Mississippi History

Historic Facts & Overview of Mississippi History

Take a peek at Mississippi history. Discover an overview of Mississippi's rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

Spelling the name of this state out loud is a catchy way to remember it, and a way to make sure you spell it correctly. The name "Mississippi" comes from an Indian word meaning "great waters" or "father of waters." Mississippi entered the Union as the 20th state in 1817. Considered part of the Deep South, Mississippi, with its rich soil and many rivers, is an agricultural state. The state flower is the fragrant magnolia blossom, and the capital is Jackson.

Overview of Mississippi History and Heritage

First explored for Spain by Hernando De Soto, who discovered the Mississippi River in 1540, the region was later claimed by France. Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, traveled down the Mississippi River in 1682. He claimed the entire Mississippi Valley, including present-day Mississippi, for France and named it Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV.

In 1699 a French expedition led by Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville established France's claim to the lower Mississippi valley with the first permanent settlement, Old Biloxi, near present-day Ocean Springs. They saw it as a strategically-located area ripe for settlement and commercial value. French settlements were soon established at Fort Maurepas, Mobile, Biloxi, Fort Rosalie, and New Orleans.

During the early 1700s, thousands of settlers moved to Mississippi.

When the Natchez rose up against the colonists in 1729, France rallied to destroy most of the Indian tribe the following year. In 1736, the Chickasaw and British soldiers defeated the French in northeast Mississippi. This led to the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The Treaty of Paris, signed after the war, gave England all the land east of the Mississippi River. Mississippi was divided into two main parts; the southern section to a British province called West Florida and the remaining portion to the Georgia colony.

Following the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763, France ceded its possessions in the lower Mississippi valley, except New Orleans, to Great Britain, which also gained possession of Spanish Florida and divided that territory into two colonies. One of those was West Florida, which included the area between the Apalachicola and Mississippi rivers. The original northern boundary of West Florida was the 31 parallel, but it was extended in 1764 to the 3228' parallel. Fort Rosalie was renamed Fort Panmure, and the Natchez District was established as a subdivision of West Florida. Natchez flourished during the early 1770s. After the outbreak of the US War of Independence, Spain regained possession of Florida and occupied Natchez.

This gave the Brits a huge presence in the area. To better govern such a large geographic area, the Brits divided the territory into two colonies. One colony was West Florida, which included the area between the Apalachicola and Mississippi rivers. The original northern boundary of West Florida was the 31st parallel, but in 1764 this moved north to the 32.28' parallel. The Brits renamed Fort Rosalie Fort Panmure. They made the Natchez District a subdivision of West Florida. After the US War of Independence broke out, Spain regained possession of Florida and occupied Natchez. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris made the 31st parallel as the northern boundary between Spanish Florida and the United States. Despite this, Spain continued to occupy Natchez. The two countries settled the occupation dispute in 1798.

The original Mississippi Territory created by the US Congress in1798 was a strip of land extending about 100 miles north to south and from the Mississippi River to the Chattahoochee on the Georgia border. The territory was increased in 1804 and 1812 to reach from Tennessee to the Gulf. In 1817 the western part achieved statehood as Mississippi (the eastern part became the state of Alabama in 1819). Natchez, the first territorial capital, was replaced in 1802 by nearby Washington, which in turn was replaced by Jackson in 1822. This encouraged growth of the newly formed territory, because the river allowed Mississippi trading ships to sail to the Gulf of Mexico.

 In 1817, Congress divided the Mississippi Territory into the state of Mississippi and the Alabama Territory. On Dec. 10, 1817, Mississippi joined the Union and became the 20th state. Its population had almost reached 60,000 people.

The 1820s and '30s were marked by the decline of the Jeffersonian Republicans, the ascendancy of the Jacksonian Democrats, and the removal of the Indians to Oklahoma and set the stage for the Civil War. Cotton continued to grow in importance with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. The farmers used slave labor to operate the large cotton plantations. By 1860, Mississippi's black slaves outnumbered white people 437,000 to 354,000. Slavery had become an intense debate between the Northern and Southern states. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the US in 1860, many southerners feared he would end slavery in the South. Mississippi seceded on Jan. 9, 1861, the second of eleven to secede and within a year the state was in the midst of war. . These states formed the Confederate States of America.  Mississippian Jefferson Davis became the Confederacy's first and only president.

Many important battles were fought in or on the borders of Mississippi. The Battle of Vicksburg became a turning point in the war. For 47 days, Union forces fought the Confederate Army, both sides suffering many casualties. Food became scarce. Finally, the Confederates surrendered the city on July 4, 1863. This Union victory gave the North control of the Mississippi River. Two years later the war ended and all slaves were freed at the end of the war. Mississippi was placed under military control. In Dec. 1869, the state passed a new constitution granting black people the right to vote. On Feb. 23, 1870, Mississippi was allowed to return to the Union. For a time, blacks in the state voted and some held government positions.

The people suffered much privation, and the land underwent great devastation; by 1865 the state was in economic ruin. For 25 years following the Civil War, Mississippi's former slaves and their former owners grappled with the political, social, and economic consequences of emancipation. In Dec. 1869, the state passed a new constitution granting black people the right to vote. On Feb. 23, 1870, Mississippi was allowed to return to the Union. For a time, blacks in the state voted and some held government positions. The white minority could not or would not accept a biracial society based on equality of opportunity. And in 1890, a new state constitution was written that took away voting rights from most black people. Segregation began within schools, buses, and many public places. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan were organized to terrorize black people.

Although many suffered from poverty following the war, the early 1900s brought great progress in industry, agriculture, and education in Mississippi. The construction of railroads allowed access to forests in southeast Mississippi, creating a boom in the lumber industry. State projects to drain many of the swampy areas in Mississippi provided more suitable land for farming. An illiteracy commission, established in 1916, started education programs for adults who could not read or write.

During the 1920s, several legislative actions established a state commission of education, a state library commission, and a highway-building program. In 1927, a huge flood on the Mississippi River totaled over $204 million in damage and left thousands homeless. Congress then established the US Army Corps of Engineers responsible for controlling floods on the Mississippi River.

During the Great Depression (1929-1939), thousands lost their farms in Mississippi. The price of cotton fell from twenty cents a pound in the 1920s, to five cents by 1931. State legislature created a program called Balancing Agriculture With Industry (BAWI) in 1936. These laws freed new businesses from paying certain taxes and provided bond money to build factories for new industries. The discovery of petroleum at Tinsley in 1939 and Vaughan in 1940 also helped the economy in Mississippi.

During World War II (1939-1945), several war plants opened in Mississippi. As machines replaced farm workers, industrial development was encouraged during the 1960s. In 1963, a huge oil refinery opened in Pascagoula. The following year, the Mississippi Research and Development Center was established. The center encourages new industries to come to the state, and helps those already established to expand. By 1966, more Mississippians worked in manufacturing than in agriculture.

Like other states, Mississippi had severe racial problems. But in 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. James Meredith was the first black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi in 1962. The fight for civil rights was long and often met with violence. Two demonstrators were killed in 1962. Medgar Evers of the NAACP was shot and killed in 1963 and three civil rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Miss in 1964. Other schools, restaurants, and public places throughout the state did not begin integration until 1964. In 1969, the US Supreme Court ordered an immediate end to all segregated public schools.

Since the 1980s, Mississippians have turned to industries other than agriculture. Catfish farming has boomed in Delta, one of the country's poorest regions. Furniture production has become a great Mississippi industry. In 1990, state lawmakers voted to allow dockside gambling, now found on the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River. More than 30,000 now work in this new industry. Money spent in tourism doubled between 1990 and 1994. However, many high school and college graduates leave Mississippi to find better jobs. State leaders are still striving to attract industries that require greater skills and pay higher wages.

Today, Mississippi - like many other southern states - is an economic and, to and extent, cultural backwater struggling to remake itself. In the last quarter of the 20th Century, manufacturing plants located to small towns in the south to take advantage of cheap labor. Many such companies did so with a negative attitude toward southerners, and have further hurt the region. The "trailer trash" antics of the Clintons (one of whom was from Illinois, not the south) has further hurt the image - and the economies - of southern states.

Yet, there are bright spots on the horizon. Southern universities, free of some of the political baggage associated with other universities, have attracted outstanding researchers. Innovative companies, drawn by the favorable social and tax climate, have moved to the south - not to pillage it, but to embrace it and help it grow.

Mississippi has much to offer. A strategic location, quality of life, modernized cities, and low tax rates are among the factors that draw people. However, what makes them stay is something more valuable: the people. After 150 years of coping with adversity, strife, and political machinations designed to put them at a disadvantage, the people have developed a toughness of character combined with a sweetness of spirit. As they move forward into the 21st Century, this is a strength that gives them a competitive advantage.

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