Founded in 1826 from portions of Covington and Wayne Counties, Jones County is located in southern Mississippi’s Piney Woods region. The Leaf River traverses Jones’s western region from north to south, while Tallahoma Creek wends its way through the county’s eastern section. In the 1820s and 1830s the lands now incorporated into Jones County were ceded to the United States by the Choctaw Indians through the Treaty of Mount Dexter, the Treaty of Doak’s Stand, and the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The county is named for Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones. Its two seats are Laurel and Ellisville.
An economic depression contributed to emigration from Jones County during its early years. Antebellum Jones remained sparsely populated, reporting only 1,309 free people and 161 slaves in its first census in 1830. By 1860 the population was growing again, and the population had climbed to 2,916 whites and 407 slaves (12 percent), the smallest number and percentage in the state.
As in other Piney Woods counties, economic activity in Jones did not revolve around agriculture, and the county was among the lowest in Mississippi in raising cotton, corn, and cattle during the antebellum period. Its residents owned considerably more hogs than average, and Jones ranked eleventh in the state in rice production. In 1860 the county’s industrial workforce included only nineteen people working in flour or lumber mills.
Jones County is most famous for the story of the Free State of Jones. The county was the site of considerable dissent before and during the Civil War. While it is unclear whether Jones ever officially declared that it had seceded from Mississippi or the Confederate States of America, the Knight Company of deserters stubbornly resisted the Confederacy’s efforts to disperse, arrest, and even execute some of the participants. Generations of debates have occurred over the legacy of Newt Knight and his group, who are variously considered heroic defenders of local control who seceded from the secessionists, thuggish outlaws, or mavericks who defied all rules, including the racial conventions of marriage. The tale has been dramatized in a 2016 movie, The Free State of Jones.
Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, Jones County’s population had increased only slightly to 3,828. Still rural and agricultural, with only four manufacturing firms, Jones was a rare Mississippi county that produced little corn or cotton. By contrast, Jones was among the top counties in the state in growing rice and rearing sheep. In 1880 Jones had the state’s smallest African American community, comprising only 9.4 percent of the population.
Jones’s population grew dramatically at the end of the nineteenth century, reaching 17,846 in 1900, with African Americans accounting for more than a quarter of residents. The county’s rate of landownership was relatively high, as 79 percent of white farmers and 65 percent of black farmers owned the land they worked. Jones had a growing industrial economy, with fifty-four establishments employing 1,148 workers. The Eastman-Gardiner timber company and mill, headquartered in Laurel, grew quickly in the late 1800s and by the early 1900s became one of Mississippi’s largest firms. In 1907 the Gilchrist-Fordry Company began similar work in the Laurel area, with a huge mill and substantial timber acreage.
On the eve of the Civil War, Jones had eighteen churches—eleven Methodist, six Baptist, and one Presbyterian. A half century later, most of Jones County churchgoers were either Southern Baptists or Missionary Baptists.
The county’s population continued its impressive expansion during the early twentieth century. By 1930 Jones was home to 41,492 people, with whites outnumbering African Americans almost three to one. Landownership in the county had declined during the previous three decades, and as the Great Depression set in, 54 percent of white farmers and 26 percent of African American farmers owned their land. However, the county’s industrial sector had grown substantially, employing 4,037 workers, the most in Mississippi. The majority of these laborers worked in large sawmills and pulp mills. Laurel was also home to Masonite, a product developed by William H. Mason that turned young trees into fiberboard. Increased job opportunities in manufacturing attracted the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which had some success organizing the county’s workforce.
In the 1940s surveys in Jones County resulted in the discovery of oil. In 1944 the Helen Morrison Well in neighboring Jasper County became the area’s first productive well, and by the end of that year Jones County led the state in oil production.
Beginning in the 1920s Jones County became an important location for the arts. In 1923 the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art was established in Laurel. It features an exciting combination of American, European, and Japanese art and is currently the state’s oldest art museum. In 1922 Laurel teacher Ernestine Clayton Deavours edited and published Mississippi Poets, the first substantial literary anthology of Mississippi writers. Born in Laurel in 1927, opera singer Leontyne Price began her musical career in her hometown schools and churches before becoming one of the world’s leading opera singers in the 1950s and breaking numerous racial barriers. Author Carolyn Bennett Patterson, National Geographic’s first female editor, was born in Laurel in 1921.
By 1960 Jones’s population had increased to almost sixty thousand people, with whites holding a three-quarters majority. Industry maintained its strong presence in the county, and many workers were employed in construction and retail. Livestock, soybeans, corn, and oats dominated the agricultural sector. The county also had numerous oil wells and almost three hundred thousand acres of commercial timberland.
Jones County is associated with several important events and figures in Mississippi’s turbulent twentieth-century racial history. In 1945 Willie McGee, an African American, was convicted of raping a white woman in Laurel. McGee claimed the relationship was consensual, and his multiple trials attracted international intention, with critics seeing his conviction and 1951 execution as a form of legal lynching. In 1955 Jones County Junior College played a football game against a Compton Community College team that included African American players, defying the state law barring all-white teams from competing against racially integrated squads. In 1966 Sam Bowers, a Laurel businessman and leader of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, murdered civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. After four mistrials in the 1960s, Bowers was finally convicted of the crime in 1998.
Like most counties in the southern part of the state, Jones County’s 2010 population of 67,761 was predominantly white. However, the county was also home to a Latino minority (primarily Mexicans from Veracruz, Chiapas, and Oaxaca) as well as a small but growing South Asian community. As in neighboring Jasper, Jefferson Davis, Lamar, and Forrest Counties, Jones’s African American minority had also shown a significant proportional increase.
- Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (2004)
- Jones County Mississippi, Genealogy and History website, www.jones.msgenweb.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)