An old argument, often identified with political scientist V. O. Key Jr., divided Mississippi society and politics in the early twentieth century between the Delta and the Hills. The Delta was identified with cotton plantations, extremes of wealth and poverty, and a powerful white minority and a large African American majority. In contrast, the Hills region was characterized by smaller farms, mixed agriculture, a large white majority, and the potential for a more populist politics. While such dichotomies often oversimplify complex realities and ignore the variations in other regions of the state, the image of northeastern Mississippi as a part of the southern upcountry, historically characterized by small-scale agriculture and a predominantly white population, is in many ways accurate. The northeastern corner of the state is also important as a longtime center of Chickasaw life, significant Civil War activity, the first sites powered by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the location of the “Tupelo Miracle,” and the birthplaces of William Faulkner and Elvis Presley.
Northeastern Mississippi was the home of ancient populations during the Woodland and Mississippian periods. For generations, the area was the home of the Chickasaw. A Chickasaw origin story says the group moved from a distant site in the West and settled at a spot on the Tombigbee River in present-day Lee County. The Chickasaw spread over northern Mississippi and beyond, generally in small communities. They combined hunting with agriculture and developed a reputation for successful military campaigns. In 1736, Chickasaw forces turned back Choctaw and French attackers in the Battle of Ackia, which took place near what is now Tupelo. The 1832 Treaty of Pontotoc Creek ceded Chickasaw land east of the river to the United States, and almost all Chickasaw left the state for reservations in Indian Country (now Oklahoma).
Between the 1830s and 1870, the Northeastern Hills region consisted of Pontotoc, Itawamba, Tippah, and Tishomingo Counties. In the 1870s, the Mississippi legislature created five new counties in the area—Alcorn, Union, Benton, Lee, and Prentiss. Tishomingo County is home to Mississippi’s highest point, Woodall Mountain (elevation 806 feet).
With Chickasaw Removal, land in northeastern Mississippi opened up for settlement by US citizens, primarily from eastern parts of the South. In the antebellum period, northeastern Mississippi had some of the largest numbers of free people in the state. In 1840 the percentage of slaves in the four hill counties ranged from 10 percent in Itawamba County to 35 percent in Pontotoc County. Over the next twenty years, those numbers increased only slightly. In 1860, hill country counties had Mississippi’s lowest percentages of slaves: free people accounted for 80 percent of the populations of Itawamba and Tishomingo Counties, 72 percent in Tippah County, and 67 percent in Pontotoc County.
Small farming dominated the economy of the Northeastern Hills, and the migration of free people from the eastern South made the region one of the more heavily settled parts of antebellum Mississippi. Farmers concentrated on corn and hogs, mixing the traditional practices of yeoman households with other grains, tobacco, and cotton. In the mid-1800s Tippah County was one of the state’s leading producers of corn. Most antebellum industry involved timber, blacksmithing, and construction.
Northeastern Mississippi was an important site for military activity early in the Civil War, with battles in Corinth and Iuka in 1862. Confederate troops moved through the area in late 1862, followed by Union forces in the spring of 1863. Troops clashed again at Brice’s Crossroads near Baldwyn in 1864. Much of the area had come under Union control by the middle of the Civil War, and Corinth was home to a Union Army camp for escaped slaves, a hospital, and a military cemetery.
In the postbellum period, many farmers increasingly turned to cotton, growing more by far than in the Piney Woods and Gulf Coast regions though less than in most of the state. In the early twentieth century, northeastern Mississippi remained an agricultural area, but the yeoman ideal was becoming difficult to sustain. In 1900, only about half of the area’s farming people owned their land, with rates far higher for white farmers than for black farmers. Tishomingo County, where more than two-thirds of farming people owned their land, was an important exception.
The Northeastern Hills have been the location for some of Mississippi’s more ambitious ways to use government action and industrial planning to promote economic development. First, political leaders in the region welcomed the Tennessee Valley Authority for its possible benefits in creating jobs and providing inexpensive electricity. In 1934 the Alcorn County Power Association became the nation’s first organization to distribute power, and Tupelo and other areas joined later in the year. In 1938 Pickwick Lock and Dam opened in Tishomingo County. The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps built Tishomingo Park in the 1930s, and the Tupelo Homesteads represented a New Deal attempt to settle displaced people into communities of subsistence farmers.
Industrial leaders imagined northeastern Mississippi as a good place to develop factories that might avoid the problems southern leaders associated with a permanent factory class—low wages, poor health, and separation from what they saw as the supportive community life of farming families. The “Tupelo Miracle” consisted of a program to improve education, encourage high-wage employment, and sustain connections between people in Tupelo and surrounding rural areas.
After decades of discussion, study, lobbying, and construction, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway opened in 1985, allowing river navigation through northeastern Mississippi, and in 2010 Toyota opened Mississippi’s second-largest automobile factory in Union County.
One intriguing feature of hill country culture is that the region of Mississippi with the smallest percentage of African Americans has produced two of the most significant white artists to deal with issues of race with great energy and creativity. Before moving with his family to Oxford, William Faulkner was born in the Union County town of New Albany in 1897, when African Americans made up about a quarter of the county’s population. Faulkner’s attention to the whole range of characters meant that he imagined the perspectives of Native Americans, African Americans, whites, and people who did not fit into racial categories. Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo in 1935, when African Americans made up about a third of Lee County’s population. Other creative people of note from the hill region include writers Borden Deal, William Clark Falkner, Thomas Hal Phillips, Etheridge Knight, Jill Conner Browne, and James Autry. Musical natives of the region include country star Tammy Wynette, opera singer Ruby Elzy, and singer-songwriter Delaney Bramlett. Artists include Sam Gilliam, Elijah Pierce, Burgess Dulaney, the craftspeople active in Peppertown Pottery, and cartoonist Russell Keaton.
Since the antebellum period, religious life in northeastern Mississippi has revolved primarily around the Baptists and Methodists, by far the largest two groups. In 1873 the Southern Baptists in Tippah County started Blue Mountain College, a small institution for young women. In recent decades the area’s religious conservatism has been showcased by Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District (1996), a lawsuit against public prayer in school, and by the rise of the American Family Association, which originated and maintains its headquarters in Tupelo.
In the twenty-first century, the Northeastern Hills counties maintain their large white majorities, with African American populations ranging from about 15 percent in Pontotoc, Tippah, and Union Counties to less than 3 percent in Tishomingo County. Latinos now comprise about 4 percent of the area’s people. Across the region, the population grew by about 40 percent between 1960 and 2010, a rate considerably higher than in most parts of Mississippi.
- Vaughn Grisham, Tupelo: The Evolution of a Community (1999)
- Ted Ownby, in Elizabeth Anne Payne, Martha H. Swain, and Marjorie Julian Spruill, eds. Mississippi Women, Their Histories, Their Lives, vol. 2 (2010)
- US Census Reports; Joel Williamson, William Faulkner and Southern History (1993)