The Devil's Punchbowl :An American Concentration Camp
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
“It’s time I took a vacation”, I thought to myself. I’ve been spending endless days working, reading the election results, discussing issues of racial inequality in America with friends and strangers alike. I need to consider getting away and thinking about how beautiful life is and enjoying the measure of freedom I’ve been granted by our creator. My best idea, was to get out and enjoy nature while pushing myself physically as well.
While searching for beautiful scenic Trails and State Parks throughout the country, I was struck by how many American destinations bore the name “Devil’s Punchbowl.” As I searched them out, three in particular grabbed my attention. The first was the Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area and Nature Center in Valyermo, CA. It boasted of over 1300 acres of geological wonder, where visitors can walk, hike or take a horseback ride on 7.5 miles round trip through a deep canyon formed by the vast runoff of water from the higher San Gabriel Mountains. I was captivated by the very sound of it. The second, was The Devil’s Punchbowl State Natural Area near Newport, Oregon. The description was intriguing, stating that during winter storms, water from the restless ocean slams with a thundering roar into a hollow rock formation shaped like a huge punch bowl! The surf churns, foams, and swirls as it mixes a violent brew! There’s a scenic picnic spot atop the undulating rocky shoreline. As awesome as this all sounded, I continued my search wondering if I could find one of these awesome destinations closer to my home in Tennessee. After finding five or six other Parks bearing the same name throughout the country, I eventually located one in Natchez Mississippi of all places. I recall thinking, “although there won’t be crashing ocean waves and winter storms, I’m certain to find beautiful trees, gorgeous hills and amazing scenery and wildlife.”
I imagined that this would be a vacation to a beautiful place to hike and roam, pray and challenge myself. A place where I could gather my thoughts, create, think about building for the upcoming year. A place where I could enjoy nature and plan for good times with my children in the near future.
What I didn’t realize, was that not too many years ago, in the very place that I was now considering for a vacation, newly Freed Blacks were leaving plantations en masse with a very similar mindset.
They dreamt of building lives, free from the master’s whip and the Hounds of the Slave Patrol. Of building homes and farming land that they’d earned and owned. They dreamt of building businesses and amassing wealth for generations to come. They dreamt of walking the streets with dignity and self - respect. Of joining the military, having voting rights and holding political offices. They dreamt of holding "these truths to be self - evident that all men are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I remember imagining, I’m going to vacation near the places where my ancestors were liberated and made their way to freedom… How cool is that? Now, I was really excited! I continued to research Devil’s Punchbowl in Natchez MS. And the description was as follows:
“ It looks like a jungle from up above, down below that first bluff east of the Mississippi River, a quarter mile maybe a half mile past the Natchez City Cemetery. You are 200 feet up and your footing falls almost straight down into a two-pronged indentation into the bluffs…” This was in no way sounding as inviting as the places I’d been reading about elsewhere. Still, with the Pandemic in full effect, it made more sense to vacation within driving distance, so I continued to gather information about this regional destination. What I read next, would forever change me…
“ American Concentration Camp, so horrific it was erased from history.”
I asked myself, “ Could America have played a role in the formation of Nazi Concentration Camps? And if so, to what end?" I pondered this question and others, as I read further. I dug a little deeper and found the real story behind the place. Devil’s Punchbowl is so named for a cavernous, bowl-shaped gulch walled off by tree-topped cliffs — an area unintentionally made perfect for a hellacious prison by nature herself…
Ok friends, here’s the real story. Following the Civil War, freed Blacks began a long journey northward to begin their lives of freedom. Unfortunately they weren’t given any time to prepare, nor were they provided anything except for the clothes on their backs. No provisions were made for them to travel, lodge over night or to eat. Nevertheless these freed people made their way out on foot, the threats of the elements didn’t deter them from what they knew was going to be the land of milk and honey. Stopping along their journey to rest and to find nourishment, many traveled through Natchez, Mississippi. Paula Westbrook, who has done extensive study on The Devil’s Punchbowl writes that according to Adams County Sheriff’s Reports from the time, the population in Natchez “went from 10,000 to 120,000 overnight.”
The residents of the city feeling resentful that the people who were once their property were now free, called upon the Union Troops who were still lingering after the war to devise a merciless, impenitent solution.
According to Don Estes, historian and former director of the Natchez city Cemetery, the Troops decided to build an encampment for the freed Blacks at Devil’s Punchbowl which they walled off. Blacks were forced inside by the armed Troops and not allowed out. During his studies Estes says he learned that Union troops ordered re – captured Black men to perform hard labor. Women and children were all but left to die in the three “punchbowls”.
“The union army did not allow them to remove the bodies from the camp, they just gave ‘em shovels and said bury ‘em where they drop…” Says Paula Westbrook.
Those trapped in the labor camp, were denied food and water, thus many died of starvation. In these Concentration Camps, “disease broke out among ‘em, smallpox being the main one. And thousands and thousands died. They were begging to get out, begging to go back to the plantation”, Estes said. “The men were kept in a separate camp and were marched up the bluffs every day to perform hard labor and then taken back to the camps at night. The women and children were kept in three separate camps and never got out. According to one account, Blacks were packed in like cattle.
In 1860 the population of Natchez was 6,612 which consisted of 4,272 whites, 2,132 slaves and 208 free blacks. By 1870 the population of Natchez was 9,057 which consisted of 3,728 whites and 5,329 blacks. If 110,000 blacks poured into Natchez around 1865, where did they all go by 1870? More than 20,000 died there.
Even today occasional flooding by the Mississippi River exposes skeletal remains from the mass graves that adorn the former encampment.
Large lush peaches grow from the Peach groves in Devil’s Punchbowl, but no one eats them, as they know what fertilized them.
I recently had a discussion with a friend about the underrepresentation of Blacks in films, television commercials etc. Her response was that since Blacks only make up 12% of the population in America, that from a marketing standpoint, it’s wiser for advertisers, and filmmakers to cater to white consumers. It is well documented that black consumers spend more than one trillion dollars a year according to Nielsen, which outpaces every other ethnic group in the country. My question becomes, with such a small percentage in the national population how is it then that Blacks are so overrepresented in prisons, on death row, in welfare lines and in low-income housing in America? In light of the disturbing discovery of this American concentration camp, I decided to forego my vacation travel plans this year. Thinking about Devil’s Punchbowl, left me struggling with the answers to my questions about why Blacks have been the targets of such hatred throughout the history of this country.
It provided an explanation of why Blacks have so often been that “strange fruit” hanging from America’s trees. Why they overpopulate our prisons, and why it takes so long for this country to pass legislation in favor of Black progress, yet so little time to reverse that progress through what Dr. King called"white backlash". It explains why Black contributions are largely hidden or credit for those contributions displaced.
A painful, yet a very important truth, is that Blacks were never intended to be citizens of this country. Never intended to own land, to become political leaders, to contribute in meaningful ways to this experiment called America. It was never in the grand design that Blacks would ever be considered humans, citizens or free. They were brought here for the purpose of serving and enriching white enslavers. To be the property of those who could afford to own them. To be used as collateral and mortgaged when necessary to secure other enslaved Blacks. This is why the Confederate states fought so hard to maintain the institution of slavery. Even after the institution was abolished, in the weeks and months following the civil war the opposing union troops recaptured and brought tens of thousands of American families to their demise. Because once freed, there was nothing left to do but to exterminate them.
When we look at the lucrative ancestry industry, where millions of Americans discover their family’s lineage dating back to its origins, it is important to note the absence of generations of Black American families who were taken in the most brutal and inhumane ways. Many died in the Devil’s Punchbowl Concentration Camps, and countless others in other atrocities.
Each represent children that were never born, books never written, inventions that will never exist, cures for diseases that may never be discovered, Paintings that will never be appreciated, symphonies that will never be composed.
Claire Bernish : The Free Thought Project March 14, 2017
Michael Eli Dokosi : Staff Writer, Pan – African Journalism November 4, 2019
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: The Other America
Preamble to the Declaration of Independence
Nina Simone: American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist: Strange Fruit