Covington County lies in southern Mississippi’s Piney Woods region, with the Okatoma River running north–south through it. Covington County was long inhabited by Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans. Covington was established from parts of Lawrence and Wayne Counties on 5 January 1819. Many of its early settlers came from North Carolina. The county is named for congressman and Revolutionary War hero Leonard Covington of Maryland, who was stationed in Mississippi Territory during the war and played a central role in negotiations with the Creek Indians. Williamsburg served as Covington’s county seat from 1824 to 1906, when the seat was moved to Collins.
In the 1820 census Covington had 1,824 whites and 406 slaves. Forty years later the county was home to 2,845 whites and 1,564 slaves, much smaller population growth than occurred in many other parts of Mississippi. The enslaved percentage of the county’s population was also much lower than that in many of the state’s other counties.
While much of Mississippi intensified cotton cultivation in the late antebellum period, Covington, like other Piney Woods counties, decreased production of the staple. Though the county ranked among the bottom ten in cotton, corn, and livestock, it placed among the state’s top rice producers. A small number of Covington’s men worked in manufacturing during this era, most of them in lumber mills.
Covington County’s population showed little growth early in the postbellum period: as late as 1880 the county had only six thousand people. Growth subsequently picked up, and the population more than doubled by 1900, topping thirteen thousand, including forty-six hundred African Americans. With the newly constructed Gulf and Ship Island Railroad and a growing lumber industry, the county’s population continued to grow during the first decades of the twentieth century.
As in most of the Piney Woods region, few of Covington’s farmers were tenants or sharecroppers. In 1900, 86 percent of all white farmers and 59 percent of black farmers owned their land, far above the state averages. With slightly larger-than-average farms, agriculture was Covington’s central economic activity during this era. In 1880 the county’s twelve manufacturing firms employed a mere eighteen people. However, the county’s industrial production, especially in lumber, increased in the late 1800s, and two decades later the county had forty-two companies employing almost three hundred men. Collins was one of many South Mississippi towns that began as a lumber camp.
While in 1860 the county was home to six Baptist, six Methodist, and four Presbyterian churches, by 1916 about two-thirds of the county’s church congregants were members of either the Southern Baptist or Missionary Baptist conventions. Others belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; the Presbyterian Church US; or the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.
Covington County’s population growth slowed after the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1930 the county was home to 15,028 people, about two-thirds of them white. Though the county’s racial profile remained stable over the next three decades, its population began to decline, reaching 13,637 in 1960. That year also marked the beginning of a declining reliance on agriculture, though manufacturing was slow to take its place. In 1980 Covington still ranked in the bottom half of the state in industrial employment.
Covington County can claim actors, athletes, and at least one important writer among its natives. Dana Andrews, a major film star during the 1940s, was born in 1909 in Collins. Gerald McRaney, who has often portrayed southern characters in television and film and is perhaps best known for his starring role in the television sitcom Major Dad, was born in Collins in 1947. Alcorn State University and Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was born in Mount Olive in 1973. And author Ralph Eubanks described his childhood in Mount Olive in his memoir, Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi’s Dark Past.
Like many southern Mississippi counties, Covington’s 2010 population was predominantly white and had increased in size since 1960, growing by about 43 percent to 19,568.
- Gwen Keys Hitt, Covington Crossroads: A History of Covington 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)