Bordering the Mississippi River in the southwestern part of the state, Adams County, the first county organized in the Mississippi Territory, has played a crucial role for three centuries. From its importance in Native American history and its role as Fort Rosalie in the colonial period to its prominence as a center of Mississippi economic and political life in the early 1800s, from Natchez as an urban center in the middle of cotton wealth to cultural tourism in the mid-twentieth century and a major civil rights boycott in the 1960s, the region has been central to Mississippi’s history and identity.
An ancient home of mound-building people, the area that became Adams County was by the early 1700s home to a confederation of Indian groups that included the Natchez. Beginning in 1716, when French colonists established the Natchez District and built Fort Rosalie as a central governmental and military post, the Natchez and French came into contact and then conflict. French leaders first brought African slaves to the area in the 1720s. French economic interests included trading with the Natchez for deerskins and trying to grow tobacco, both for sale to European markets. In 1729 the Natchez attacked Fort Rosalie, killing more than 200 of the fort’s 750 residents and undermining some of the French interest in the area. War between the French (and their Choctaw allies) and the Natchez from 1729 to 1733 led to the enslaving of a number of the Natchez. Beginning in the 1730s, the Natchez began to break up into different groups, with some of them leaving the area and some forming alliances with the English.
The successive European claims to the Mississippi River Valley meant that Natchez had multiple influences and complex demography from early in its history. The French and Africans and various Native American groups had a presence in the county in the 1730s, followed by English and then Spanish colonists. The Spanish period from the 1760s to the 1790s left a major mark on Adams County. Spanish governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos had authority in Natchez territory from 1789 to 1798, when the region came under US control. Gayoso encouraged agricultural experimentation, planned a set of avenues for the city of Natchez, and welcomed many of the groups that gave Natchez its distinctive character.
Cotton, slavery, and trade on the Mississippi River revolutionized life in the early national period. Tobacco and especially cattle were key to the area’s economy in the late 1700s, and population increased dramatically after farmers in the Natchez area first grew cotton successfully in the 1790s. Natchez developed one of Mississippi’s first slave markets at the Forks of the Road, and it often held several hundred slaves at a time.
In the late colonial and early national periods, Natchez was Mississippi’s center for government, education, science, and religion, as well as for slave trading and the wealth generated by plantation agriculture and commerce. Founded in 1799 in the Mississippi Territory, Adams County was named for the nation’s second president. From the first territorial census in 1792 through 1840, Adams County had the highest population in Mississippi, with slaves accounting for between 42 and 52 percent of residents. As a meeting place, Adams County became crucial to movement on the Mississippi River and as the end point of the Natchez Trace. The area called Natchez Under-the-Hill became a temporary home for many steamboat workers, travelers, and gamblers.
The Natchez District was home to Mississippi’s first territorial government, and many the members of Mississippi’s political elite resided in the area. George Poindexter moved to Adams County in 1802 and became territorial attorney general in 1803, representative to the General Assembly in 1806, and the state’s second governor in 1820. William Bayard Shields arrived in Adams County in 1803 and served in a series of positions dealing with land, banking, and the law, becoming the state’s first chief justice in 1817. Conflict between Natchez elites and other Mississippi voters and political voices began in the 1790s and continued through the movement of the capital to Jackson in 1820.
With the French and then the Spanish presence, Natchez in the 1700s was the home of Mississippi’s first small group of Catholic settlers. All of the Protestant groups that ultimately grew to dominate much of Mississippi church life set up establishments in early Adams County. Baptists came to the area in 1799, and Tobias Gibson formed the first Methodist church in Washington in 1799. In 1807 James Smylie helped start the first Presbyterian group in Mississippi outside Washington. In addition, Jewish services were held in Natchez beginning around 1800.
From 1800 to 1820 Adams County’s population grew from 4,660 to 12,076, with its slave population far outnumbering whites or free blacks. In 1820 the county’s population consisted of 4,005 whites, 118 free blacks, and 7,953 slaves. With the growing cosmopolitan center of Natchez and the remarkably profitable large cotton plantations surrounding it, Adams County possessed a unique combination of urbanity and large-scale plantation slavery. For example, Adams County had far more people employed in manufacturing and commerce than any other county, and most of Mississippi’s planters who owned more than 250 slaves lived in Natchez. Adams County was one of the nation’s wealthiest areas and various commercial enterprises were established as a result. Publisher Andrew Marschalk, sometimes called the Father of Mississippi Journalism, started several newspapers in the area, including the Mississippi Gazette, which he founded in Natchez in 1802. The state’s first bank, the Bank of Mississippi, opened in Natchez in 1809, and Mississippi’s first academy, the Ker School, opened in Natchez in 1801. The territory’s first college, Jefferson College, opened in Washington in 1802, and Elizabeth Female Academy opened there in 1818.
Architecture marked and continues to distinguish Natchez. The combination of wealth, ambition, cosmopolitan tastes, and skilled craftspeople shows in numerous homes built in the early and mid-1800s, many of them large brick buildings with distinctive names. The styles shifted from Federal to Greek Revival to Italianate, often with unique artistic touches.
In the 1830s and 1840s Adams County’s importance within the state had begun to wane a bit, but it remained the county with the most residents, including the most slaves. In 1840 the county had 4,910 free whites, 283 free blacks, and 14,241 slaves. The most famous free African American in the county was William Johnson, known as the Barber of Natchez, who owned multiple businesses and left a diary detailing life in the city. Adams County trailed only Warren County in number of commercial and manufacturing workers in the state. A sprawling sawmill operation owned by Andrew Brown was one of the largest businesses in Mississippi, which helped rank Adams County among the leaders in the lumber industry.
On the eve of the Civil War, Adams County remained home to both slave plantations and city dwellers, but while many areas of the state had seen dramatic population growth, Adams County stagnated in the prewar years. With 5,648 free whites, 225 free blacks (by far the state’s largest such population), and 14,292 slaves in 1860, the population had hardly changed since 1840. What had been the richest place in Mississippi, with the biggest houses, the wealthiest people, and the most productive cotton plantations (with the highest numbers of slaves), now ranked in the middle of the state’s counties in the value and productivity of farm property—seventh in cotton production, thirtieth in corn production, and twenty-seventh in value of livestock. Fourteen counties had larger populations.
With a population of 6,612, Natchez nevertheless remained Mississippi’s largest city in 1860. Whereas foreign-born immigrants were rare in most of Mississippi, Natchez had 767 foreign-born men and 475 women, the state’s largest immigrant population. Many of the foreign-born were Irish workers.
Adams County stood as a striking exception to the Methodist and Baptist domination of the state’s religion. In 1860 census takers counted just six churches in Adams—two Presbyterian churches, one Episcopal, one Baptist, one Methodist, and one Catholic. However, these churches were larger than most of the state’s other congregations.
Among the many notable individuals in antebellum Natchez were Varina Howell, who married Jefferson Davis in 1845 and eventually became the only First Lady of the Confederate States of America, and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born a slave and became a popular opera singer in both the United States and England. Natchez native John F. H. Claiborne was a political figure and newspaperman who became an important postbellum historian of Mississippi.
After the Civil War and emancipation, Adams County retained a large African American majority. The county was briefly a center for African American politics, with Natchez minister and educator Hiram Rhoades Revels serving briefly as Mississippi’s first African American senator in 1870–71. Revels later became the first president of Alcorn College. John Roy Lynch, who like Revels arrived in Natchez during the Civil War, became the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and then a member of the US Congress from 1873 to 1877.
Although Adams County had many of the largest plantations in the antebellum period, its farming people worked on some of the smallest farms in the state after the war. Only four counties had average farm sizes smaller than Adams County’s 104 acres. The transformation of large plantations into small farms was accompanied by a dramatic increase in sharecropping. About two-thirds of the county’s farmers—the highest percentage in the state in 1880—worked for shares.
Postbellum Adams County nevertheless remained one of the state’s leading centers for manufacturing and a destination for immigrant workers. In 1880 Adams County manufacturers employed 417 workers, the second-highest number in the state, and the county’s 619 foreign-born men and women (most of them from Ireland, Germany, England, and Italy) gave it the state’s largest nonnative population.
By 1900 the average farm size in Adams County had dropped to fifty-five acres, as the increasing use of sharecropping and especially tenancy divided land into even smaller units. The county’s population of 30,111 included more than 24,000 African Americans, and only 6 percent of the African Americans who farmed were landowners. Natchez remained one of the state’s larger cities, and Adams County continued to have substantial numbers of foreign-born residents (443) and industrial workers (811).
In the early twentieth century Adams County in many ways remained unique by Mississippi standards, and religion was one of the clearest manifestations of that uniqueness. In 1916 Adams ranked very low in the number of Southern Baptists (420) but third in the number of Episcopalians (463) and fourth in the number of Catholics (2,533). African Americans comprised the majority of Adams’s churchgoers. The largest group in the county was the National Baptist Convention (3,800 members), while the African Methodist Episcopal Church had a sizable membership.
Early twentieth-century Adams County was home to a number of notable and creative individuals. Residing in Natchez were editor and Prohibition leader Harriet B. Kells, prolific adventure novelist Prentiss Ingraham, and writer Alice Walworth Graham, who set some of her romance novels on the area’s plantations.
Two of Mississippi’s most important efforts to preserve particular visions of the state’s history started in Natchez. In the 1930s Natchez women led by Katherine Grafton Miller began marketing their city as a destination for tourists who wanted to experience antebellum homes and their history. In the same decade Roane Byrnes Fleming began work that eventually led to the creation of the Natchez Trace Parkway, offering both natural beauty and historic travel.
At the time of the Great Depression, Adams County retained a largely agricultural economy, but 12,608 of its 23,564 residents lived in Natchez, making it one of only three Mississippi counties in which a majority of the population lived in urban areas. African Americans made up about two-thirds of the county’s population, while the remainder featured greater ethnic diversity than existed in much of the rest of Mississippi, with a substantial number of immigrants, especially from Italy. Businesses in Adams County employed about 800 industrial workers, many of them in sawmills and a creamery. Tenants operated 80 percent of the county’s farms, which concentrated on growing cotton.
By 1960 Adams County’s population had grown to 37,730, with whites achieving a slim majority (50.5 percent) for the first time as a consequence of African American out-migration as well as an increase in the white population. Agricultural labor had declined to one of the lowest percentages in the state, and a majority of workers were employed in manufacturing. Over the next two decades, Adams County experienced an 82 percent increase in manufacturing jobs, and it ranked seventh in the state in per capita income and second in retail sales. Adams was home to Armstrong Tire and Rubber, one of the larger factories that moved to Mississippi as part of the Balance Agriculture with Industry plan. The county also had the highest value of mineral production in the state, mostly petroleum from its thirty-four proven oil wells.
In the 1950s and 1960s Adams County played a significant role in both civil rights activism and opposition to civil rights. The county’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) demanded desegregated schools immediately after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Ten years later, shortly after local NAACP president George Metcalfe attended a Natchez school board meeting to ask for the desegregation of schools, he was injured by a car bomb, and activists in several groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), responded with a long boycott of white-owned stores. The Americans for the Preservation of the White Race formed in 1963 in a gas station outside Natchez, and the city’s Ku Klux Klan was among the strongest and most active in the state, with members responsible for several murders, including that of Wharlest Jackson, a black man whose truck was bombed after he was promoted over two white men at a factory in 1967. Because of the constant threat of violence, black men in Natchez welcomed a chapter of the Deacons of Defense and Justice, a militant organization that pledged to protect the black community by using violence if necessary. SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party did not attempt mass mobilization in Natchez until they had undertaken efforts in the rest of the state.
Like many of the state’s Mississippi River counties, Adams County’s 2010 population had decreased by about 15 percent over the previous half century, reaching 32,297, most of them African Americans. The county also featured a small but significant Latino minority, about 6.5 percent of the population. With historical attractions, pilgrimage tours, museums, and festivals, Adams County is one of Mississippi’s leaders in the arts and cultural tourism.
- Mississippi State Planning Commission, Progress Report on State Planning in Mississippi (1938)
- Mississippi Statistical Abstract, Mississippi State University (1952–2010)
- Charles Sydnor and Claude Bennett, Mississippi History (1939)
- University of Virginia Library, Historical Census Browser website, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- E. Nolan Waller and Dani A. Smith, Growth Profiles of Mississippi’s Counties, 1960–1980 (1985)