Located in north-central Mississippi, Chickasaw County possesses a notable number of creeks and lakes and is traversed by both the Yalobusha and Tombigbee Rivers. Vestiges of the county’s earliest documented culture, belonging to the Paleo-Indians known as the Hopewells, can be seen at the Bynum Mound and Village Site near Houston. The French and British also occupied Chickasaw lands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Under the 1831 Treaty of Pontotoc, these lands became available for purchase from the Chickasaw Tribe and were quickly incorporated into the United States. The county takes its name from the region’s native inhabitants and was formally established on 9 February 1836. Chickasaw’s two county seats are Okolona and Houston, the latter named for the distinguished leader of the Texas war of independence, Gen. Sam Houston.
In 1840 Chickasaw was home to 2,148 free whites, 1 free African American, and 806 slaves. Early on, the county was almost entirely agricultural, and the plantation economy was central to Chickasaw’s antebellum prosperity. By 1860 the county had changed substantially. Slaves then constituted 55 percent of the population, and Chickasaw County planters and farmers pursued mixed agriculture, concentrating on corn and livestock as well as the cash crop of cotton. Following the construction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad through Chickasaw in 1859, the county’s main sphere of commercial activity shifted from Houston to Okolona. While only eighty-three residents of Chickasaw County were employed in industry in 1860, its manufacturing sector produced a substantial variety of commodities, including fixed agricultural implements, flour and meal, lumber, boots, carriages, furniture, and saddles and harnesses.
As in much of Mississippi, most of Chickasaw’s antebellum congregants attended Baptist or Methodist churches. Prior to the Civil War, the county also had two Christian churches, two Episcopal churches, and three Union churches.
Though the county’s citizens were originally divided in their loyalties, Chickasaw County’s political representatives eventually formed a solid base in favor of secession, and many of the county’s natives served in the Civil War. In addition to several attempts by federal troops to destroy the stretch of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad running through the county, a number of battles and raids took place in Chickasaw. Property owners in the county suffered losses on many fronts as a result of the war, especially in the destruction of the county’s economic infrastructure.
Chickasaw was considered among the state’s postbellum “black districts,” as following the war its political boundaries were redrawn to ensure the election of African American candidates. Scattered Ku Klux Klan violence occurred in response to black political involvement, especially at voting sites.
The county’s population struggled during the postbellum era. In 1872 Clay and Webster Counties annexed portions of Chickasaw. Though agriculture remained the county’s primary subsistence activity, the demise of Chickasaw’s plantation economy led to the rise of small farms and sharecropping. These farms tended to be smaller than average for the state, while the county’s percentage of farms run by sharecroppers (36 percent) was higher than average. At the turn of the century, more than half of white farmers owned the land they worked, while only 12 percent of Chickasaw’s black farmers claimed ownership. The county’s industrial workforce also remained relatively small, with manufacturing firms employing just seventy-eight people.
Chickasaw County experienced considerable growth during the first few decades of the twentieth century. By 1900 the county’s population had grown to almost twenty thousand, and in 1909 the county constructed Mississippi’s first Carnegie Library in Houston. Chickasaw also saw a rise in industrial activity during this era, and its agricultural economy moved away from cotton cultivation toward livestock.
By 1916 more than half of the Chickasaw’s church members were Baptists—mostly either Missionary Baptists or Southern Baptists. Smaller but still significant numbers of congregants attended the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church. Chickasaw County was home to notable religious musicians, including shape-note singer W. A. Beasley and the Pilgrim Jubilees gospel group.
Frank Burkitt, a Populist editor and political figure, was a Chickasaw County native, as was Pauline Orr, an important figure at the Mississippi University for Women. Blues musician Booker “Bukka” White was born in Houston in 1909. Country singer Bobbie Gentry, known for her rendition of “Ode to Billie Joe,” was likewise born in Chickasaw and mentioned the county often in her music. Chickasaw has long been home to Sparta Opry, a live country music show. William Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, grew up in Okolona and graduated from Okolona College High School in 1952.
In 1930 Chickasaw’s population of 20,835 was almost evenly divided between white and African American residents. Only about 29 percent of farmers owned their own land. Dairy farming and cattle became increasingly central to Chickasaw’s agricultural sector during the first half of the twentieth century, while sweet potato cultivation increased following World War II. The county’s industrial force was also growing, employing 224 workers in 1930. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the Natchez Trace Game Area in Chickasaw.
By 1960 Chickasaw County’s population had dropped below 17,000, and almost two-thirds of residents were white. Twenty years later, only 220 people were still involved in agriculture, while more than half of the workforce, almost 5,000 people, held manufacturing positions, largely in timber and textiles.
Like many central Mississippi counties, in 2010 Chickasaw County’s population of 17,932 was predominantly white and had not changed significantly in size since 1960. However, a small but significant Latino/Hispanic minority had emerged.
- Chickasaw County Historical and Genealogical Society, A History of Chickasaw County, Mississippi (1985)
- 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)