Bordering Tennessee in north-central Mississippi, Benton County was organized during Reconstruction from sections of neighboring Marshall and Tippah Counties. Founded on 15 July 1870, the county comprises land formerly belonging to the Chickasaw Nation and relinquished to the United States in the 1834 Treaty of Pontotoc. According to various sources, locals declared Sen. Thomas H. Benton of Missouri to be the county’s official namesake to conceal their true allegiance to Confederate general Samuel Benton of Holly Springs. Ashland, Benton’s county seat, is named after the home of Henry Clay, a Kentucky legislator and an antebellum secretary of state.
In its first census in 1880, Benton County reported a population of 11,023 people, divided almost evenly between African Americans and whites. Sharecroppers and tenants cultivated the majority of the county’s farms, concentrating production on grain, livestock, and tobacco rather than cotton. By 1900, 57 percent of the county’s 1,550 white farmers owned their land, while only one-tenth of Benton’s African American farming community could claim ownership.
As in much of Mississippi, Baptists made up a majority of churchgoers in Benton. The 1916 religious census reported that the National Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention were the county’s two largest groups, with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church also significant.
The decline in Benton County’s population during the first decades of the twentieth century paralleled diminishing farm ownership. Only about a third of the county’s farmers owned their own land in 1930. Four years later Benton County became one of the first counties to receive electric power from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
By 1960 Benton’s agricultural production largely consisted of corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, and oats. The county had also developed small but substantial timber and textile manufacturing industries. County population was 7,723 that year. During the decades that followed, the number of people making their living in agriculture dropped sharply.
Benton County is the home of poet James A. Autry, who was born between Ashland and Hickory Flat in 1933, the son and grandson of Baptist ministers. Autry’s work has often contrasted rural Mississippi life with the modern world.
From 2000 to 2010 Benton’s population grew from 8,026 to 8,729. Like most counties in north-central Mississippi, Benton County had a white majority (61 percent of residents, compared to 37 percent who were African American), and its population had grown over the previous half century (by 1,005 people, or about 13 percent).
- 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)