Located in southern Mississippi, Marion County was formed in 1811. Named after Gen. Francis Marion, the county borders Louisiana to the south. Columbia serves as the county seat. In 1816 the Pearl River Convention assembled in Marion County to debate the conditions under which Mississippi would enter the Union as a new state. The convention met at the home of Rev. John Ford, twenty miles south of Columbia, in a house that had served as an inn and military post. Six years later, Columbia was the state’s temporary capital for the inauguration of Gov. Walter Leake.
Marion County’s population remained relatively small throughout the antebellum period. In its first census, in 1820, it had 1,884 free people and 1,232 slaves. By 1840 Marion County had grown slightly, with 2,121 free people and 1,709 slaves.
In 1860, though much of Mississippi grew dramatically, the population of Marion County remained small—just 2,501 free people and 2,183 slaves. Like many southern Mississippi counties, Marion ranked low in various categories related to agricultural production, including total value of farmland, production of cotton, and production of corn. The county had just eight churches—four Methodist and four Baptist.
By 1880 Marion County was home to 6,901 people, with virtually all of its population growth occurring among white residents. Marion County retained its low rankings in the value of farmland and in cotton production but produced the second-highest amounts of rice and sheep in the state. A total of 84.5 percent of Marion County’s farmers owned their own farms, a figure far higher than most parts of Mississippi. With its emphasis on smaller farming, Marion County became one of the centers of the state’s Populist movement.
In 1900 Marion County’s population was 13,501 and was approximately two-thirds white. Marion County remained notable for its high number of landowners—more than 80 percent of white farm families and almost 60 percent of African American farm families owned their land. The county’s forty-three manufacturing establishments employed 258 men and 2 women. The timber industry accounted for most of the industrial growth.
In the 1916 religious census, more than two-thirds of Marion County’s churchgoers were Baptists, with Southern Baptists making up about half of the county’s church members and Missionary Baptists making up another quarter. A substantial number of county residents also belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
Two of the state’s most prominent twentieth-century architects designed buildings in Marion County. A. Hays Town designed the Lampton House in Columbia, and his partner, N. W. Overstreet, designed Columbia High School.
By 1930 Marion County’s population increased to almost 20,000 even though the county had lost some of its land to other counties. Whites made up almost two-thirds of Marion’s population. Outside the growing town of Columbia (population 4,833), Marion continued to have an agricultural economy, with farm owners slightly outnumbering tenants. The county’s manufacturing establishments employed 755 industrial workers. In 1945 oil was discovered on the Marion-Lamar County line.
The most famous native of Marion County is likely football star Walter Payton (1954–99). Payton was a running back at Jefferson High School and Jackson State University before playing for the National Football League’s Chicago Bears and ultimately ending up in the league’s Hall of Fame. Another Marion County native, Dolphus Weary, born in Sandy Hook in 1946, played important roles in the Voice of Calvary ministry and Mission Mississippi.
Population growth continued in the mid-twentieth century, and by 1960 Marion County was home to 23,293 people. A quarter of Marion’s workers were employed in manufacturing, where there was a mixture of furniture and wood products, textiles, and apparel. Sixteen percent of the county’s employees worked in mixed agriculture, concentrating on livestock, corn, and soybeans. Natural gas and petroleum also remained part of Marion County’s economy.
By 2010, as in most southern Mississippi counties, Marion’s population was predominantly white and had grown slightly over the preceding half century, increasing from 23,293 in 1960 to 27,088 in 2010.
- 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)