Delegates from throughout the Mississippi Territory met at the Pearl River Convention to debate whether the territory should enter the Union as one or two states. The assembly took place in October 1816 at the home of John Ford, located near the Pearl River in Marion County. Though Congress ultimately did not act on the convention’s resolutions, the gathering is an important event in Mississippi history because it reveals the extent of the sectional rivalry that characterized the territorial period.
Arguments over when and how the Mississippi Territory might achieve statehood had arisen almost immediately after its organization in 1798. Eventually stretching from the Mississippi River in the west to the Chattahoochee in the east and from the Gulf Coast in the south to the Tennessee state line in the north, the territory encompassed an enormous frontier area featuring loosely connected pockets of American settlement. The two most populous settled regions were the Natchez area along the Mississippi River in the west and the area including Mobile and environs in the east. The Natchez area was much more developed at the time of the Mississippi Territory’s formation, and it quickly became the dominant political and population center.
Many eastern residents began to feel that the territorial government was neglecting their interests because of the great distance between themselves and the territorial capital at Natchez as well as other inherent differences in economy and lifestyle. In 1803 and again in 1809 the easterners petitioned Congress to divide the territory to create two states. Aware of the economic and political dominance of the Natchez region in the territory’s affairs, many western residents favored admission as a single state so that they might maintain their influence. In 1810 and 1811 Natchez resident and territorial delegate to Congress George Poindexter led efforts to admit the Mississippi Territory as a single state.
In the aftermath of the Creek War of 1813–14, however, the situation reversed. The population of the eastern section of the territory began to grow rapidly after the defeated Creek ceded millions of acres in the region to the federal government, opening them to American settlement. Hoping to capitalize on the situation and the potential to more heavily influence any new state of which they were to be a part, many eastern section residents then began to favor admission as one state. Those in the western section feared future declines in their political influence, however, and began to advocate division. In addition, the more wealthy western residents probably feared an increased financial burden if the entire territory were admitted as a single state. Led by territorial delegate William Lattimore, the Mississippi Territory began seriously moving toward statehood in 1815, bringing the matter to a head.
On 29–31 October 1816 representatives from throughout the Mississippi Territory met to discuss division and statehood at the home of Ford, a prominent Methodist minister and government official. Among those in attendance were Creek War hero Sam Dale and territorial judge Harry Toulmin. Though fifteen of the territory’s twenty counties were represented, the Pearl River Convention overwhelmingly comprised eastern residents opposed to division. Pointing out what they believed to be the practical, legal, and economic arguments behind their viewpoint, the convention members drafted a memorial to Congress stating their views. They also decided to send Judge Toulmin to Washington, D.C., to request admission of the territory as a single state and instructed him to work with Lattimore.
Lattimore, however, was already working closely with Congress to move the territory toward statehood, viewed Toulmin’s presence as unnecessary interference, and virtually ignored him. Finding it impossible to follow the contradictory opinions of all of the territory’s citizens, Lattimore requested division. He knew that southern senators would welcome the move because it would mean four new senators from the region instead of two. After much debate, legislators accepted Lattimore’s argument, and Pres. James Madison signed the enabling act that granted admission of the western section of the territory as the state of Mississippi on 1 March 1817; the eastern section was organized as the Alabama Territory at the same time. The line of division was designed as a compromise between western and eastern residents, but many people in both sections were angered at what they viewed as an arbitrary boundary. That line still separates the states of Mississippi and Alabama.
The Pearl River Convention remains a landmark event in Mississippi history for its illustration of the complex differences of opinion that shaped Mississippi during the territorial period. The Ford home still stands near the modern community of Sandy Hook, in southern Marion County.
- Clarence Edwin Carter, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States, vols. 5–6 (1938)
- John Edmond Gonzales, ed., A Mississippi Reader: Selected Articles from the Journal of Mississippi History (1980)
- Richard A. McLemore, ed., A History of Mississippi (1973)