A Publication of WTVP

You cannot take a step in Illinois without walking on hallowed ground.

Exaggeration? Perhaps. But consider this: The Illinois State Museum has documented more than 50,000 Native American mounds (ceremonial and burial) in the Prairie State, and given that the indigenous population of prehistoric Illinois left no maps, charts, registered cemeteries or written records, it’s very likely that mound counters missed a couple—or perhaps several thousand—wayside “heaps” along the way.

Defining “Sacred”
The relevant question, of course, is, “Sacred to whom?” The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), the state’s official source for telling the Prairie State story, lists 50 historic sites on its website, and that exclusive list includes only three of Native American vintage: Albany, Cahokia and Kincaid—mounds. When it comes to Abraham Lincoln, the agency is more worshipful, listing New Salem, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, the Lincoln Trail, the Lincoln Monument, the Lincoln Log Cabin, and a dozen or so other tangential sites (old state capitols in Vandalia and Springfield, courthouses in Mt. Pulaski, Postville and Metamora, the Vachel Lindsay and David Davis homes, and more).

But the Lincoln list is much larger than IHPA’s current budget allows. The ubiquitous “Looking for Lincoln” wayside displays, an ongoing project of the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, number more than 215 across the state, with dozens of new ones planned throughout the Civil War sesquicentennial.

Every county in the state has a Lincoln or Civil War memorial, it seems. Although no battles were fought here, thousands of Civil War soldiers are buried in Illinois, including more than 8,000 Confederate soldiers who died here as prisoners of war—more than 6,000 alone at Chicago’s notorious Camp Douglas. The ever-growing sacred spaces within our national cemeteries in Springfield, Quincy, Danville, Mound City, Rock Island, Alton and now Joliet remind us that the term “sacred” is as much a part of our present as it is our past.

A Growing List
Lincoln, the Civil War and Native Americans aside, sacred spaces in Illinois are virtually everywhere. The Illinois State Historical Society catalogs more than 500 historical markers around the state, and the number grows every year. The Society’s recent dedications include new markers commemorating the “Edwards Trace” (Springfield), the “Rondout Train Robbery” (Grayslake), “The Susan G. Komen Gravesite” (Peoria), “West Side Grounds” (Chicago), “Wanborough” (Albion), “Robert Stuart Fitzgerald Boyhood Home” (Springfield), “Buffalo Grove Lime Kiln” (Polo), and “The Battle of Fort Dearborn” (Chicago). Historical markers scheduled for dedication in 2012 include “Lithuanians in Springfield,” the “Washington Park Race Track” (Homewood), “Plum Tree Farm” (Barrington), “Camp Douglas” (Chicago), “George C. Marshall Home” (Wheaton), and several others. All of these sites are “sacred” to some community, organization or municipality.

But our state’s sacred spaces are not always associated with historical events or famous people. Sometimes they are sacred for their natural beauty. The Garden of the Gods in southern Illinois evokes a divine presence with only its name—the view simply confirms it. Heron Pond and the cypress trees of the Cache River have seen more history than all the graduates of the University of Illinois since its founding in 1867. It’s also one of the best classrooms in the Midwest.

Volo Bog might not sound like a sacred space, but the magic of its mossy landscape cannot be denied. Starved Rock near Utica is another splendid site, whether you’re taken in by the local myths or the bald eagles who call it their winter home. And anyone who’s recently driven up highway 97/78 opposite Dickson Mounds Museum and seen the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge—reclaimed backwaters that now represent the natural wonders of Illinois as prehistoric peoples might have experienced—will think our state is misnamed “Land of Lincoln,” when it should be “Land of Sacred Splendors.”

Where to Begin?
Fortunately, the first step is the easiest, since everywhere offers something. Get to know your local historical society and the local sources for it. Some sources will be great; others will be spurious. Learn to distinguish the good from the bad and challenge those who spread myths. Wander through your local cemetery, as histories are buried there waiting to be discovered. Who will find them if you don’t? Never accept local history as gospel until you’re satisfied it’s true.

A good place to start looking is right here in the Illinois River Valley. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, a commemoration lost on most Illinoisans, simply because American history textbooks have ignored it, and because myopic news spinners have trouble focusing on a national conflict in which we invaded our neighbors (Canada) twice and lost. It’s a dilemma made worse by the absence of Abraham Lincoln, who was only three when the first volley was fired.

An Upcoming Symposium
The 2012 Illinois History Symposium, “Contested Lands: 1763-1840,” offers the perfect opportunity to explore Illinois’ sacred spaces, with two days of papers, panels, exhibits and presentations about the Prairie State on the eve of its development. The conference will examine the ecology, archaeology, landscape, culture and social complexity of its mixed-raced frontier society—Native American, French, English, American, Spanish and African—in the years prior to statehood and just after. Sponsored by the Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and McLean County historical societies and the Illinois State Historical Society and its partner organizations, the symposium will be held April 26th to 28th at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center in East Peoria. The site commands a stunning view of the Illinois River, a sacred space that flows through the heart of the Prairie State, and the soul of all true Illinoisans. For more information, visit iBi

William Furry is the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society.