Piney Woods
Turpentine still in State Line, Mississippi, in the Piney Woods region, November 1938 (Russell Lee, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. [LC-USF33- 011906-M2])

Piney Woods

Mississippi’s Piney Woods are part of a broad coastal plain stretching from southern Virginia to East Texas. The Mississippi pinelands sit on the Citronelle geological formation, a prairie land of softly rolling hills and originally a dense forest. The Piney Woods lie north of the Gulf Coast and twenty miles or so inland across the Coastal Meadow of sandy soil. The soils of the Piney Woods are a mixture of sand and clay, nurturing the longleaf pines that grew densely on the land but not particularly suitable for farming. The Chickasawhay, Leaf, and Pascagoula Rivers cut through the Piney Woods in its eastern areas, and the Pearl River is a major feature to the west. Along the bottomlands of the rivers, streams, and creeks of South Mississippi were the only large stands of hardwoods in the area, and the soils were more fertile there than in other parts of the Piney Woods.

Native Americans occupied the Piney Woods along the Pearl River as far back as 2000 BC. The Choctaw were the major tribe in the Piney Woods, and they remained in southern and central Mississippi until the federal government removed the majority of the tribe to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the 1830s. French explorers were likely the first Europeans to explore South Mississippi, probably going into the interior in the early 1700s, with French settlers hunting, fishing, trapping, and maintaining subsistence farms along the rivers.

Settlers from southern states had wandered into the Piney Woods even before Mississippi became a state in 1817, and by the antebellum era, Euro-Americans were living in widely scattered spots, raising herds of cattle, sheep, and hogs (known as Piney Woods rooters), all of which lived off the wild grass and reeds that grew as underbrush in the woods. These herder-farmers grew the corn they needed for bread and a few vegetables. Natchez editor J. F. H. Claiborne traveled through the Piney Woods in 1841, praising the hospitality of its residents, their good health, their abundant diet, and their general contentment. With the opening of Indian lands in northern and central Mississippi in the 1830s, the Piney Woods population declined as people sought better farmland to the north.

River life was a key part of the Piney Woods culture, with men earning cash by logging and rafting in winter and spring when the water levels were high, harvesting the timber from open public lands. Until after the Civil War, the Piney Woods were frontier land, with slowly developing public institutions and sparse settlement. Lawlessness often reigned, with legendary groups such as the Copeland Clan notable for robbery, slave stealing, counterfeiting, and livestock rustling in the 1830s and 1840s.

Delegates from Piney Woods counties voted for secession at the Mississippi Secession Convention in January 1861, but the region became famous for hosting one of the most prominent anti-Confederacy movements. The residents of Jones County saw war with the North as a planters’ war and wanted no part of it, and one of their own, Newt Knight, and his followers declared the Free State of Jones, with Ellisville as its capital. Operating from hideouts in the swamps around the Leaf River near Ellisville, the raiders conducted guerrilla warfare against Confederate troops. The Confederate Army abandoned the coast in 1862, and lawlessness in general increased. The war hit the subsistence farmers of the Piney Woods hard, with raiding and military confiscation of livestock depleting the key resource for herding families.

The development of the Piney Woods stepped up in the late nineteenth century with the coming of the national timber industry. The industry had depleted the forests of the Great Lakes just as southern public lands were opened for purchase. Northern speculators bought much of that land and soon entered South Mississippi. By the 1870s the Poitevent-Favre mill and the Weston mill were prominent on the Lower Pearl River, providing sawmill jobs for people lured out of the rural areas by the prospect of wages. By 1890 the Poitevent-Favre mill was cutting more than thirty million board feet of timber yearly, operating its own line of steamers and schooners to get timber to market, and employing six hundred men. Southern railroad development also dramatically increased after Reconstruction, providing essential transportation to the timber companies. The New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad crossed South Mississippi in the 1880s, and the Gulf and Ship Railroad connected key Piney Woods towns such as Hattiesburg and Laurel to Jackson. The opening of the Gulfport harbor in 1902 provided new marketing opportunities for the timber industry.

The production of naval stores also became part of southern Mississippi’s economic landscape in the late nineteenth century as companies transferred their operations from the Carolinas and South Georgia. Turpentine work brought African Americans into the region, providing an alternative to the sharecropping that had become typical for blacks after the Civil War. Timber and railroad workers produced an enduring musical culture in the area. The Mississippi Blues Trail honors Laurel as one of the state’s most important blues centers, and Hattiesburg is acknowledged for its role in the High Hat Chitlin’ Circuit. Big Joe Williams’s “Piney Woods Blues” is one of many blues songs to come out of the region. Meridian was one of the South’s most important railroad towns in the early twentieth century, the nexus of many lines and a meeting place for white and black railroad workers. The town’s Jimmie Rodgers knew the Piney Woods well, and his early country songs provide a good entrance to the musical culture of working-class whites there.

The early twentieth century saw a notable increase in the exploitation of the virgin yellow pine forests of South Mississippi. In 1908 US government foresters estimated that more than half of the longleaf pinelands of South Mississippi had been clear-cut and predicted that the pines would be exhausted within another quarter century. The timber industry transformed the Piney Woods, ending the old rural culture, leaving a landscape of stumps, and fostering new communities around the mills and railroad depots. Picayune, for example, had become an important railroad town in the late nineteenth century, but the coming of the Rose Lumber Company mill in the first decade of the new century brought increased prosperity, population, and such institutions as a bank, a newspaper, a real estate company, and churches.

Owners of lumber mills and logging operations became a new leadership elite in the Piney Woods. One of its most famous members was Lucius Olen Crosby, the son of a farmer and former Confederate soldier born in 1869 in Mount Pleasant. After working as a sawyer and a farmer, Crosby became a partner in a sawmill and then a major supplier for International Harvester, and by 1916 he controlled thirty-five mills. He became a primary developer of timber-related activities in South Mississippi and a statewide leader in economic diversification.

The South Mississippi timber industry peaked in 1911 with 360 million board feet of lumber shipped from the Gulfport harbor. The decline of the industry was already apparent by the late 1920s. Large mills shut down, and once-flourishing river towns such as Pearlington, Logtown, and Gainesville began their decline. The industry had sponsored little reforestation, leaving the area unprepared for the utter depletion of the once-vast longleaf pines that had given the region its character and resources.

In the aftermath of this economic decline, business and agricultural leaders sponsored new initiatives beginning in the 1930s. Garment factories came to towns such as Poplarville and Picayune, and the latter attracted a chemical plant. One of the most important towns of the Piney Woods, Hattiesburg, had never been as dependent on the timber industry alone for economic stability as had other regional towns, and it grew as a railroad hub and home to the state teachers college (now the University of Southern Mississippi) and new industrial plants. Groves of pecans, peaches, and satsuma oranges; truck farms; and occasional dairies soon appeared on the cutover lands left by the timber industry. For a time, Piney Woods promoters saw tung tree orchards as the region’s salvation. Tung oil from the tree’s nuts was a key preservative in paints and varnishes, and environmental conditions seemed appropriate. The industry thrived until competition from Argentina cut into its success and Hurricane Camille in 1969 destroyed the orchards.

Politics in the Piney Woods reflected the social class, racial, religious, and regional aspects associated with Mississippi politics in general. The area was a center of whitecapping in the late nineteenth century, as hard-pressed white farmers used vigilante tactics to limit opportunities for competing black farmers. The 1959 lynching of Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville for the alleged kidnapping and rape of a white woman was one of the most violent episodes in Mississippi’s civil-rights-era history. Resentments against the rich and privileged were just as raw as racial conflicts, with enduring antagonism between the Piney Woods and Delta planters a dominant feature of twentieth-century Mississippi politics. Mill workers and small farmers also often criticized eastern corporations and financial interests that controlled South Mississippi’s wealth. The Piney Woods was conservative Christian country from early white settlement, and the dominance of the “dry” Baptists made Prohibition a popular political issue in the Piney Woods, with Delta residents often on the other side of the conflict. Perhaps the most famous political leader from the Piney Woods, Theodore Bilbo, represented all of these political tendencies during his career as a state legislator, governor, and US senator.

Several trends drove post–World War II economic development in the Piney Woods. Reforestation began in earnest and became a new crusade, emphasizing planning for long-term growth. With the indigenous longleaf pines now all but exhausted, timbermen turned to the quick-growing loblollies. Pulpwood and paper products soon became important industries for the region. However, the majority of Piney Woods wealth since the 1940s has come from petroleum. The first well came in during 1930, and today Hattiesburg is a major propane supply link for the Dixie Pipeline, while Lumberton is home to the Hunt Southland Refining Company. Mississippi’s poultry industry is concentrated in the central and southern part of the state, with the Piney Woods counties producing between eight million and fifty million chicken broilers in 2001. Poultry-processing plants in Laurel and Collins produce broilers for market in this country and overseas. The space program, too, has provided Piney Woods jobs: more than thirty government agencies and private businesses conduct operations at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.

The Piney Woods has produced numerous writers whose stories tell of life in the region. Among the most important was James Street, who wrote seventeen books, thirty-five short stories, and almost two dozen articles for leading national magazines. Born in Lumberton, he wrote about country boys and dogs, preachers, and Piney Woods farmers. Five of his historical novels depict the generational story of the fictional Dabney family from Lebanon, Mississippi. More recently, literary scholar Noel Polk differentiates the Piney Woods from predominant southern symbolism in Outside the Southern Myth (1997). The Pine Hills Culture Program, which is part of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, was founded in 1996 and documents historical and contemporary life in the Piney Woods.

Further Reading

  • J. F. H. Claiborne, Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 9 (1906)
  • John Hawkins Napier III, Lower Pearl River’s Piney Woods: Its Land and People (1985)
  • Nollie W. Hickman, Mississippi Harvest: Lumbering in the Longleaf Pine Belt (1962)
  • Noel Polk, Piney Woods: A Human Perspective (1986)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Piney Woods
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date December 3, 2021
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018