Hancock County is located on the Gulf Coast, with the Pearl River and Louisiana border forming much of its western boundary. The county was established on 14 December 1812 and is named for John Hancock, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Bay St. Louis is the county seat.
Like Mississippi’s other coastal counties, Hancock is distinctive for its early emphasis on tourism and connection to New Orleans, its cultural and religious diversity, its nonagricultural economy, and its beaches. The presence of fresh seafood, ethnic diversity, and a tourist trade have contributed to the development of a unique cuisine and economy.
In its first census in 1820, Hancock had a small population of 1,142 free whites, 321 slaves, and 131 free blacks, the second-largest such group in Mississippi. Hancock was also the only county in the new state in which the majority of laborers (161) worked in manufacturing and commerce, as compared to 153 who worked in agriculture.
By 1840 Hancock had ten sawmills, the most in Mississippi. The free population had grown to 2,311, of whom only 74 were African Americans, while the slave population numbered 1,056. Although nonagricultural laborers no longer dominated the county’s workforce, more than a quarter of its people—still the highest percentage in the state—were employed in commerce and manufacturing. By the 1840s the town of Shieldsboro had a quality hotel and a number of boardinghouses and was developing a reputation as a tourist destination.
Hancock County’s population did not change a great deal during the late antebellum period. As in most of Mississippi, the number of free blacks was declining. A decade before the Civil War began, the county was home to only twelve free blacks, a number that dropped to zero ten years later. By 1850 a relatively small proportion of the county’s farmland had been improved. Hancock ranked last in the state in cotton production, second-to-last in corn, and third-to-last in the value of its livestock. However, Hancock ranked fifth in Mississippi in rice production. In 1860, Hancock’s 27 percent constituted one of the smallest slave populations in the state.
In the postbellum period, whites comprised 4,635 of the county’s 6,439 people (72 percent). With only 364 farms, most of them owned by the people who ran them, the county’s agricultural sector remained fairly underdeveloped. By 1880 Hancock and Harrison, a neighboring county to the east, had the highest proportions of immigrants in Mississippi, with 4.27 percent and 6.88 percent, respectively. These counties were home to small but substantial German, French, and English contingents, and a number of Italian and Austrian immigrants arrived in the late 1800s. To advance and profit from the Mississippi timber industry, the firm of Poitevant and Favre built one of the largest sawmills in the country in Hancock County in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
In 1875 leaders in Shieldsboro changed the town’s name to Bay St. Louis. Several years later, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad purchased the coastal track, permanently linking New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. With the expansion of its gambling infrastructure, Bay St. Louis quickly became a popular resort area and weekend destination for New Orleans residents.
Over the next few decades the county’s population increased dramatically, reaching 11,886 people in 1900. With only 530 farms, Hancock was now a trading and industrial county. The great majority of the county’s small agricultural community (90 percent of white farmers, and 34 percent of the forty-four African American farmers) owned the land they farmed. The county had fewer than fifty tenants and sharecroppers.
During the opening decades of the twentieth century, the county boasted a unique industrial sector and immigrant population. In the early 1900s, Hancock had 349 foreign-born residents, with Italians slightly outnumbering Germans and French. It was one of only ten Mississippi counties with more than 1,000 industrial workers: 1,077 people, most of them men, worked in the county’s forty industrial establishments, many of them involved in either timber or seafood.
In 1850 Hancock County had three Methodist churches, one Baptist church, and one Catholic church. By 1916 Hancock and Harrison were among the few counties in the state in which Catholics comprised the largest religious contingent. In addition to the county’s 4,374 Catholics, Hancock also had just over 2,000 Baptists (1,237 Missionary Baptists and 827 Southern Baptists), while its Methodist congregants numbered fewer than 1,000. A Methodist campground, Gulfside, was established in Waveland in 1923.
A host of artists and writers grew up in or chose to move to Hancock County. John F. H. Claiborne moved to Bay St. Louis in the mid-1800s and stayed there for the remainder of his life, writing numerous works on the history of Mississippi. Eliza Jane Poitevant, better known by her pen name Pearl Rivers, grew up in Pearlington before becoming an important journalist in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century. Sculptor Richmond Barthé, born in Bay St. Louis in 1901, was an important artist in the Harlem Renaissance, and self-taught artist William Beecher was also born in the city in 1902. In recent years, the county has worked to support creative people, celebrating and supporting art through the production of public murals in churches, libraries, and other downtown buildings.
With a substantial immigrant population and unique economy, Hancock remained unusual by Mississippi standards in 1930. The county’s population had remained stable over the previous three decades, and as the Great Depression set in, Hancock was home to 11,415 residents, 8,596 of whom identified as white, 2,815 as black, and 4 as “other.” More than a quarter of the county’s population lived in urban settings, and Hancock had the lowest percentage of farmland and very few tenant farmers.
Hancock has maintained an important connection to the U.S. military since Bay St. Louis native Henry Jetton Tudbury became the state’s best-known soldier during World War I. During World War II, the county was home to a Merchant Marine academy. In 1961 the John C. Stennis Space Center started operations in Hancock. This facility for testing National Aeronautics and Space Administration rocket engines has been a major employer and influence on the Gulf Coast, encouraging the development of new technologies, related research, and industry.
By 1960 Hancock’s population had grown to 14,039, 84 percent of them white. Hancock’s agricultural sector continued to shrink, employing fewer than 100 people by 1970. Manufacturing employment, conversely, grew from 90 workers in 1960 to more than 1,000 in 1970. The county’s per capita income doubled over the same decade. By 1980 the county was home to almost 25,000 residents.
Hurricanes Camille and Katrina did extraordinary damage to Hancock County. Camille made landfall near Bay St. Louis in August 1969, with winds gusting to two hundred miles per hour. The severe destruction ultimately led to opportunities to build larger, newer structures, but many of them did not survive Katrina thirty-six years later. Katrina was even more devastating, killing fifty-one people in Hancock County; destroying all buildings near the beach in Bay St. Louis, Pearlington, and Waveland; and reshaping the environment and economy of the entire area.
Like many counties in Southeast Mississippi, in 2010 Hancock County was predominantly white, had a small but significant Hispanic/Latino minority, and had experienced significant population growth during the last half of the twentieth century. With an increase of more than 200 percent since 1960, Hancock County’s population has undergone one of the largest proportional expansions in the state during this period, reaching 43,929 residents.
- Hancock County, Mississippi, GenWeb website, www.rootsweb.ancestry.com
- 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)