Mississippi’s native women have played an important if largely unremarked role in the state’s history. Among their earliest achievements was the cultivation of corn, a crop that remains vital to Mississippi’s agriculture. Some time in the eighth or ninth century AD a vast trade network that connected the Valley of Mexico with North America delivered corn to the American South. Women and men cleared thick stands of river cane and created fields along the many rivers and creeks that cut across the region. Women turned the loose alluvial soils with digging sticks and planted both family plots and community fields that remained under the women’s control. After the corn had sprouted, female farmers heaped soil around the green shoots to push them higher, forming the hills that gave native fields their most distinctive feature. Their produce fed the rise of the Mississippian societies that had their first encounters with Europeans in the early sixteenth century.
Diseases introduced to the region by Hernando de Soto and other erstwhile conquistadors decimated the region’s native population, but the women who survived kept growing corn. Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, who founded Fort Maurepas at Biloxi in 1699, encountered these women and the plant that was their lifeblood. His ship had reached the Mississippi coast during harvest time, and a Biloxi woman welcomed him and his men with a dish of corn porridge. To signal his acceptance of the woman’s graciousness, Iberville presented her group with axes, knives, shirts, beads, and tobacco.
If corn that was raised, prepared, and served by native women opened the European settlement of what is today Mississippi, female farmers also became engaged in the struggle to hold onto their land against the rising tide of European and American settlement and expansion. For example, in 1830, when the US government called on representatives of the Choctaw to discuss their Removal from Mississippi, the women who attended the talks steadfastly refused to cede an inch, threatening the life of any man who dared to do so. Chickasaw women also spoke out against ceding their land. When the United States pledged to assign plots of land to Chickasaw heads of household as part of an agreement to remove to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, government officials assumed that the group would consist only of men. After the United States refused to assign land reserves to female heads of household, Chickasaw chiefs, under pressure from the women, explained to Pres. Andrew Jackson that tribal custom allowed women to own land and homes separately from their husbands and insisted that the women be allowed to register as heads of household.
Whether the Chickasaw women succeeded in that effort is unclear, but one Chickasaw woman, Betsy Love, transformed state property law. In 1837 Love filed suit to prevent the seizure of her slave to settle her American husband’s debts. In Fisher v. Allen Love argued before the Mississippi Supreme Court for the Chickasaw custom of separate ownership of property, and the presiding justices found in her favor. Two years later the state assembly codified the Allen decision by legislating that any property a woman owned before marriage could not be used to cover her husband’s debts after marriage. Love’s tenacity and intelligence ensured that Mississippi’s property laws and gender jurisprudence reflected the influence of the countless generations of corn mothers who had come before her.
- James Taylor Carson, in Neither Lady nor Slave: Working Women of the Old South, ed. Susanna Delfino and Michele Gillespie (2002)
- LeAnne Howe, Mississippi History Now (2005)
- Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville, Iberville’s Gulf Journals (1981)