Located on the Gulf Coast, Harrison County was established on 5 February 1841 from portions of Hancock, Jackson, and Perry Counties. The county is named for William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States. Gulfport and Biloxi are the county seats.
Mississippi’s Gulf Coast was crucial to the history of the colonial period as a meeting point for European and Native American people. In 1699 the French, led by Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, established Fort Maurepas as the first European capital in Mississippi. For three years the settlement was organized under the leadership of Jean de Sauvole and Iberville’s brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. As a military and political leader, Bienville remained on the Gulf Coast for many years, residing in the area that eventually became Harrison County until 1722.
At its first census in 1850, Harrison County was home to 3,378 whites, 56 free blacks, and 1,441 slaves. Like other Gulf Coast counties during the antebellum period, Harrison did not have a well-developed agricultural economy. The county ranked among the bottom in the state in the value of its cotton, corn, and livestock. However, by 1860 Harrison produced more rice than any other county in Mississippi. That year, 138 of Harrison’s laborers worked in manufacturing and commerce, the majority of them employed by the county’s eight sawmills and two steam engines. Antebellum Harrison County was notable for its large foreign-born population. On the eve of the Civil War, 584 people born outside the United States lived in the county, the third-highest number in the state. In 1860 slaves made up 21 percent of the county’s population.
Though few Civil War battles took place on the Gulf Coast, Harrison County became a significant site for former Confederates after the war. Jefferson Davis moved to the Beauvoir Plantation in Biloxi in 1877 and spent much time writing his memoirs. After his death in 1889, Beauvoir became a home for Confederate veterans.
In the years after the Civil War both Harrison’s population and its agricultural sector remained relatively small. However, the county had the state’s largest proportion of foreign-born people, with immigrants, the majority of them either Germans or Irish, comprising nearly 7 percent of the population. In 1880 Harrison had only 190 farms, the fourth-fewest in Mississippi, and almost all of the county’s farmers owned their land. That year, Harrison’s 2,146 African Americans comprised 27 percent of the county’s population of 7,895.
Rapid expansion occurred in Harrison County during the late 1800s, with the total population more than doubling to 21,002 by 1900. Though the county’s farming workforce continued to dwindle, the number of industrial laborers increased rapidly as the residents of coastal counties found jobs in industry and fishing rather than agriculture. Between the 1890s and 1930s the Biloxi schooner emerged as a distinctive type of Mississippi fishing boat, primarily for oystering. By 1900 the county’s nearly one hundred industrial firms employed 1,577 people (1,172 men, 270 women, and 135 children), the second-highest number of nonagricultural workers in the state.
Harrison’s immigrant population also grew dramatically during this period. Germans and Irish still comprised the largest foreign-born groups, but the turn of the century also found the county home to French, Austrian, English, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Russian, and Canadian residents. Harrison likewise had the highest number of second-generation immigrants. Several foreign-born groups, including those from Italy and Greece, came from countries with well-developed fishing cultures. Immigrant laborers from such backgrounds moved quickly into fishing and canning industries. Beginning in 1887 the Knights of Labor found success organizing unions in several of Biloxi’s canning factories.
Religious life in antebellum Harrison County did not center on the Baptist and Methodist groups that dominated most of Mississippi. Of the eight churches in the county in 1860, three were Methodist, two were Baptist, two were Catholic, and one was Episcopalian. By 1916, with its diverse population of newly arrived European immigrants, Harrison County was home to 8,434 Catholics, by far the most in the state. With more than 800 congregants, the county’s Episcopalian contingent was also Mississippi’s largest. Since the 1920s and 1930s, Biloxi and Pass Christian have hosted Blessing of the Fleet ceremonies, where Catholic priests confer benedictions for the safety and progress of fishing people. In the 1930s the Church of Our Lady of the Gulf had more than 3,000 members, Mississippi’s largest Catholic community.
Like other coastal counties, Harrison developed an arts community, which, along with the county’s beaches, sports, and hospitality, attracted tourists. Since the antebellum period, the county has also maintained a reputation as a desirable destination for gamblers. The first hotels designed to accommodate northerners looking to spend winters on the Gulf Coast opened in 1883 in Pass Christian. The expansion of railroads in Harrison and the county’s proximity to New Orleans brought increasing numbers of tourists and winter residents, especially during the 1920s.
George Ohr, known as the Mad Potter of Biloxi, opened Biloxi Art and Novelty Pottery in 1879. From about 1880 to 1910 Ohr made some of the most ingenious pottery of the era. Painter Dusti Bongé was born in Biloxi in 1903, and Mary Kimbrough Sinclair, author of the memoir Southern Belle, spent much of her childhood in the city. The county’s connection to New Orleans is also evident from the founding of Barq’s Root Beer, which was invented in Biloxi in 1898 by New Orleans native Edward Barq.
Harrison County experienced several developments related to the military during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1941 Beauvoir Plantation became a museum honoring Jefferson Davis, and Confederate veterans continued to live there until the 1950s. In 1941 the Air Force opened Keesler Field in Biloxi, bringing thousands of people to the area during World War II. The town of Saucier also operated a prisoner-of-war camp throughout the war.
By 1930 the population had reached 44,143, the sixth-highest in the state, with whites comprising 82 percent of the total. Biloxi was the third-largest city in Mississippi, and Harrison was one of only nine counties in the state with more than 1,500 industrial workers. As the Great Depression set in, officials generally did not consider farming men and women unemployed. However, in coastal Harrison, with its large urban workforce, 1,300 men and more than 300 women—the highest numbers reported in Mississippi—were classified as unemployed.
From 1930 to 1960 Harrison County experienced dramatic population growth, reaching nearly 120,000 residents. In 1960 the county had the second-largest population in Mississippi and boasted the second-highest population density in the state. Whites continued to comprise a large majority. Harrison also continued to draw new immigrants, many of them Mexican, and was now home to smaller but substantial Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, and Filipino communities. Indeed, the county had Mississippi’s highest concentration of Vietnamese natives, the majority of whom worked in fishing and related industries.
In 1960 Harrison’s large nonagricultural labor force was distributed among fishing, shrimping, manufacturing, retail, construction, and service jobs. Those working in agriculture were few. The county had the second-highest percentage of high school graduates in Mississippi and the lowest percentage of residents with less than five years of schooling.
Harrison County has a unique civil rights history. In 1960 Dr. Gilbert Mason headed one of the state’s first direct-action demonstrations, organizing a “wade-in” to protest beach segregation. Mason also helped establish the county’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Activist Lawrence Guyot, an important figure in the movement and member of both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, was born in Pass Christian.
A diverse range of celebrated individuals hail from Harrison County. Natasha Trethewey, who served as US poet laureate in 2012–13, is a native of Gulfport. Her work, perhaps most notably the poems in her collection, Native Guard, has dealt with coastal life and issues of race. Fred Haise, one of the astronauts on the 1970 Apollo 13 flight that suffered a crippling mechanical failure but nevertheless returned to earth, was born in Biloxi in 1933. Journalist Robin Roberts, who has worked for both ESPN and national morning news programs, grew up in Biloxi and Pass Christian. Gulfport native Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (born Chris Jackson) led a notable career as a basketball player at Louisiana State University and in the National Basketball Association. Writer Jesmyn Ward was born in DeLisle outside Pass Christian. Her novel, Salvage the Bones, deals with characters on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and won the 2011 National Book Award. The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art opened in Biloxi in 1992.
Hurricanes Camille and Katrina wreaked havoc on Harrison County’s population and economy. In 1969 Camille leveled Pass Christian, killing more than 100 people in Harrison County and leaving more than 40,000 homeless. Thirty-six years later Katrina led to the deaths of 126 people and destroyed countless buildings, from historic sites to newer commercial and gambling establishments.
Like other counties in coastal Mississippi, in 2010 Harrison County’s population remained composed of a white majority. Harrison’s 187,105 people represented an increase of 56 percent since 1960 and made it the second-largest county in Mississippi. The county also possessed a small but significant Hispanic/Latino minority as well as a significant Asian minority.
- Harrison County, Mississippi History and Genealogy Network website, http://Harrison/msghn.org
- 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)