The 1832 Treaty of Pontotoc Creek gave Pontotoc County a permanent place in the history of US-Chickasaw relations. The land around Pontotoc, in northeastern Mississippi, had for generations been one of the centers of Chickasaw life and consequently became a point of contention when white settlers wanted to move into the area. The Treaty of Pontotoc Creek led to at least three major developments: (1) widespread Chickasaw movement out of Mississippi, (2) rapid purchases of northwestern Mississippi public land by speculators, and (3) new migration into the area by whites and their slaves.
Pontotoc County was founded in 1837 and three years later had a small population of 2,898 free people and 1,593 slaves. The county was heavily agricultural, with only 31 people working in manufacturing.
By 1860 Pontotoc had become Mississippi’s ninth-largest county, with a population of 14,517 free people and 7,596 slaves. As in many northern Mississippi counties, Pontotoc’s residents concentrated on production for home consumption rather than for markets. The county ranked seventh in the state in Irish potatoes, eighth in corn, ninth in livestock, and twenty-first in cotton, the state’s leading cash crop. In 1860, 86 people worked in manufacturing, making leather, lumber, saddles, and carriages. That year, Pontotoc had fifty-six churches, among them twenty-five Baptist, sixteen Methodist, seven Cumberland Presbyterian, six Presbyterian, one Episcopal, and one Christian.
The Civil War saw significant fighting in Pontotoc County. Confederate troops moved through in December 1862 as part of Gen. Earl Van Dorn’s raid on Union supplies in Holly Springs. In late April 1863 Union colonel Ben Grierson led a destructive raid through Pontotoc County and other parts of northern and central Mississippi, hoping to divert Confederate forces from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s assault on Vicksburg. Pontotoc native Belle Edmondson, a Confederate supporter, smuggled goods and news through Union lines.
In 1870 sections of Pontotoc County became part of Union County, resulting in a decline in Pontotoc’s population to 13,858 by 1880. The county remained agricultural, with more than two thousand farms and only 35 people employed in industry. Sixty percent of the county’s farms were cultivated by their owners. Pontotoc ranked highly in the production of wheat and corn but lower in cotton production.
In 1900 Pontotoc’s population had rebounded to 18,274, with whites comprising three-quarters of residents. About half of the county’s 2,535 white farmers owned their land, more than twice the 21 percent rate for its 833 black farmers. Pontotoc had an unusually high number of white tenant farmers—about 1,200. The county continued to have limited manufacturing activity, with only 55 industrial workers.
Churchgoing in Pontotoc County resembled that in much of northeastern Mississippi, with members primarily in the Southern Baptist Church, Missionary Baptist Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church United States had substantially smaller numbers.
Pontotoc’s population increased slowly to about 22,000 in 1930. Whites comprised 81 percent of that total. The county remained essentially rural, with only 59 industrial workers. Most of the county’s 4,381 farms grew corn, and 63 percent were operated by tenant farmers. Beginning in 1934, Pontotoc received power through the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the first Mississippi localities to do so.
An intriguing range of creative individuals grew up in Pontotoc County during the twentieth century. Opera singer Ruby Elzy, famous for her performances in Porgy and Bess, was born in Pontotoc in 1908. Born in 1922, novelist Borden Deal used his Pontotoc County roots in many of his works, including Dunbar’s Cove, a novel about the Tennessee Valley Authority. Artist M. B. Mayfield was born in Ecru in 1923. Born in 1939, musician Delaney Bramlett grew up in Pontotoc County. Pontotoc County was also the early home of both Gladys Smith Presley, the mother of Elvis Presley, and US senator Thad Cochran, born into a family of teachers in 1937.
Pontotoc County’s population declined to 17,232 in 1960. While the county still depended more on agriculture than most of the state, with 31 percent of its workers employed raising corn, cotton, soybeans, and livestock, industry had become crucial. In 1960 one-fourth of Pontotoc’s workforce had jobs in industry, especially apparel, furniture, and timber. The county began growing again, and the population neared 21,000 in 1980.
In a 1996 case, Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, judges ruled that the county schools could not hold public prayers over the intercom.
In 2010 Pontotoc’s population, like that of many other counties in northern Mississippi, had grown substantially over the previous half century, reaching 29,957. White residents accounted for 80 percent of Pontotoc’s population, African Americans for 14 percent, and Hispanics for 6 percent, one of Mississippi’s largest Latino communities.
- 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)