If one were to describe the circumstances under which the Mississippi Territory was created in April 1798 and evolved toward statehood nineteen years later, constant chaos might be the most appropriate term.
Perhaps no territory has had such a confused past. Over the preceding century Mississippi was claimed at various times by France, Spain, England, and the United States as well as by the State of Georgia. Each entity passed laws, awarded land grants, and negotiated with Indian residents. Spain and the United States quarreled over boundary lines. Georgia claimed what is today Mississippi and Alabama and scandalized the nation with fraudulent land sales. And the livelihood of many territorial residents depended on the Mississippi River and the right to deposit goods in New Orleans, which at times was not available because of political crises. Events that affected the statehood process included illegal Georgia land sales in Mississippi Territory (1789–95); tension among Spain, France, and the United States surrounding the purchase of Louisiana (1803); Aaron Burr’s expedition (1806–7); the West Florida Revolt (1810); and the War of 1812.
The territorial political climate could hardly have been worse. The bulk of the territory’s population of US citizens lived in and around Natchez, a bastion of conservatism ruled by the gentry. The rest of the territory was Republican in sentiment, and that faction grew after 1798 and particularly after Thomas Jefferson’s 1800 election as president. The first territorial governor was Massachusetts Federalist Winthrop Sargent, who was serving as secretary of the Northwest Territory and shared the political philosophy of Pres. John Adams and the Natchez ruling class. Sargent aspired to do a good job but lacked political sense, was ill-tempered, and knew little about the Mississippi region. His biggest problem was the fact that the territory was created at the “first-stage” level, allowing rule by a governor, secretary, and three judges without a legislative body until the territory had five thousand free male residents. Sargent’s enemies, especially Cato West and former Virginians Thomas Green and Peter Brian Bruin, maintained that the territory already had five thousand free males at the time of its creation and should have been established at the “second-stage” level, with a legislature sharing power with the governor.
For two years, Sargent and his supporters withstood efforts to allow a legislature in the territory, as the governor appointed officials, including local judges and militia officers, and created Adams and Pickering Counties while organizing the Pearl River country to the east into Washington County. These were not unwise moves, but by refusing to seek second-stage status he infuriated the growing number of Republicans, who sent Narsworthy Hunter to Congress to seek second-stage status that all but Sargent and his circle wanted. By the summer of 1800 Congress authorized a territorial assembly, including a nine-member House of Representatives and a legislative council of five members selected by Congress from a list submitted by the territorial House of Representatives. Republicans won control of the first House, which, along with Jefferson’s election, spelled the end of Sargent’s tenure as governor.
His successor, W. C. C. Claiborne, was bright, young, energetic, and politically perceptive, seeking support from Federalists as well as Republicans. He used the skills and enhanced the power of William Dunbar, a successful, well-informed, and respected conservative. In addition, much of what Claiborne did was symbolic as well as practical, pleasing his Republican followers. For example, Pickering County became Jefferson County, Federalist-dominated Adams County became two counties as the governor lopped off its southern half and created Wilkinson County, and the new Claiborne County was created north of Jefferson County. The result was a smaller Adams County surrounded by Republican-dominated counties. To further emphasize Natchez’s loss of power, Claiborne moved the territorial capital six miles east to the small town of Washington. Natchez retained economic power and still constituted the territory’s social center, but, Claiborne reasoned, Natchez would no longer dominate politically.
The Claiborne years were comparatively stable for Mississippi Territory. Relative political peace prevailed, cotton became king, settlers arrived in record numbers, and Louisiana became part of the United States, making the movement of goods through New Orleans more predictable. However, in December 1803 Claiborne was transferred to New Orleans as governor. Territorial secretary Cato West served as interim governor until March 1805, when North Carolinian Robert Williams took over. Williams chose to remain in his home state most of the time and did little to address such pressing territorial problems as brigands on the Natchez Trace, growing discontent among neglected settlers between the western Georgia border and the Mississippi River counties, and lingering border and access problems.
Thanks to others, especially congressional delegate George Poindexter, political reforms occurred during the Williams years. A petition was forwarded to Congress in 1807 to remove property qualifications for voting; the following year Poindexter was appointed chair of a congressional committee to study the petition. Out of those deliberations came new, more democratic voting qualifications for free males—ownership of fifty acres of land or a town lot worth one hundred dollars. The number of members in the territorial House of Representatives was increased from nine to twelve, and the territorial delegate to Congress was to be chosen by popular vote.
In March 1809 Williams was replaced by Virginian David Holmes, who served for the remainder of the territorial period and then became Mississippi’s first governor. He was a mild-mannered man who brought to Mississippi a political philosophy that stressed a bipartisan approach to problem solving.
Backcountry disaffection remained an issue during Mississippi’s territorial period. Mississippi had been settled by the French on the Gulf Coast and by English, Spanish, and Americans in its southwestern section along the eastern shore of the Mississippi River. But the territory stretched east to Georgia and north to Tennessee—a vast, thinly settled, and disregarded area. As early as 1803 the region from the Pearl River east threatened to separate from Natchez domination, and a more serious 1809 secession threat was defused only by the outbreak of the War of 1812.
With Natchez’s support, congressional delegate William Lattimore recommended that the entire region be incorporated as one state, but the US Senate rejected the recommendation. Division of the territory was now inevitable, but where? The backwoods folks wanting nothing to do with Natchez met at the home of John Ford at what became known as the Pearl River Convention of 1816 to fight against continued inclusion in Mississippi Territory. Though those along the Pearl River would, in the final analysis, be sacrificed, the division that evolved proved to be a fair one. The line that divides Mississippi and Alabama begins in the north where Bear Creek empties into the Tennessee River and moves straight south to the northeastern corner of Wayne County, turning slightly to the southeast to avoid cutting a corner of that county, before continuing south and reaching the Gulf ten miles east of the Pascagoula River. In 1817 the western part became the state of Mississippi, while the eastern section became Alabama two years later.
Pres. James Madison signed the enabling legislation for Mississippi statehood on 1 March 1817, with a convention to be held at the territorial capital in July. Forty-seven delegates representing fourteen counties met in the Methodist church in Washington with Gov. Holmes presiding. Despite Holmes’s ability to foster bipartisanship, the convention began in bad humor and got worse. In disgust, backwoods folks moved that the convention not seek statehood because Natchez was dominating the convention, but the motion to disband failed. The delegates then crafted a conservative constitution with Natchez calling the shots, even becoming the state’s capital once again. Voting was restricted to white males who had lived in Mississippi for a minimum of one year and had lived in the precinct for at least six months. Senators were required to own 300 acres of land or other real estate valued at one thousand dollars, while representatives must have 150 acres or real estate valued at five hundred dollars. Gubernatorial candidates must be at least thirty years of age, must have lived in the United States for twenty years and in Mississippi for five years, and must own 600 acres or real estate valued at two thousand dollars and have owned that property for at least six months before the election.
The constitution was signed on 15 August 1817 and was declared in effect without being presented to the voters. In September Holmes was elected the state’s first governor, and the first General Assembly was held in Washington because of a yellow fever outbreak in Natchez. Walter Leake and Thomas Williams were selected as the first Mississippi senators, while George Poindexter became the first representative. The Mississippi Territory ceased to exist on 10 December 1817 when the state was formally admitted to the Union.
- Clarence C. Carter, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States (1937, 1938)
- J. F. H. Claiborne, Mississippi as a Province, Territory, and State (1889)
- William Dunbar, Life, Letters, and Papers of William Dunbar of Elgin, Scotland, and Natchez, Mississippi (1930)
- Andrew Ellicott, The Journal of Andrew Ellicott (1962)
- Dunbar Rowland, ed., The Mississippi Territorial Archives, 1798–1803, vol. 1, Executive Journals of Governor Winthrop Sargent and Governor William Charles Cole Claiborne (1905)
- Robert C. Weems Jr., Early Economic History of Mississippi, 1699–1840 (1953)