Founded from land ceded to the United States by the Choctaw Indians in 1820, Issaquena County was established on 23 January 1844. The county’s name is taken from a Native American phrase that roughly translates as “deer river.” Issaquena is located along the Mississippi-Arkansas border in the Delta, and the Mississippi River forms the county’s snaking western edge. Mayersville, Issaquena’s county seat, is named for landowner David Mayers.
Antebellum Issaquena County had a large slave majority. At the county’s first census, in 1850, Issaquena had a free population of 373 and a slave population of 4,105. A decade later, the free population had grown to 587, while the slave population had increased to 7,244. With slaves making up 93 percent of the population, Issaquena had the highest percentage of slaves in Mississippi on the eve of the Civil War.
Despite its small population, in the late antebellum period Issaquena County had the state’s ninth-most-valuable farmland. The county’s farms, with their large slave workforce, were among the top cotton producers in Mississippi. Conversely, Issaquena farmers concentrated far less on corn and livestock, ranking among the middle in output in these agricultural categories. According to the 1860 census, only one person in the county, a laborer earning three hundred dollars a year at a lumber mill, worked in manufacturing.
Postbellum Issaquena County continued to represent a distinctive socioeconomic profile within the Mississippi Delta. In 1880 African Americans accounted for 92 percent of the county’s 10,004 people. Issaquena also maintained the state’s smallest industrial workforce, with a single manufacturing firm employing just three people.
In 1880 Issaquena’s farms were far larger than the state average, but the county experienced extraordinary changes in its agricultural sector over the remainder of the century. While the county’s population size and racial profile remained stable, by 1900 the average farm size had decreased to fifty-five acres, far smaller than Mississippi’s average of eighty-three acres.
Issaquena County was home to W. E. Mollison, a powerful figure in education and the law in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Born in Issaquena County, Mollison left Mississippi to attend Fisk University and Oberlin College. He later served in a variety of positions, including as the county’s school superintendent. Mollison was one of the few practicing African American attorneys in Mississippi during this period.
On the eve of the Civil War, Issaquena County had three churches, all of them Methodist. More than half a century later, Missionary Baptists were the largest denomination, followed by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1930 Issaquena had a population of 5,734 people and the third-lowest population density in the state. As the Great Depression set in, African Americans comprised 81 percent of the county’s population. Tenants operated 86 percent of all farms.
Issaquena County natives of note include two important Mississippi political figures, at least one notable artist, and one of history’s most revered blues musicians. C. B. “Buddie” Newman, the powerful Speaker of the Mississippi House during the 1970s and 1980s, was born in Valley Park, the son of a railroad foreman. Unita Blackwell, an activist, organizer, and Mayersville political figure, grew up in Coahoma but moved to Issaquena County with her husband in the 1950s. Blackwell was an ardent supporter of African American enfranchisement in the 1960s and 1970s and played a key role in the incorporation of Mayersville. In 1977 she became the town’s first mayor and the first African American woman to hold that office in Mississippi. Rev. H. D. Dennis, famous for Margaret’s Grocery, a folk art destination and general store (named after his wife), was born in Issaquena County in 1916. Electric blues musician Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) was born in Issaquena County on 4 April 1913, though he soon relocated with his grandmother to the Stovall Plantation, near Clarksdale.
By 1960 Issaquena’s population had shrunk to 3,576, and the county possessed the lowest population density in Mississippi. The depopulation continued in the 1960s and 1970s, and by 1980 only 2,513 residents called Issaquena County home. African Americans still comprised a majority but made up only 67 percent of the total population. Two-thirds of the labor force worked in agriculture, and much of the county’s acreage was used for cultivating cotton, soybeans, winter wheat, oats, and cattle. One of the poorest counties in the state, Issaquena had Mississippi’s lowest per capita income in 1980 and struggled to provide education for its residents. Almost 40 percent of the population had fewer than five years of education, and less than 12 percent had graduated from high school.
Like many Delta counties in Mississippi, Issaquena County’s 2010 population remained predominantly African American and had shown an overall decline in size during the last half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the county’s population had undergone one of the greatest proportional decreases in the state, shrinking by about 60 percent since 1960 and making it the smallest county in Mississippi, with only 1,406 residents. Issaquena continued to suffer from some of the highest poverty rates in the state.
- Unita Blackwell, Barefootin’: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom (2006)
- Issaquena Genealogy and History Project website, www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~msissaq2
- 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)