Antebellum Town Building

Mississippi’s frontier town-building era spanned the first five decades of the nineteenth century. Following the removal of the Native American population through a series of treaties, white Americans and their black slaves first settled in the southwestern portion of Mississippi, then in the central and eastern counties, and finally in the northern third of the state. James G. Baldwin used his popular and influential 1853 work, The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi, to emphasize a pattern of speculation and greed as the central dynamic of frontier town creation. Baldwin wrote of Mississippi in the 1830s as a time of “enterprise without honesty,” in which “every cross-road and every avocation presented an opening, through which a fortune was seen by the adventurer in near perspective.” While Baldwin captured the character of a few colorful individuals, the more lasting and significant theme seems to be one of Mississippians looking to frontier towns to lead the process of transplanting the patterns of the older South to the newer South. Mississippians also looked for towns to establish a legal, political, moral, and social order in the newly settled territory.

The 1830 and 1840 censuses of Mississippi listed only Vicksburg and Natchez as “Cities and Towns.” By 1850, however, eighteen Mississippi towns had earned that classification. Many of these towns were quite small—Warrenton (Warren County) had only 178 residents, and Hillsboro (Scott County) had 182. Mississippi frontier towns included both white citizens and black slaves and a small number of free blacks. According to the 1850 census, slaves accounted for 51 percent of the state’s total population and 36 percent of the population in towns, though the frontier towns’ racial compositions varied widely: the 55 slaves living in Fulton (Itawamba County) comprised 20 percent of the population, while Columbus’s 1,222 slaves accounted for 47 percent of residents. Towns were spaces in which whites and blacks shopped, worshipped, tended to legal matters, found entertainment, and gathered in large numbers.

In their newly completed buildings, town folk often found symbols of their conquest of the frontier. On 4 July 1839 a town leader offered a public toast: “Pontotoc—Where the Indians roamed and the panther prowled, now stately churches are seen to rear their lofty spires above the proudest eminence of the loftiest oaks of the forest.” Buildings provided frontier Mississippians with the clear evidence that civilization and society were symbolically overcoming and dominating Indians, panthers, oaks, and the frontier itself. The small towns hosted institutions that provided the moorings and stability for the new frontier society. One settler provided an impressive inventory of the Marshall County village of Lamar in 1837: “It contains two dry goods houses, Oak + Dowdy + Such, two groceries, Barnets + Houston + Wilkins, one harness shop, two churches, Methodist + presbyterian, one odd Fellows Lodge, one free Masons Lodge, + one ex-sons of temperance.” These merchants, fraternal organizations, and churches reflect a model of social organization and social development far more complicated than Baldwin’s picture of a “wholly unorganized” frontier society. As historian Don H. Doyle writes, “The town provided forms of community unknown to those isolated in the countryside.”

Far from random or haphazard, the planning, designing, and creation of frontier towns such as Holly Springs grew from a clear desire to create order. According to a South Carolina native who participated in the formation of Holly Springs, “In the center of the town is a large open square about 150 yards by 150 yards, with wide streets crossing at right angles and running out north & south, east & west.” Around the square were to be built “the business lots and the storehouses . . . side by side as thick as they stand.” Behind these business lots would be a back street on which “the family residences commence and extend in every direction on streets running parallel with the 4 which leave the public square.” For town founders, everyone and everything had a proper place: “In the center of the public square stands the Court House which costs 20,000 dollars,” while a large public clock “is fixed up in the cupola and has hands on 4 sides so that a man riding into town from any point of the compass can tell the time of day.” Towns erected on the Mississippi frontier were a visible construction of the hopes, dreams, and aspirations for ordered lives. For novelist William Faulkner, construction of the county courthouse in fictional Yoknapatawpha served a transformative purpose: “Rising surging like a fixed blast rocket, not even finished yet but already looming, beacon focus and lodestar, already taller than anything else, out of the rapid and fading wilderness.”

Further Reading

  • Joseph G. Baldwin, The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi: A Series of Sketches (1853)
  • Donald Harrison Doyle, Faulkner’s County: The Historical Roots of Yoknapatawpha (2001)
  • John D. W. Guice and Thomas D. Clark, Frontiers in Conflict: The Old Southwest, 1795–1830 (1986)
  • Bruce Duncan Mactavish, “With Strangers United in Kindred Relation: Education, Religion, and Community in Northern Mississippi, 1836–1890” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1993

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Antebellum Town Building
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018