In the foothills of Mississippi, the trees grow heavy with uneaten peaches. Tales have haunted the grounds of the Devil’s Punchbowl for decades, from pirates to planes crashing.While the lands may not be filled with treasure, they are haunted by the history of genocide, terror, and a past filled with hatred for Black Americans that cannot be ignored.
The African American registry on December 13, 2020 asserts the Devil’s Punchbowl massacre took place in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1860s. The camp was located at the bottom of a cavernous pit with trees located on the bluffs above, in which 20,000 formerly enslaved Black Americans were placed in a concentration camp, and later killed. Unfortunately, this story, like so many, has been drowned beneath a ravine filled with pain and suffering. The United States has a deep-rooted history of racially motivated massacres that were frequently denied and went undocumented by authorities explains USA Today on June 21, 2021. We must understand America’s history of hiding Black massacres, starting with Mississippi.
We’ll uncover the Devil’s Punchbowl by examining its history, current understanding, and implications because as noted writer and activist James Baldwin said in 1963, “American history is longer, larger, more various, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
As formerly enslaved Black Americans made their way to freedom, the town of Natchez quickly went from a small town to an overpopulated metropolis. In order to deal with the population influx, a concentration camp was established by soldiers that essentially eradicated the formerly enslaved people. The Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture on February 17, 2021 explains bleak conditions of being cramped inside locked walls and forced to work until exhaustion or death. After visiting the Devil’s Punchbowl, James E. Yeatman of the Western Sanitary Commission in November 1863 wrote an appeal to President Lincoln regarding the condition of formerly enslaved Black Americans. Yeatman stated “seventy-five died in a single day… some returned to their masters on account of their suffering.”
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in July 2019 explains the Devil’s Punchbowl was a camp in Natchez, Mississippi that held as many as 4,000 Black refugees in the summer of 1863, this number only growing as years went on. The aforementioned African American Registry estimates that over 20,000 freedmen and freedwomen were killed in one year, inside of this American concentration camp. According to Natchez City Archives from 2009, Don Estes is a retired Natchez City Cemetery Director, who conducted extensive research into individuals buried at the cemetery. Estes said that during his studies he learned that women and children were all but left to die in the three “punch bowls.”
“Thousands and thousands died. They were begging to get out [to go] anywhere but there,” said Estes.
The Devil’s Punchbowl’s lesser-known history as a mass grave points to the city’s ghosting of certain demographics. The New York Times on April 5, 2019 asserts the city, Natchez, is even more riddled with history than it is with Old South manors and manners. Without the relatively recent recovery of the records of these bodies, their stories would not have been publicized in the modern age. Tours and guides by the Garden Club, the historical representative of the Devil’s Punchbowl focus on the period immediately preceding the Civil War and the long clash between North and South. Natchez, however, was established in 1716, meaning there are over 100 years of unaccounted history not represented by most of the Pilgrimage’s tours, erasing the Black lives that lived and died in the area.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History in July 2013 documents Lizzy Brown, who in her diary, speaks of “flimsy structures built with her father’s lumber, which she could see from her plantation home.” This Under-the-Hill area of Natchez was where the camp was located, and Lizzy saw the horrors of a hastily constructed shack city. The Heritage Post on December 12, 2020 explains that today, the bluffs are known for the wild peach grooves, but the locals will not eat any of the fruit because of the bodies that fertilized the trees. One researcher noted that skeletal remains still wash up when the area becomes flooded by the Mississippi River at the Devil’s Punchbowl.
While some of the stories remain told, they’re relegated to legend, not history due to the lack of research in the area. The Devil’s Punchbowl in and of itself is a story to be told and worth the research to uncover what really happened.
It often takes years of extensive research for Black massacres to properly be brought to light.
The Equal Justice Initiative in 2020 asserts quantitative documentation of past racial violence remains imprecise and incomplete. It should not be difficult to find information about heinous acts such as the Devil’s Punchbowl in Mississippi. However, as was the case with the Tulsa Race Massacre it often takes years of research to even bring the stories to light and actually bring some form of justice to the victims.
The aforementioned Atlantic asserts the inevitable response of Americans to tragic stories of mass murder, of extreme destitution, of dangerous injustice, of a raw attack on democracy within the very borders of the United States, is ‘this is not who we are.’ But for white America, the reality of history should not be ignored.
The Devil’s Punchbowl was not the only Black massacre swept under the rug The 1866 Memphis Massacre left 46 Black Americans killed, 285 injured, and 5 raped yet no arrests were made. A 2020 report by the aforementioned Equal Justice Initiative points out the 1866 Memphis Massacre did not receive a historical marker until May 2016. In a city with multiple Confederate monuments and a park named for Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Forrest, this effort marked the first publicly funded historical commemoration of the massacre. Now, as other Black massacres like Lake Lanier in Georgia gain traction, the time for the reckoning of the Black lives lost is long overdue, and continues without attention.
After uncovering the history of the Devil’s Punchbowl, with some crucial implications we learned…America’s history of intentionally not documenting events highlights its racist history. Prominent journalist Ida B. Wells puts it plainly: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” In short, by uncovering Black massacres and addressing America’s history of racial violence we can finally begin reconciling with the past.