Mississippi Family History Research
This entry was originally written by Kathleen Stanton Hutchison for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
History of Mississippi
The first written record in Mississippi history was made in 1540 when the Spaniard Hernando de Soto and his men crossed its boundaries to discover the Mississippi River. Yet long before these first Europeans came, there were Native Americans who existed in this natural habitat with its gentle climate, fertile soil, and plentiful food environment. Mississippi was home to many tribes; in the early days Mississippi had a larger population of Native Americans than any other state in the Southeast. Some of the major tribes include the Natchez on the lower Mississippi, the Chickasaw in the north and northeast, and the Choctaw in the central and southern part.
Mississippi history may be divided into four distinct jurisdictional periods: French Colonial (1699–1763), British Provincial (1763–79), Spanish Provincial (1779–98), and American Territorial and Statehood (1798-present). The year 1699 saw the French establish the colony of Biloxi, the first permanent settlement in this part of the Lower Mississippi Valley. Later this colony was moved to Mobile, and Natchez was established as the seat of government in 1716. Toward the end of the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War) in 1763, France ceded this province to Britain, beginning the immigration of Protestant, land-loving British, a stark contrast with the remaining Roman-Catholic French. Sixteen years later in 1779, the British yielded control of the Natchez District to the Spanish, who remained until pro-American sentiment prevailed.
When Mississippi Territory was formed in 1798 by the U.S. Congress, the territory included lands north of the 31st parallel and south of Tennessee, lying between the Chattahoochee and Mississippi rivers. During this period there were only two significant regions of settlement: the Natchez District, found in the southern part of the state along the Mississippi River, and the St. Stephens District in the eastern section on the Tombigbee River. At the time, Spain controlled the Gulf Coast and the Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw tribes owned more land than did the white settlers, who numbered fewer than 5,000 in 1798.
With the opening of the territory in that year, there was a surge of immigration that sparked a recurring division and formation of county boundaries. The fact that the present state of Alabama was part of Mississippi Territory occasionally causes confusion for the researcher. The present Alabama counties of Washington, Madison, Baldwin, Clarke, Monroe, Mobile, and Montgomery were organized as counties in Mississippi Territory. County names have been duplicated in Mississippi and Alabama of these except for Baldwin and Mobile counties. The coastal area of Mississippi Territory was part of British West Florida (1763–79) and later of Spanish West Florida (1779–1810) until after the War of 1812. Actually, the land encompassing the Mississippi counties of Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson was made a part of Mississippi Territory in 1812, following the West Florida Revolution of 1810.
Ambiguous application of land grant distribution through the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and Pinckney Treaty of 1795, coupled with politics of the era, produced a sometimes-muddled trail of land titles. Early Mississippi history may be characterized as one of white settlers moving onto lands that were previously owned by natives. The acquisition of this land by treaties is more fully explained in Goodspeed’s Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Mississippi (see Background Sources for Mississippi for additional references). Some of the problems encountered with these treaties may be better understood by reviewing Clarence Edwin Carter, comp. and ed., Territorial Papers of the United States: The Territory of Mississippi, vol. 6 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1938).
The thrust of immigration and settlement pushed the territory toward statehood in 1817. In 1832, through treaties made with the Choctaw and Chickasaw, all land in the present state of Mississippi was opened for settlement. Offering opportunities for a richer life, the divergent cultures from the past came together as one. Cotton became king, and the state of Mississippi flourished at an astonishing pace for decades preceding the Civil War, aided by the labors of many African Americans, both slave and free.
Mississippi voted to secede from the Union on 9 January 1861, putting into motion events that led to Mississippi’s involvement in the Civil War. The harsh period of Reconstruction that followed the war left a long-standing bitterness that further strengthened Mississippi’s political stand regarding states’ rights. The Jim Crow laws, legislation put into effect by the white electorate, guaranteed that the freed slaves would continue in a condition of servitude, poverty, and ignorance. Sharecropping sprang into being for African Americans and whites alike, leading once again to an economic dependence on cotton. Because of its persistence in clinging to an agricultural society, Mississippi was well into the twentieth century before attempting to join an industrialized America. The records created after 1940 reflect the political, economic, and cultural changes that dramatically altered Mississippi life.