Georgia must stop obscuring Providence Canyon’s history

It’s not a “Little Grand Canyon.” It’s a scar from slavery

September 23, 2020
an image of providence canyon
Poor soil management during Georgia’s slavery era eroded the land to create Providence Canyon. [Wikipedia | Free Commercial Use]

The unwitting visitor could easily call Providence Canyon State Park sublime. The tall triangles of red, orange, tan, white and sometimes even purple earth are called gullies, and they span the 7-mile hiking trail throughout the park. Trees have managed to take hold in the loamy soil and it makes for a pleasant excursion in a seemingly natural setting. 

I have visited Providence Canyon twice. Its floor smelled of dirt, mineral water and iron-rich Georgia clay. Footprints from that day’s few dozen visitors stippled the dusty trail paths. People’s names were etched into gully sides: “JQ <3 BL,” and at least three different Johns were there. I have made a small scratch on a gully too. The dry clay gave way easily underneath my fingernail, the dust fell to my feet. 

Georgia State Parks goes so far as to call Providence Canyon the state’s “Little Grand Canyon,” but the truth is far more ironic and unnerving. Providence Canyon did not form from a river slowly eroding rock for millions of years, like the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Instead, Providence Canyon formed over a few decades due to slaveholding plantation owners improperly managing their land, causing deep gashes in the earth onto which Georgia slapped a “state park” sticker in 1971

The state park does not own up to its history with slavery or clarify that the “poor farming practices” listed on signage consisted of cotton monoculture. In fact, the park’s website appears to laud its destructive origins, saying that Providence Canyon “is a testament to the power of man’s influence on the land.” This is fundamentally misleading. Georgia must declare slavery’s role in the creation of Providence Canyon instead of dancing around its origins. 

Providence Canyon is in Stewart County, near the Alabama border. Wrested from Muscogee (Creek) indigenous people’s land in the early 1830s, the county was briefly prosperous thanks to cotton — 7.6 million pounds were produced in the county in 1850. In fact, Stewart County was among the top three cotton producers in Georgia around this time and the tenth most populous county. But as noted in the Georgia Encyclopedia, the “European-influenced farming practices of the time led to devastating soil erosion in Stewart County,” wrecking the once fertile earth. As the soil quality diminished, so too did the county’s population, making it now the ninth least populated in the state. 

And what were those euphemistically named “European-influenced farming practices?” They were cotton fields tended with forced African American slave labor, comprising what Charles S. Aiken calls “the plantation crescent” in southwest Georgia. Paul S. Sutter, an environmental historian at the University of Colorado Boulder, describes in his book how slaveholders resisted advice from agricultural reformers to protect the soil by rotating their crops and manuring the land. Doing so would have diverted precious land and labor from the cotton cash crop. Thus, “slavery and the plantation system led to agricultural methods that depleted the soil” and eventually destroyed it, as Eugene D. Genovese succinctly summarizes in his book

So what the park service calls a “testament to the power of man’s influence on the land” actually came from greed, exploitation, cruelty and apathy toward sustainable land practices. Of course, you could argue that this was the essence of antebellum Georgia – and the rest of the Deep South — before King Cotton fell. Providence Canyon’s creation can be chalked up as just another scar of history, another example of the economically motivated degradation of land. 

But that doesn’t excuse Georgia State Parks’ concealment of the racist origin of Providence Canyon.

Even the parks department’s use of the word “simply” in the phrase “massive gullies as deep as 150 feet were caused simply by poor farming practices during the 1800s” is misleading. It diminishes the role of plantation farming in degrading the land. Worse still is the park service’s “historical” description of the canyon:

“The farmers who scratched out a hard living growing mainly cotton out of the soil here 170 years ago did not know about soil conservation practices such as contour plowing, crop rotation and cover crops. They would be astounded if they could see today what they started with their mule-driven plows.” 

“Leave it to southerners to turn a scar into a point of pride,” writes Sutter in a 2010 article about Providence Canyon and other gullies in the Journal of Southern History. 

Those who visit Providence Canyon are essentially visiting a more obscured version of Stone Mountain State Park, which contains a memorial carving of Confederate figures etched into the side of a mountain. The difference is the Stone Mountain website acknowledges who those people were. Stone Mountain doesn’t dance around the issue, so those who visit the memorial carving understand that they’re there to see a product of Georgia’s racially fraught past, not a naturally produced wonder. 

Georgia State Parks do a disservice to their visitors by withholding Providence Canyon’s true origins. Georgia can’t un-erode Providence Canyon just like it can’t undo its racist history. The state needs to own up to its past and accurately describe how Providence Canyon formed on its websites for the sake of its visitors. They deserve to know the truth. 

About the Author

M.K. Manoylov

MK Manoylov likes covering trees, the environment, microbes, and all things bugs. MK was the former opinion editor for The Red & Black newspaper and moved to Brooklyn to pursue science journalism. When not writing, you can find MK editing videos or drawing comics.



Mike Garcia says:

Its a scar from mistreatment of the runoff and the ignorance of enviromental protection. Has nothing to do with the labor in the field. Do not turn every topic in to hatred and slavery, a lot of good people have died and been mistreated to form this nation, as of many nations before ours. Make a better tomorrow by living for tomorrow.

Jeff Copeland says:

I would be interested in seeing the photos taken before the gullies were created, supposedly before 1700 and slavery in Georgia, and then photos during and after that time. Or maybe some drawings if photos were not available. Could you email them to me? That would be great proof to show my students. Thanks!

Christopher Saxton says:

Stone Mountain is awesome to behold. Providence Canyon is beautiful. It is a great lesson in what not to do with your farming practices. Some folks just need to realize that not everything is racist.

Phil Mullinax says:

This person actually accused erosion of being racist.

Lamar Sanders says:

Of course! If those farmers had only used hired labor, it would have caused them to use better farming practices, which would have prevented the canyons from forming.

Patrice Bowman says:

Wow! I was going to visit tomorrow, but since I am a descendant of those enslaved, I think I’ll pass.

TC says:

This is just propaganda to say that it was the SLAVERY era that caused this erosion. I just left the canyon last week, and the State Park does not avoid the subject of land use ignorance and mistake. Why throw the “slave/race” card into this. Author, to me, is the racist one.

JC says:

The author obviously is the racist in this article. Take a chill pill and put the race card back In your wallet.

KACE says:

I appreciate learning the true history. I think history should be shared from generation to generation and never be erased. It’s awful that such a thing as slavery existed. Thankfully, no one alive today took part in it or was responsible for it.

Tourmaline Cowboy says:

I’m just trying to figure out some actual science on this thing like a topographic map and precise timeframe on how this was made.

Ken Robinson says:

Ho hum, this laughably biased article is sort of like experiencing re-run episodes of Gilligan’s Island for the umpteenth time.

C. Adams says:

This article is a lie, there were never any slave plantations at this site. The kaolin clay and iron clay soils would never support cotton corn or any crop on this site. This upland site where Providence Canyons are hills 150 feet higher than the nearby rich Chattahoochee River bottom soils. These sand and kaolin & iron clay soils consisting of highly erodible fine sand on the surface. These are part of the sand hills that was an ancient seashore that separates the piedmont from the coastal plain. Settlers and plantation owners were not that stupid to try and put plantations here in this sand. Any attempt at farming this area would be quickly abandoned to the Chattahoochee River bottoms less than 20 miles away. This article is just woke propaganda by someone who sees everything through the lens of race. And is ignorant of farming. It is an attempt to propagate a myth that somehow slaves had something to do with it. The land was quickly abandoned by even individual small holders with little prior farming experience. Any farmer who attempted to plant in these surface sand hills would have quickly gone broke and could not afford a slave. This article is ridiculous.

Patrick O says:

People are getting triggered at the mention of slave labor. Let’s be real, plantation owners who wanted every ounce of profit won’t care about good farming practices. Neither human life or nature were important compared to profits. It’s on brand.

Jonathan says:

Farmers often feel direct connection to their land. Less so “farmers” who don’t work the land. Less so “farmers” who don’t work their land and have a cash crop… Produce as much as fast as possible… even on “not the best” soils… And don’t rotate anything (which would reduce the yield of cotton). Your sharp commenter above indicates that such practices would quickly destroy the land – were he there then – they would have still ignored him – the draw of the immediate cash was too great.

It would be interesting to know where the plantation owners went when they abandoned Stewart County…

Nancy says:

So, I’m not following. If this area was caused by poor farming practices.. Were those practices limited to this one relatively small area? That seems unlikely. If those poor practices resulted in the cash cow cotton crop, surely other cash hungry folks would have used the same practices leaving other areas in the same condition. Yet there’s just this one area. Doesn’t really compute for me.

Dude says:

What happened to all the pre-civil war mansions that these slave owners must have had?

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