People have hunted in what is now Mississippi for at least the past twelve thousand years. Some of the earliest hunters, known as Clovis people to archaeologists, created beautiful stone projectile points and might have been so efficient that they hastened the extinctions of mastodons, giant ground sloths, and other creatures. Later native peoples pursued white-tailed deer, black bears, and a multitude of smaller animals and birds in seasonal rounds of hunting and gathering. As tribes came to depend more on agriculture, they probably hunted less and did so at times that did not interfere with planting and harvest.
By the time Hernando de Soto and his men reached the Mississippi area around 1540, most natives lived in well-established towns near substantial cornfields. Intensive farming and hunting around the towns kept large game well away from the population centers. The Spaniards who traveled from town to town depended for subsistence mainly on pilfered Indian corn, rarely mentioning access to deer and usually short of meat. This dichotomy between settled, farmed land with a complement of small game and the more remote areas with large game such as deer persisted for hundreds of years.
Natives and ever-increasing numbers of Europeans and Africans hunted for subsistence and for hides. Deerskins in particular became a major commodity for the entire Southeast and the primary means by which Native Americans obtained European goods throughout most of the eighteenth century. Overhunting reduced the white-tailed population to a point where the skin trade was no longer commercially viable by the nineteenth century. Hunting generally returned to a means of supplemental subsistence and recreation.
By 1840 most natives had been removed to the West and agriculture was spreading over more of the state. The dichotomy between settled and wild land still held true, as vast river bottoms too flood-prone for farming provided big-game hunting grounds. The settled lands proved an ideal habitat for small game such as rabbit and quail that could withstand persistent hunting by the farm population. During the nineteenth century game of most kinds was available if not abundant, depending on the area and local hunting pressure.
The situation began to change with the turn of the twentieth century as lumber interests began cutting virgin forests and agriculture continued to expand. As the population grew, widespread hunting pressure began to take a toll on larger species such as deer, bears, and turkeys. Theodore Roosevelt’s famous 1902 Delta hunt led to the creation of one of the world’s most famous toys but came at a time when most of the state’s bears were already gone. When Aldo Leopold completed his 1929 survey of Mississippi’s game, he estimated that only a remnant population of deer and turkeys remained—too few, in his opinion, to justify hunting. Black bears were too scarce to mention.
Great enthusiasm for small-game hunting remained, however. In particular, quail hunting developed a vast following. Both rich and poor hunted bobwhite quail, usually known simply as birds, although the rich appropriated the literature of the quail hunt across the Southeast. People shot squirrels in second- and third-growth forests, ran foxes and coons with hounds, and hunted possums. Waterfowling was also popular, but early on the best spots belonged to wealthy individuals or clubs. It is difficult to overestimate the widespread love of hunting in the state. Both white and black, rich and poor participated. Even though waterfowling and some types of quail hunting remained the province of the wealthy, some facet of the chase was available to almost everyone.
Like most southerners, Mississippians used dogs to hunt just about everything. Feists and curs treed late-season squirrels, pointers and setters located quail, redbones found coons, beagles chased rabbits, and Walker hounds ran deer. However, individual dogs or any mix of dog might turn out to be perfect for certain game, and pedigree was never as important as performance. As reflections of their owners, dogs also added to the element of competition among hunters who might meet for a night of coon hunting or a week at deer camp.
The general affection for hunting helped gain acceptance for the Game and Fish Commission, established in 1933. Fannye Cook and other conservationists had begun working toward an organized game law enforcement agency in the 1920s. Like most government agencies of the time, the new Game Commission had few resources, but it laid the foundation for the conservation programs and restocking efforts in the wake of World War II.
The 1940s marked the beginning of significant changes in game populations and hunting. Work in war-related industries lured the rural poor away from the land, and the postwar mechanization of agriculture drove away even more people. Agriculture continued to characterize the Delta and blackland prairie regions of the state, but much of the upland reverted to or was planted in forest. Population in the countryside dropped dramatically, while an invigorated Game and Fish Commission continued and refined the restocking of large game such as deer and turkeys. Fewer hungry people and modern wildlife-management techniques combined to encourage a remarkable expansion of large game populations. By 1975 breeding populations of deer existed in virtually all parts of Mississippi, and the total herd numbered around half a million. The human reaction to game had fundamentally changed, and a deer in the yard could be simply a spectacle or garden pest, not necessarily a vital food item.
Some of the same changes that led to an increase in large game also led to declines in small game, particularly quail. The weedy field margins and unimproved pastures of small-patch premechanized farming had produced fabulous numbers of quail. As technology allowed, farmers enlarged their fields, eliminating much of the edge effect of numerous hedgerows. Herbicides and pesticides controlled many of the weeds and insects that had made the margins of old-fashioned cotton fields into bird nurseries. New varieties of pasture grass stood up to intense bovine grazing but formed a continuous turf that young quail could not traverse. By the 1980s quail numbers were in steep decline. The conditions that had encouraged quail were by-products of a rural way of life that most people were glad to leave behind. Quail are not endangered, though the few coveys that remain offer only limited hunting. The state manages certain public areas for quail, and some individual landowners attempt to replicate decent habitat conditions. Nevertheless, quail hunting, even poor quail hunting, is probably as rare today in Mississippi as deer hunting was in 1929.
Small-game hunting has by no means disappeared. Squirrel hunting remains popular with or without dogs. Rabbit hunting and coon hunting still have a following, and waterfowling draws as many hunters as ever. Even so, most hunting activity in the state today is connected with deer.
Mississippi enjoys a long deer season that begins with archery around October and allows hunting for white-tails with one weapon or another until the end of January and longer in some areas. A huge industry has evolved to support modern deer hunting. Hunters buy such items as deer calls, camouflage clothing, and deer-urine-based lures in addition to archery equipment and firearms. And while some people still use dogs, hunters are more likely to use deer stands than hounds. Nearly every year, Mississippians debate whether to legalize the practice of hunting over bait such as corn. And some new gadget or practice always seems to challenge the notion of “fair chase.”
While individual hunters are spending more money on their pursuit, the number of hunters is falling. This issue is of great concern with regard to deer, which have no serious predators other than humans in Mississippi and no winter kill. Unchecked numbers of white-tails degrade habitat for themselves and other wildlife. Deer do significant damage to certain crops, including soybeans, and are factors in a growing number of traffic accidents. Overpopulation can ultimately lead to malnutrition, disease, and violent fluctuations in deer numbers, problems that are looming in some areas. Biologists have long looked to hunting as a means to control deer, and with no viable alternative, the decline in hunting may be the major wildlife management problem of the future.
- Charles Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms (1997)
- Stuart A. Marks, Southern Hunting in Black and White: Nature, History, and Ritual in a Carolina Community (1991)
- Jim Posewitz, Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethics and Traditions of Hunting (1994)
- Wiley C. Prewitt Jr., “The Best of All Breathing: Hunting and Environmental Change in Mississippi, 1900–1980” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1991)
- Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (1983)