Prior to the development of the cotton gin and the Removal of the Indians from their ancestral lands, more people in Mississippi made their living by raising livestock than by any other means. The agricultural schedules of the US census in 1840, 1850, and 1860 indicate that the same held true throughout the antebellum South. For example, the value of livestock reported in the 1860 census was twice that of the cotton crop and roughly equaled the total value of all crops. Ten years earlier the value of livestock on Alabama and Mississippi farms totaled one-third of the value of all farms—a remarkable figure considering that many range animals likely went unreported. While these figures also included horses, swine, sheep, and goats, cattle raising was of primary importance in Mississippi and the entire Gulf South from the colonial period until the Civil War.
Historian J. F. H. Claiborne recorded one of the earliest descriptions of the vast herds of cattle in 1841 when he returned to Natchez after a lengthy trip through the Piney Woods of the southeastern Mississippi, where he discovered a “valuable trade in cattle.” “Thousands of cattle are grazed here for market,” he wrote, adding vivid descriptions of grass three feet high, mounted cowboys, and roundups. If Claiborne had referred to cactus and sagebrush rather than pines and canebrakes, parts of his account would read like a script for a movie Western.
Herding in Mississippi was part of a broader cattle frontier that ran from South Carolina through Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi to Louisiana. The origins of the post–Civil War Great Plains cattle frontier can be traced back to the colonial South, first in the Carolinas and then through the Gulf South to Texas. To be sure, the longhorns driven up the various trails to the Kansas cow towns trace their genealogical origins to Spanish stock in southwestern Texas, but southern cowboys, both black and white, herded cattle on horseback many decades before the Civil War. By the end of the colonial period, Spanish bloodlines predominated in Mississippi, but settlers introduced cattle from all parts of Europe. The Native Americans indigenous to the southeastern United States, including those in Mississippi, quickly adopted cattle raising, and some of them became famous horse breeders as well.
Most travel accounts written during the colonial and early national periods contain references to the ideal conditions prevailing throughout the Gulf South for the grazing of livestock. It is difficult for even experienced stockmen to accurately estimate the size of herds, particularly when many of them grazed on carpets of grass beneath the pine forests. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence indicates not only that cattle raising was ubiquitous but also that many of the herds contained hundreds or even thousands of animals. Spanish census data and territorial tax records confirm the existence of a sizable cattle industry. One can assume that such figures are on the conservative side because owners frequently underreport their holdings to minimize tax bills.
According to Spanish officials, the Natchez District had 3,250 cattle in 1784, 4,476 in 1787, 6,966 in 1788, 15,181 in 1792, and 18,302 in 1794. These numbers dwarfed the area’s human population: in 1794, for example, the district had more than four times as many cattle as people. In 1788 the Spanish listed 17,351 cattle across the river in the Opelousas region. An 1805 territorial census found 35,041 cattle in Adams, Claiborne, Jefferson, Washington, and Wilkinson Counties. Although most of these animals were in Adams County, large concentrations also resided along the Tombigbee and Chickasawhay rivers north and northwest of Mobile. Vast herds also grazed in southern Alabama and West Florida during the colonial and territorial periods as well as west of the Mississippi River in the Opelousas region. Though many animals belonged to Scots-Irish herders whose existence depended heavily on their cattle and pigs, wealthy planters also maintained considerable herds of livestock, both for their trading value and as sources of food for planter families and slaves.
Primary domestic markets existed in Natchez, New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola, and secondary shipping points developed during the nineteenth century along the coast and on the navigable streams. While some markets for fresh beef developed in the cities and at military posts, cattle were generally sold on the hoof or slaughtered for their hides, hooves, horns, or tallow. Prices varied according to the size, quality, and age of the animals as well as prevailing economic conditions, but the value of cattle remained relatively high—commonly between seven and seventeen dollars per head in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and at times much more.
In the 1980s some historians argued that many of the characteristics considered typical of southern mannerisms can be traced back to the preponderance of the Scots-Irish herders on the southern frontier. While this interpretation caused heated debate, it did bring attention to a facet of life in the antebellum South that previously had received little attention. Regardless of the relative importance of Celtic culture to the southern heritage, there is no doubt about the widespread presence of cattle in Mississippi. Today the Livestock Conservancy is working to protect the rapidly dwindling number of Pineywoods cattle, descendants of those that for three centuries roamed the ranges of South Mississippi.
- Thomas D. Clark and John D. W. Guice, The Old Southwest, 1795–1830: Frontiers in Conflict (1996)
- John D. W. Guice, Western Historical Quarterly (April 1977)
- Terry G. Jordan, Trails to Texas: Southern Roots of Western Cattle Ranching (1981)
- Livestock Conservancy website, livestockconservancy.org
- Grady McWhiney, Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (1988)