Marshall County

Founded in 1836, Marshall County borders Tennessee and was named for Supreme Court justice John Marshall. The county seat is Holly Springs, and other communities include Byhalia, Potts Camp, Red Banks, and Chulahoma. Marshall County is home to the Holly Springs National Forest.

This northern Mississippi county was an economic powerhouse in the antebellum years, with large populations of slaves and free people, considerable agricultural productivity, and a growing number of commercial and industrial workers. In its first census in 1840, Marshall County had a population of 9,266 free people and 8,260 slaves. Its total population of 17,526 ranked third among Mississippi’s counties, and it ranked first in the number of free people. In 1840 Marshall County ranked fourth in the state, with 349 commercial and manufacturing workers.

Marshall County continued to grow through the antebellum period and by 1860 trailed only Hinds County in population, with the increase coming primarily in the number of slaves. Marshall was home to 11,384 free people and 17,439 slaves. Like most areas with substantial numbers of slaves, Marshall County grew a large amount of cotton, ranking sixth in the state. Yet unlike most northern Mississippi areas, it also concentrated on food production. In 1860 the county ranked second in the state in the value of its livestock, sixth in corn, second in peas and beans, eighth in sweet potatoes, and first in Irish potatoes. In 1860 the county’s businesses employed the state’s third-most industrial workers (338), many of them in railroads and construction.

The county had fifty-six churches in 1860, tying it for second in the state. Thirty-two of the churches were Methodist, eleven were Baptist, five were Presbyterian, three were Cumberland Presbyterian, and three were Episcopalian. The county also had a Union church and a Catholic church. Marshall was an antebellum educational leader, hosting several small colleges, including Chalmers Institute (later the University of Holly Springs), the Holly Springs Female Collegiate Institute, Franklin Female College, and North Mississippi Presbyterian College.

Marshall County was home, at least for short periods, to a substantial number of Confederate military leaders or their families, and it became the site of considerable Civil War military action. Before he was a Confederate general, Claudius Wistar Sears taught math and then served as president at St. Thomas’s Hall, a military academy in Holly Springs. Samuel Benton was a teacher, lawyer, and political figure in Holly Springs before joining the Confederacy and rising to the rank of general. The families of Confederate generals Daniel Govan, Edward Cary Walthall, and James Chalmers all spent time in Marshall County.

As a railroad center, Holly Springs played an important role in the Civil War. In 1862 Union forces built a large new supply depot there. A December 1862 strike led by Confederate general Earl Van Dorn destroyed the depot, captured more than a thousand Union soldiers, and temporarily delayed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s plans to take Vicksburg. Nonetheless, Holly Springs remained under Union control for the majority of the war.

In the 1870s parts of Marshall County were incorporated in Benton and Tate Counties. Nevertheless, Marshall remained one of Mississippi’s largest counties, with 29,330 people in the 1880 census. About two-thirds of the county’s residents were African American. Marshall remained a productive agricultural center, ranking second in Mississippi in corn, eighth in cotton, fourth in wheat and potatoes, eleventh in cattle, and twelfth in swine. The majority of the farms were run by tenants, and only 46 percent of the farms were cultivated by their owners. Marshall also ranked tenth in the value of manufacturing products and was home to 195 foreign-born residents, most of them from Ireland and Germany.

Postbellum Marshall County became an exciting center of African American educational and religious activity. In 1866 a combination of former slaves and the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church formed Shaw School, which later became Shaw University and then Rust University. A public institution, Mississippi State Normal School, opened in 1870 to teach African American teachers, though it closed because of pressure from white politicians in 1904. The following year, Elias Cottrell, a bishop in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church who had been born into slavery in the Marshall County community of Old Hudsonville, helped found Mississippi Industrial College in Holly Springs.

Two women born and raised in Holly Springs in the nineteenth century became important cultural figures. Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) attended Shaw College before becoming a journalist, popular author, and speaker. A civil rights activist and a leading opponent of lynching, Wells published a pamphlet, Southern Horrors, and a memoir, Crusade for Justice. Katharine Sherwood Bonner McDowell (1849–83) also became a writer, publishing works including the novel Like unto Like under the name Sherwood Bonner.

In 1900 Marshall County had a population of 26,764. As in much of Mississippi, white and black farmers had dramatically different experiences. Only 11 percent of African American farmers owned their land, while 56 percent of white farmers did so. With Holly Springs as a railroad center, Marshall County had 161 industrial workers.

In the early twentieth century, Methodists and Baptists accounted for all but about 700 of the county’s 12,800 church members, with various Methodist groups slightly outnumbering the Baptists. As the home of Rust College and several denominational leaders, Marshall County also had 3,300 members of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, the highest number in Mississippi.

Marshall County’s population declined slowly in the early 1900s, and the county lost its place near the top of state rankings in agricultural production. By 1930 Marshall was home to 17,770 African Americans, 7,093 whites, and 6 persons whom the census listed as “other.” The number of industrial workers declined to 78, and agricultural tenancy came to dominate farm life, as only 24 percent of farms were run by their owners.

One of many creative Marshall County natives, Rufus Thomas (1917–2001), was born in the small community of Cayce and made his fame as a showman and musician in Memphis. Rural Marshall County has been crucial to the hill country blues and was the home of R. L. Burnside (1926–2005), Junior Kimbrough (1930–98), and several important places to play and hear the music. Other writers and artists with roots in the area include Margaree King Mitchell, who was born in Holly Springs in 1953 and is perhaps best known for children’s books that involve issues of race in twentieth-century Mississippi, and Kate Freeman Clark (1875–1957), whose paintings now reside in the Kate Freeman Clark Gallery in her native Holly Springs. William Faulkner died in a Byhalia institution in 1962.

Among the many important figures to attend Rust College in the twentieth century were Jackson State University leader Leslie Burl McLemore, who helped start Rust’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Wiley College president Matthew Dogan; legal figure Perry Howard; opera singer Ruby Elzy; country musician O. B. McClinton; and civil rights activist Willie Peacock.

Marshall County’s population remained near 25,000 between 1930 and 1970 before increasing to 29,296 by 1980. In the 1960s agriculture remained central to Marshall’s economy, with 43 percent of the county’s workers employed growing corn, cotton, and soybeans or raising cattle and hogs. Twelve percent of the county’s workers were employed in industry, and a great percentage of employed women worked in household service.

Tourism is important to Marshall County, which showcases its unique historic homes and relies on music events and other festivals; a pilgrimage; and the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum. Prior to its closure in 2014, Paul MacLeod’s shrine to Elvis Presley, Graceland Too, and the colorful MacLeod himself attracted visitors to Holly Springs.

As in many northern Mississippi counties, Marshall County’s 2010 population included a small but significant Hispanic/Latino minority and had increased over the previous half century. Its 37,144 residents were nearly equally divided between African Americans and whites.

Further Reading

  • 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,
  • E. Nolan Waller and Dani A. Smith, Growth Profiles of Mississippi’s Counties, 1960–1980 (1985)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Marshall County
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date January 21, 2022
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018