen ever again such as the crash of the Hindenburg airship or the loss of the Donner party in the Sierra Nevada. Some of these, such as the Eastland disaster in the Chicago River, are marked—much later—as the worst events of their kind.


Rectification is the process through which a tragedy site is put right and used again. The site gains only temporary notoriety in the aftermath of the tragedy. Associations with the fatal event eventually weaken, and the site is reintegrated into the activities of everyday life. No sense of honor or dishonor remains attached to the site; it is, so to speak, exonerated of involvement in the tragedy. Of the four outcomes I outline, rectification frequently produces the least activity at the tragedy site—often only the cleaning up of visible evidence of an accident or tragedy. Sometimes neglect and abandonment ensue before the site is put to a new use, but changes are little noted and rarely discussed. Rectification is the rule for the vast majority of sites touched by tragedy and violence. These are the sites of events that fail to gain the sense of significance that inspires sanctification or designation and lack the shameful connotations that spur obliteration. Rectification, then, is the most common outcome when tragedies come to be viewed as accidents and when violence is interpreted as senseless.

The Accidental Tragedy

Of all tragedy sites, those associated with accidents are the ones most likely to disappear from the landscape and to prove difficult to find. These sites are exonerated of blame and assume a role analogous to that of the innocent bystander. The tragedy could have happened anywhere. That it afflicted a particular site is purely a matter of chance. These events are always followed by a search for a cause, usually in an official investigation and/or in heated litigation. The focus of the investigation is both to determine blame and to propose preventive measures. As soon as this is accomplished, any notoriety attached to the site usually dissipates. Thus, when an airplane or train crashes, the public focuses on the cause with an eye toward preventing similar accidents and loses interest in the site itself. Attention continues to focus on the site only in those situations, discussed above, where the tragedy claims many victims from a single group and induces a sense of community loss.

I noticed somewhat unexpectedly that, although these scars disappear from the immediate site, the accidents frequently lead to visble changes elsewhere. This is because once the cause of an accident ts determined, remedial action may be taken all over the country or, indeed, all over the world. The great urban fires of the nineteenth century—the Chicago Fire of 1871 being just one of many—resulted in new building codes requiring brick and masonry construction where wood had previously been the norm. Requirements for fire escapes, emergency lighting, and fire doors can all be traced to specific disasters. New technologies have been a key to America's rise as an urban and industrial society, but at the cost of many lives. The safety measures in effect today are almost all after the fact. They endure long after evidence of the precipitating accidents has disappeared.

Senseless Violence

Rectification is also the rule in cases of "senseless" violence. These are events such as spontaneous riots at sports events or stray acts of terror that neither attain significance as ethical or heroic struggles nor induce a strong sense of community loss. These are acts of violence that come to be interpreted as "accidents." An example is the Wall Street bombing of 1920, when a powerful, shrapnel-covered bomb was detonated in the heart of New York's financial district, killing thirty, wounding two hundred, and causing tremendous property damage. The crime was never solved, nor was it claimed, even anonymously, as an act of revenge or terror. Without a sense of meaning, and since its victims were struck at random, the event faded from public attention. The site was "cleansed," rectified, and returned to use. All that remains are stray shrapnel scars in the stone of a few Wall Street buildings. Most acts of homicide eventually come to be viewed as senseless, or rather, as lacking the deeper meaning that would result in sanctification or even designation. Rectification is the outcome in these situations. Only in situations where the violence induces a great sense of shame is another outcome possible—obliteration.


Obliteration entails actively effacing all evidence of a tragedy to cover it up or remove it from view. Obliteration goes beyond rectification, for the site is not just cleansed but scoured. The site is not returned to use but more commonly removed from use. If the site is ever occupied again—usually after a long period of time—it will be put to a wholly different use. In many respects obliteration is the opposite of sanctification. Whereas sanctification leads to the permanent marking of a site and its consecration to a cause, martyr, or hero, effacement demands that all evidence of an event be removed and that consecration never take place. Whereas sanctification is spurred by the wish to remember an event, obliteration stems from a desire to forget. Sanctification leads to veneration of a place, whereas obliteration leaves only stigma. As is to be expected, events that lead to obliteration are nearly the opposite of those that inspire sanctification. Rather than being tied to heroes and martyrs, obliterated sites are associated with notorious and disreputable characters—mobsters, assassins, and mass murderers. Instead of illustrating human character at its best, obliterated sites draw attention to the dark side of human nature and its capacity for evil.

A curious feature of obliterated sites I noticed is that, once stigmatized, they stand out as much as sacred spaces. They are breaks in the texture of landscape that are noticeable by way of contrast with their surroundings—for instance, the vacant, trash-filled lot along an otherwise ordinary suburban street that was once the home of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. Some societies and cultures have rituals that serve to lift stigma, guilt, or blame, ceremonies that symbolically cleanse people and places and allow them to return to full participation in day-to-day life. This is not true of American society; there is no easy way for stigmatized sites to be returned to use. Occasionally they will be reused, but only after lying fallow for years or decades. Most remain scarred indefinitely.

The equivocal status of stigmatized places can lead to some unusual outcomes, some of which I might even term pathological. Stigmatized sites attract graffiti and vandalism and, because there is no easy way to remove the stigma, remain targets of abuse for long periods of time. Here again lies an interesting contrast with sanctification. When a site is sanctified after a great community tragedy, the dedicaton of a memorial often marks the end of a period of grieving or acts as the focus of a cathartic release of grief. The shame attached to stigmatized sites circumvents this process; people are discouraged from caring for the site, even if the violence—say, of a mass murderer—claimed many innocent victims who may deserve memorialization. In such situations where public attention is out of bounds, stigmatized sites may attract furtive interest, since open discussion is taboo. They become the subject of stories and jokes and are pointed out to visitors surreptitiously. Prevented as they are from being marked publicly and openly, they slip into the realm of popular culture and oral tradition— dark stories and legends—that keep memory alive. This recourse to oral tradition for sustaining memories of shameful events is the topic with which I close Chapter 6.

Mass Murder

Mass murder is the most common event to result in obliteration. Other outcomes are possible but unusual. The shame of the mass murder stems not only from the crime itself but from the realization by a community that one of its own members was capable of committing such violence. The shame of the murderer radiates outward to the community at large. A community will often attempt to minimize its connection to a killer, to maintain, for example, that the murderer was only a drifter or an outsider. When this is impossible, a community may attempt instead to distance itself from the killer by other means, such as burning, demolishing, or vandalizing the murderer's home or the murder site to efface as much evidence as possible. This has occurred after mass murders in a wide variety of locations stretching back into the nineteenth century—for although the frequency of mass murder is growing in recent decades, it has long been part of the American scene.

Notorious Places

Apart from mass murder, there is no single type of event that leads regularly to obliteration. Events associated with organized crime "hits" and massacres sometimes fall in this category, as do some terrorist acts. I will examine a few sites associated with the mobsters of the 1920s and 1930s in Chapter 6. Notorious criminals such as John Wilkes Booth can even stigmatize places unassociated with their crimes. Finally, there are some "accidental" tragedies that reflect so badly on a group or community that their sites are obliterated. This is the case in situations such as Boston's Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire of 1942, where investigations discovered that civic authorities had been lax in enforcing existing building, fire, and safety codes. Other events fall in this category when government authorities or private citizens ignore repeated warnings of impending disaster. These include some explosions, fires, and transportation accidents, as well as unusual events such as the Salem witchcraft executions.

The Invention of Tradition and the Land-Shape of Memory

To know that the fate of a tragedy site will be resolved in favor of one of these four outcomes overlooks one important fact: a site's treatment and interpretation may change through time, sometimes radically. Sanctified sites may be deconsecrated, defaced, or effaced. Obliterated sites may be brought back to life as shrines. Most sites change very little, but when they do, the process of change is as interesting as the original outcome. As John Bodnar notes in his recent book on comtnernoration and patriotism in America in the twentieth century, this is because "the shaping of a past worthy of public commemoration in the present is contested and involves a struggle for supremacy between advocates of various political ideas and sentiments." Times change, and as they do, people look back on the past and reinterpret events and ideas. They look for patterns, for order, and for coherence in past events to support changing political sentiments, as well as changing social, economic, and cultural values. Often this debate focuses on place—on the actual site of the event—and whether it deserves to be remembered or forgotten. This struggle over meaning and memory reveals how individuals and society come to terms with violence and tragedy. Reinterpretation is common in a number of situations.

The Representation of Local, Regional, and National Identity

Many sites of violence are shaped to commemorate significant moments in the national past or formative events in the histories of cities, states, and regions. At the national level, all the major battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars have been commemorated. The state of Texas, as one example, has sanctified the Goliad, Alamo, and San Jacinto battlefields, all sites of massacres marking Texas's fight for independence as a republic in 1836. The flag of the city of Chicago displays four stars, two symbolizing significant civic tragedies: Fort Dearborn, whose garrison was massacred in 1812, and the Chicago Fire of 1871. Despite the grand monuments that now grace the sites of all these events, each was shaped gradually over many decades, in some cases being transformed from derelict sites into sacred shrines. All now serve as emblems of national, regional, and local identity. They are cared for with pride, are the objects of rituals of commemoration, and serve as pilgrimage sites for thousands of Americans every year.

The key to understanding these sites lies in the question of what counts as "significant," a question whose answer can be determined only retrospectively. Time must pass before the protagonists, participants, historians, and general public look back and assess the significance of events and struggle with their meaning. The Boston Massacre of 1770 is seen today as a watershed event—the first blood of the Revolutionary War period—even though it was no more than a minor street fight. Over a hundred years passed before it was permanently marked, and even then, in the nineteenth century, people continued to argue that it was an unheroic, undignified point from which to date the start of the Revolutionary War. Similarly it took many years for Texas to mark the Goliad, Alamo, and San Jacinto battlefields; indeed the Alamo was almost lost to urban development before it was rehabilitated and enshrined. The same delay occurred in the case of Chicago's civic tragedies. Over time these inauspicious events came to be reinterpreted as emblematic of Chicago's phoenixlike ability to rise from the ashes of its tragedies through hard work and enterprise.

To assert that the Boston Massacre, for example, would have meant something quite different if Americans had lost the Revolutionary War only begins to hint at the complex debates that can arise over the significance of "historical" events. The basic point seems to be that commemoration cannot occur until there is a past worthy of commemorating. Not only did commemoration have to wait until after the final peace accord was signed in 1783, but time had to pass before a consensus developed that the United States had succeeded in becoming a viable nation. Annual rituals came first, then designated sites, and then monuments—often with peaks of activity corresponding to significant anniversaries at ten-, twenty-five-, fifty-, and hundred-year intervals. The sites of the significant battles of the Texas Revolution were derelict at the time of the fighting, and they returned to that condition soon thereafter. The first real monuments did not appear until the 1880s—fifty years after independence—with a tremendous burst of commemoration coming during the centennial year of 1936.

In recent years a tremendous amount of historical scholarship has detailed the ways in which conceptions of the national past, patriotism, and regional identity evolve through time. Close study reveals that what is accepted as historical truth is often a narrative shaped and reshaped through time to fit the demands of contemporary society. This is not to maintain that history is merely myth and legend—although these sometimes play a role; rather, it is to claim that facts and events are filtered, screened, and interpreted to fit certain contemporary demands. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger term this process the invention of tradition, insofar as nation building in the last two centuries has been accompanied by the creation of canons of interpretaton—traditions, myths, and legends—that serve to explain the past in terms of romantic or heroic struggles for identity and to justify the quest for nationhood. Other writers have applied the term making histories to this process by which nations and social groups make the past coherent so as to develop a sense of identity and continuity. The interesting thing is not only that the shaping of landscape is consistent with these ideas but, further, that particular sites often spur the invention of such traditions of interpretation. John Bodnar's previously cited work provides excellent examples of the ways in which public memory and patriotism often focus on particular sites that demand commemoration. Gaines Foster, in his Ghosts of the Confederacy, provides additional examples of the interplay of ritual and commemoration in the creation ofthe South's regional identity.

The invention of tradition has powerfully influenced the American landscape. Over time virtually every significant site has been marked, including not only watershed events but places associated with the lives and works of great Americans. Today people take many of these sites —battlefields, tombs, and shrines—for granted, when in reality their selection for commemoration was far from inevitable. In Chapters 7 and 8 I consider this process and the factors that guide the enshrinement of sites emblematic of national, regional, and local identity.

The Commemoration of a Historical Struggle

Earlier in this chapter I mentioned that some designated sites mark the progress of a minority cause such as the civil rights movement. Such sites may, over time, be sanctified to mark the course of such a struggle, but usually only after a movement has attained a portion of ts goals. Again, as with the process of marking sites of national, regional, and local identity, the selection of sites that will be used to outline such historical struggles is retrospective. These movements must also invent traditions and make histories that are consistent with their goals. As these traditions develop, certain key events will be singled out for sanctification.

Until quite recently the civil rights movement lacked major monumentS and memorials. This was to be expected when the movement was in its early stages. As certain goals have been reached, more of its sites have been marked, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination ste in Memphis and his tomb in Atlanta, as well as the Civil Rghts Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. But the civil rights movernent is not the only struggle to be marked in the American landscape. The struggle to organize and fight for the rights of labor resulted in some of the most violent episodes in American history. These periodic confrontations and massacres did not result from a single plan or strategy and arose as much from local circumstance as they did from broader notions of human rights and dignity. Nevertheless, by the early twentieth century organized labor had achieved many of its major goals. Gradually retrospective appraisals began to focus on certain specific confrontations as watershed events in the overall struggle. The sites of these were shaped and sanctified.

In the United States struggles such as those for civil and labor rights are common. Native Americans, ethnic minorities, and religious sects have all sought to mark sites that demonstrate their battle for identity and self-determination. For instance, recent debate over the renaming of the Wounded Knee Massacre site and of what used to be called the Custer battlefield reflect friction over the way the histories of Native American tribes are interpreted. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be singled out as one religious sect that has been particularly sensitive to its historical traditions and aware of its struggle for religious freedom. In the twentieth century branches of the Mormon churches have self-consciously assumed stewardship of virtually all the sites associated with their early history, including all the sites marking their violent confrontations with "Gentiles" on their journey from New York State, through Ohio, into Missouri and Illinois, and on to the Great Basin of Utah, cases I include in Chapter 7.

The Creation of Rallying Points

One last type of site can be altered radically in the aftermath of violence and tragedy: the rallying point. In these cases a site associated with some past wrong or act of violence becomes the focus for further agitation in pursuit of a goal. The Wounded Knee Massacre site in South Dakota, symbolizing one of the last great acts of genocide in the suppression of Native Americans during the nineteenth century, became the rallying point for the Sioux uprising of 1973. The site of the Kent State killings of 1970 became a rallying point for the anti-Vietnam War movement. In some cases these sites are merely a step along the path toward the sanctification or the first stage in the process through which a group marks its history and traditions. In other cases these rallying points fade from view after a short period in the public eye. Regardless of the outcome, such rallying points are an important sidelight to my study. Their emergence often spurs extensive public debate over the meaning and significance of the original tragedy and, as a consequence, lends insight into the sentiments and social forces that shape landscape. I will focus on these rallying points in Chapter 9, where I take up the issue of the marking of these sorts of struggle.

Landscape and Memory: What Is Forgotten?

The relationship between tragedy and the negotiation of meaning suggests an important connection between landscape, culture, and social or collective "memory." In one sense culture refers to collective beliefs and values, the social conventions and traditions that bind individuals to a group or community. These are values that shape everyday life but transcend the individual and surpass the individual's ability to change them. They are values that build gradually, change slowly, and sweep from generation to generation. Culture is, in this sense, a sort of collective or social memory. This concept of memory provides an important bond between culture and landscape, because human modifications of the environment are often related to the way societies wish to sustain and efface memories. More to the point, the very durability of the landscape and of the memorials placed in the landscape makes these modifications effective for symbolizing and sustaining collective values over long periods of time. Landscape might be seen in this light as a sort of communicational resource, a system of signs and symbols, capable of extending the temporal and spatial range of communication. In effect the physical durability of landscape permits it to carry meaning into the future so as to help sustain memory and cultural traditions. Societies and cultures have many other ways to sustain collective values and beliefs, including ritual and oral tradition, but landscape stands apart from these—like writing—as a durable, visual representation.

The sites of violence examined in this book are inscriptions in the andscape—a sort of "earth writing" in the sense of the etymological roots of the word geography—that help to explain how Americans have come to terms with violence and tragedy. For the most part, I am concerned in this book with those sites that are marked, but I cannot entirely overlook those that are not. They are just as informative in spelling out the values society does not wish to remember. The question of what has and has not been marked is important. I will return to it in Chapter 9 when I will turn to sites that now lie hidden and almost forgotten in the landscape. Apart from particularly shameful sites that are quite consciously effaced, there is a wide range of sites that seem as if they should be marked but are not. Perhaps the answer is that, with respect to many events of violence and tragedy, American society itself has yet to reach consensus. There seems to be, for example, little consistency in the marking of sites representing either the conflicts between Native Americans and whites or racial violence. These sites remain difficult to assimilate with heroic notions of the national past, and the sites themselves demonstrate a sort of collective equivocation over public meaning and social memory. Perhaps still more time must pass before the tensions raised by such events can be resolved. In Salem almost three hundred years had to pass before a public memorial was erected, that is, before Salem as a community could look back and find a lesson to be learned from the witchcraft episode. What will be the fate of other places of equally equivocal meaning—the internment camp at Manzanar or the sites of the Rock Springs or Ludlow Massacres? These are places that may long remain in limbo before American society comes to terms with their meaning and a past marred by violence and tragedy.