Located in the northwestern corner of the state, DeSoto County is bounded by the Mississippi River to the west, Tennessee to the north, and the Coldwater River and Arkabutla Lake to the south. DeSoto was established on 9 February 1836 from land ceded to the United States by the Chickasaw Nation under the 1832 Treaty of Pontotoc. Both the county and its seat, Hernando, are named for sixteenth-century explorer Hernando de Soto. In 1872 Tate County annexed a portion of DeSoto County.
Already well populated at its first census in 1840, DeSoto County was home to 3,981 free people, who outnumbered the county’s slave population by almost a thousand. Perhaps because of its proximity to Memphis, the area had a significant nonagricultural workforce early on, with nearly 100 people working in commerce and manufacturing.
DeSoto’s population grew rapidly over the next twenty years, and by 1860 the county’s slave population numbered 13,987, 60 percent of the total. Agricultural production in DeSoto was high on the eve of the Civil War, when the county ranked seventh in the state in its value of livestock, eleventh in the production of cotton, and thirteenth in the production of corn. County farms were also among the most productive in the state in growing potatoes and orchard products.
The Mississippi Delta was a destination for many of the South’s African Americans in the post–Civil War years. During the late 1800s DeSoto’s black population increased while its white population declined. Like many Delta counties, DeSoto emerged as a sharecropping county during Reconstruction, with almost half its farms (far above the state average) tended by sharecroppers in 1880. As a result, the county’s farms dramatically decreased in size, averaging just 86 acres, the lowest figure in Mississippi, and well below the state average of 156 acres.
By 1900 only 9 percent of DeSoto’s black farmers owned their own farms, with the rest working either as tenants or sharecroppers. In contrast, 53 percent of the county’s white farmers claimed ownership. Industry remained small, but it was clearly growing, with sixty-one companies employing 124 men and 1 woman. DeSoto was now a large county, with more than 24,000 people, 77 percent of them African American.
In 1860 the county had thirty-two churches, most of them Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian. After the turn of the century, in contrast, religious life in DeSoto reflected its growing African American population, with Missionary Baptists the largest group and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church stronger in DeSoto than in any other Mississippi county except Marshall. The Methodist Episcopal Church and Southern Baptist Convention also had significant congregations.
DeSoto’s population stabilized in the early twentieth century, increasing only slightly from 1900 to 1930. As the Great Depression loomed, the majority of DeSoto’s farming population was African American, and nearly 90 percent worked as tenants or sharecroppers.
Between 1960 and 1980, DeSoto’s population more than doubled from 23,891 to 53,930. African Americans comprised 61 percent of that number. DeSoto experienced a dramatic transition in its labor market, as its farming workforce fell from nearly half the county’s population in 1960 to just under 2 percent by 1980. Just under one-fifth of DeSoto’s laborers worked in manufacturing, primarily in food production, timber, or textiles. Many women worked in private homes, and more than 30 percent of the population had less than five years of schooling.
In June 1966 James Meredith, who had been the University of Mississippi’s first African American student, announced he would begin his March against Fear to raise awareness about black voter registration in Mississippi. He planned to walk from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, passing through DeSoto County. Meredith’s journey was aborted when he was shot several times in Hernando, but other activists completed the walk on his behalf.
DeSoto County has had its share of notable citizens. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, moved to Hernando at age twenty-one. W. C. Faulkner, grandfather of celebrated author William Faulkner, described DeSoto County’s Horn Lake as “Hell’s Hole” in his novel The White Rose of Memphis. Author John Grisham spent several years in the 1980s working as an attorney in DeSoto County, and some readers find traces of the area in his work. In the mid-1990s the blues rock band North Mississippi Allstars formed in Hernando. DeSoto has also long had a close connection to Memphis, and the county courthouse in Hernando displays a mural originally painted for the Gayoso Hotel in the Tennessee city.
Like many counties in northern Mississippi, DeSoto County had a white majority in 2010, hosted a small but significant Hispanic/Latino minority, and had grown significantly during the last half of the twentieth century. Though DeSoto’s black population had declined to 22 percent, its total population had undergone the state’s largest proportional increase during this period, growing by 575 percent since 1960 to more than 130,000, making it the third-largest county in the state. Like several neighboring counties, DeSoto’s white population increased over this period. Southaven has been Mississippi’s fastest-growing Mississippi city in recent years, attracting Memphis residents to its suburban neighborhoods. DeSoto’s convention center, proximity to gaming establishments, growing shopping facilities, and diverse recreational amenities have helped the county maintain some of Mississippi’s lowest poverty rates.
- Genealogical Society of DeSoto County, Our Heritage, DeSoto County, Mississippi (1992)
- 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)