Located in the Piney Woods of southeastern Mississippi, Perry County was established in 1820. Named after US Navy commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, its county seat is New August (formerly Augusta). Other notable towns include Beaumont and Richton.
Perry County began with a small population of free people (1,546) and a very small population of slaves (491). Most people worked in agriculture, and just 12 were employed in commerce and manufacturing. The county’s population remained virtually the same through 1840, when the census counted 1,435 free people and 454 slaves.
The population increased through the antebellum period, but Perry County never experienced the dramatic growth common in many Mississippi counties. In 1860, 1,868 free people and 738 slaves lived in the county. At 72 percent, Perry County had the eleventh-highest percentage of free persons in the state. In 1857 famous outlaw James Copeland was hanged near Augusta.
As a small county in the Piney Woods, Perry ranked low in most agricultural categories. In 1860 its farms ranked fifty-fifth among Mississippi’s sixty counties in total value, and the county ranked in the bottom ten in the state for its livestock, cotton, and corn. It was, however, Mississippi’s second-highest producer of rice. Its people remained extremely agricultural, with only four residents working in industry—making leather, boots, and shoes. In 1860 the small county was home to five Baptist churches, four Methodist churches, and two Presbyterian churches.
By 1880 Perry County’s population had increased to 3,427, with the 2,357 white residents accounting for 69 percent of the population. Unlike most of Mississippi, Perry County had little experience with sharecropping and tenancy: more than 90 percent of the county’s farms were cultivated by their owners. Perry continued to rank near the bottom of Mississippi’s counties in farm value and production of cotton and corn, but it again ranked first in rice production.
Between 1880 and 1900 Perry’s population mushroomed to 14,682 but remained about two-thirds white. In addition, farm owning rather than tenancy remained the norm. The most dramatic economic change in the late 1800s was the rapid increase in industrial workers. By 1900, Perry ranked near the top of Mississippi counties with 842 industrial workers, most of them in timber.
The creation of Forrest County in 1908 siphoned off some of Perry County’s territory and population, and in 1930 it had 8,197 residents. As in previous years, about one-third were African American. Perhaps the most unusual feature of Perry’s demography was its sparse population: it had the fewest people per square mile in Mississippi. More a logging than farming county, Perry had a particularly high percentage of wooded land. Landownership rates for farmers remained high—68 percent.
As part of the New Deal, the US government’s Division of Subsistence Homesteads attempted to create several farm communities, and the Richton community in Perry County was the only such project ever completed. During World War II, Richton became the site of a camp for prisoners of war. The town is also home to the Mississippi Pecan Festival.
Perry County’s population increased to 8,745 in 1960 and was 72 percent white. Perry continued to have a great deal of commercial forestland, so timber and furniture made up the majority of its industrial work. While more than a quarter of the county’s workers were employed in furniture, timber, and apparel, 19 percent were employed in agriculture, primarily raising corn, soybeans, and livestock. By 1980 the county’s population neared 10,000.
Like most southeastern Mississippi counties, Perry County remained predominantly white and continued to grow through 2010, when it had a population of 12,250.
- 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, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- E. Nolan Waller and Dani A. Smith, Growth Profiles of Mississippi’s Counties, 1960–1980 (1985)