Originally named Pickering County, Jefferson County was one of Mississippi’s first counties and was established on 2 April 1799 by the proclamation of Mississippi’s first territorial governor, Winthrop Sargent. On 11 January 1802 Gov. C. C. Claiborne divided Pickering into Claiborne and Jefferson Counties. Jefferson County was named for Pres. Thomas Jefferson. The county seat is Fayette.
Though never as large as Adams County immediately to its south, Jefferson County was home to numerous influential Mississippi residents. Families from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland settled in the area as early as 1768. One of their descendants, Thomas Maston Green, served as the second delegate to Congress from the territory. The family’s home, the Green Mansion, near Cole Creek, allegedly hosted Gen. Andrew Jackson’s 1791 wedding. Early political figures such as Cowles Mead, a delegate to the Mississippi assembly in 1807, and Cato West, a delegate to the 1817 constitutional convention, lived in Jefferson County. Rush Nutt developed the Petit Gulf cottonseed on his plantation outside Rodney.
Many first settlers to the area traveled by the Natchez Trace, a public road that ran north from Natchez through Jefferson County to Cumberland, Tennessee. Samuel Mason, a member of the Mason and Harp Gang, which was accused of attacking and robbing travelers along the Trace, was killed in 1802 and his head was delivered to Jefferson County for a reward of two thousand dollars. His killers were identified as members of another violent gang, and both were hanged in Greenville.
In 1820 Jefferson had a population of 6,822, making it the fourth-largest county in the young state. Throughout the county’s antebellum history, most people living in Jefferson County were slaves. By 1830 the number of slaves increased to 69 percent of the population, and ten years later, 9,146 of Jefferson’s 11,650 people were slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, only 19 percent of the county’s 15,000 residents were free people. In its early years Jefferson County landowners concentrated on plantation agriculture, raising substantial quantities of cotton, vegetables, and livestock. A small manufacturing industry emerged around 1860, when three Fayette establishments employed 27 men making carriages, saddles, and harnesses.
In 1880 only 36 percent of the county’s farmers owned their land. As in many counties with high percentages of tenants and sharecroppers, the farms in Jefferson County were divided up into small units, averaging sixty-one acres, well below the state average. In addition, sixteen manufacturing companies in Jefferson employed forty-five men and one woman.
Jefferson County stands out as one of the few counties without a Baptist congregation during the antebellum period. In 1860 the county had ten Methodist churches, six Presbyterian churches, and one Episcopal church. Over time the Baptist church developed an influential presence in Jefferson County, and by 1916 the Missionary Baptists stood among the largest religious groups. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church were also significant in the county. The first racially integrated Methodist church in Mississippi, Union Church, is located in Jefferson County. Other notable firsts in Jefferson County included the state’s first agent for the Negro Extension Service, M. M. Hubert, and the first publication of the Mississippi White Ribbon, a newspaper run by Prohibition leader Harriet Kells.
Unique not only for its religious profile but also for its immigrant population, Jefferson County witnessed an influx of German, Irish, and English families around 1880. African Americans now made up the majority of the 17,314 people living in the area; by 1900, 81 percent of the residents were black. At the turn of twentieth century only 7 percent of Jefferson’s African American farmers owned land, compared to 54 percent of the county’s white famers. These percentages altered only slightly after a sharp decline in population in the 1930s. Tenancy dominated Jefferson County in the depression era: among the county’s 14,291 residents, 6 percent of black farmers owned land, as did 37 percent of white farmers.
Like many parts of Mississippi, Jefferson County experienced population decreases beginning in the mid-twentieth century. By 1960 just over ten thousand people, three-quarters of them African Americans, lived in Jefferson County. Despite a declining agricultural economy, the county relied on corn, winter wheat, soy, and livestock production. A small furniture industry also provided employment, as did a few wells that produced petroleum and natural gas. Through the 1970s Jefferson County ranked among the lowest in the state in per capita income. At the beginning of the decade, fewer than 20 percent of county’s residents had graduated from high school.
In 1969 Fayette elected civil rights activist and businessman Charles Evers as mayor, making him Mississippi’s first African American mayor after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prior to his election, Evers led civil rights boycotts in Natchez from 1965 to 1966 and in Fayette in 1966. With Evers in office, Fayette hosted the first Southern Black Mayors Conference. Evers ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1971 but returned to Fayette and won a second term as mayor.
As of 2010, Jefferson County had 7,726 residents, 85.6 percent of them African Americans.
- 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)