Mississippi Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mississippi’s climate has greatly influenced its history. Located in the Deep South of the United States, just above the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi has long, humid summers and generally short, mild winters.

History of Mississippi

Mississippi’s climate has greatly influenced its history. Located in the Deep South of the United States, just above the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi has long, humid summers and generally short, mild winters. Consequently the growing season throughout the state is more than two hundred days long. In the far South, the growing season can be as long as 280 days. This long growing period, combined with abundant rain, has made agriculture a prominent economic activity. Outside of the hilly region in the north, the soils are finely textured, composed of clays, sands, and other components.

In the nineteenth century, when cotton became a major export crop for the United States, climate and soil tended to make the state heavily dependent on production of cotton. The prominence of cotton, a plantation crop requiring heavy investment of labor, contributed to the development of slavery as a major feature of life before the Civil War. Slavery gave Mississippi a large African American population, and the legacy of slavery produced racial inequality and troubled race relations. Continuing reliance on agriculture also tended to make Mississippi one of the least industrialized and poorest states in the United States throughout the twentieth century.

Early History

During prehistoric times, the area of Mississippi was populated by people who lived in highly organized farming societies. These societies are known as the Mound Builders, after the great ceremonial earth mounds they constructed. The Mound Builders may be divided into the people of the Hopewell culture, who flourished from about the first century until about 800 c.e., and the people of the Mississippian culture, who lived from about 800 c.e. until about 1500. When the earliest French settlers arrived in what is now the southwestern part of Mississippi, the Natchez Indians were still building mounds, which were used for burials and as sites for public buildings.

By the time of European settlement in this area of North America, there were three major Native American nations in the Mississippi region, as well as a host of small Native American groups. The nation of the Choctaw was the largest of the three. The Choctaw controlled most of central and southern Mississippi. In southwestern Mississippi, the Natchez nation was dominant. In the northern part of what is now the state of Mississippi, the Chickasaw were the largest and most powerful group.

The Choctaw were an agricultural people who lived in thatched-roof cabins made of mud and bark. The Chickasaw were closely related to the Choctaw, and both groups spoke languages of the Muskogean family, but they were traditional enemies before European settlement. The Natchez were the largest and most unified group in the area. However, war broke out between the Natchez and French settlers in the early 1700’s. The French joined with the Choctaw to destroy the Natchez in 1729. Some Natchez were sold into slavery, and others were absorbed into other tribes. The Choctaw and Chickasaw continued to live in the Mississippi region, adopting many of the ways of European society. By 1842 though, the U.S. government, under pressure from land-hungry white settlers, forced most of the Native Americans of the Southeast to relocate in Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

European Exploration and Colonization

The Spanish and the French were the first Europeans to explore the territory of the lower Mississippi River. From 1539 to 1543, the Spaniard Hernando de Soto led an expedition that is believed to have crossed the northern part of the modern state of Mississippi. At the end of the 1600’s, the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, journeyed down the Mississippi River to its mouth and claimed all of the land drained by the Mississippi in the name of France. La Salle named this huge expanse of territory Louisiana, in honor of King Louis XIV of France.

After the French and Indian War between France and Great Britain, from 1754 to 1763, France ceded all of the French land east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain. Although the British attempted to reserve the land of northern Mississippi for Native Americans and forbade white settlement in that region, white Americans were drawn to the region for its rich soil. In 1783 the Spanish, who had acquired the Louisiana territories from France, took southern Mississippi from the British. In 1798 Spain recognized the northern part of modern Mississippi as territory of the new United States. That same year, the U.S. Congress organized this region as the Mississippi Territory.

American colonists in West Florida, the areas of modern Louisiana and southern Mississippi still under Spanish rule, revolted against Spain in 1810. West Florida became independent briefly, then it was annexed to the United States. In 1817 Mississippi was admitted to the United States as the twentieth state.

Cotton and the Civil War

In 1800 there were only 7,600 settlers in Mississippi. By 1820 this number had grown to 75,448. Ten years later, the U.S. Census put the state’s population at 136,621. The 1860 census showed a population of 791,305. Much of this rapid growth was due to the immigration of farmers who were looking for land to grow cotton. Cotton was Mississippi’s most important crop, and, by the eve of the Civil War, Mississippi produced more cotton than any other state. Although only a small minority of the whites in the state were large plantation owners, owners of the big plantations held most of the economic and political power. Reliance on slave labor meant that the state had a huge slave population, with slaves of African descent far outnumbering whites. Because there were so many people held in bondage, Mississippi’s slave laws were among the harshest in the South.

By the 1850’s the southern states, which were dependent on agriculture and slavery, were losing control over the U.S. Congress and presidency to the industrialized North. Many southerners believed that the southern way of life, including the institution of slavery, could only be preserved by seceding from the United States. In 1861, after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, southern states began declaring their independence. Mississippi was the second state to secede, and Mississippi planter and former U.S. senator Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederate States of America.

About eighty thousand Mississippians fought for the Confederacy, and almost one-third of them died in the Civil War. Many counties in Mississippi also saw an internal civil war, as small farmers who opposed secession from the Union organized themselves to fight against the Confederacy. Fighting ravaged the state, and the forces of U.S. general William Tecumseh Sherman were especially destructive in their efforts to defeat the rebellious southerners.

The Legacy of War and Slavery

Mississippi’s history of slavery and civil war led to continuing problems of racial inequality. During Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War when Northern troops occupied the defeated lands of the Confederacy, the state’s freed slaves entered political life, although few had sufficient education or experience to hold more than minor offices. By 1875, though, the whites of Mississippi began to retake power. They instituted segregation and, by the early twentieth century, excluded African Americans from public life by laws and terrorism. In some of the counties of the Mississippi Delta, the region where the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers join together, 80 to 90 percent of the people were African American. Most of them worked as sharecroppers, farmers working the land for a share of the crop, on land owned by whites.

As a consequence of this legacy of slavery, Mississippi became a central battleground of the Civil Rights movement. In 1964, black and white college students working with civil rights organizations traveled to the state for Freedom Summer, to provide educational opportunities to local African Americans and to encourage minority voter registration. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, segregation became illegal in the United States, and black Mississippians began to enter public life. By the 1990’s, the Mississippi legislature had the highest percentage of African Americans of any state legislature in the nation. Nevertheless, racial prejudice and poverty in Mississippi’s black population continued to be problems.

Economy and Population After the War

Mississippi continued to have an economy based on agriculture well into the twentieth century. However, declining prices for cotton and other agricultural goods contributed to making it the poorest state in the nation by many measures. In 1936 Governor Hugh L. White began an effort to bring industry into the state with his Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI) program. World War II helped industrialization, especially in the shipbuilding industry along the Gulf Coast. The period following World War II saw rapid industrialization. By 1990, less than 3 percent of Mississippi’s labor force were employed in agriculture, while almost 23 percent were employed in factories. The state’s largest areas of employment in the late twentieth century were lumber and wood products, furniture, food products, and the manufacture of clothing.

With the disappearance of agricultural jobs, many black Mississippians left the state. The state’s African American population declined from 60 percent of all Mississippians in 1900 to 36 percent in 1990. Most small towns and villages grew smaller or even disappeared after World War II. Most of the state’s population growth in this period took place in the urban areas of Jackson, Biloxi-Gulfport, and Pascagoula-Moss Point. By 1990, nearly half of all the people in the state lived in cities.

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