By the time Prentiss County was founded in northeastern Mississippi in 1870, the area had already seen a number of important historical events. Home to the Chickasaw and formed from Tishomingo County land, Prentiss County was the site of the ferry business operated by George Colbert (Tootemastubbe), a powerful Chickasaw leader in the early 1800s. The county was named for lawyer and politician Seargent Smith Prentiss, and the county seat is Booneville.
In June 1864 Union and Confederate troops met near Baldwyn in the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads. There, Union forces attempted to stop Confederate troops led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from leading attacks on Union supplies and transportation facilities. The battle caused the deaths of more than two thousand Union soldiers and was a victory for Forrest’s troops. Citizens of Prentiss County later played important roles in remembering the Civil War, first when locals made the unique decision to rebury Confederate dead in a special cemetery in Booneville and later when women in Baldwyn organized one of Mississippi’s first chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1894.
Prentiss County began as an agricultural county with an 1880 population of 12,158. About 80 percent of the residents were white. Its farmers practiced mixed agriculture, concentrating on grains, livestock, cotton, and tobacco. Its twenty-four manufacturing firms were small and employed just thirty-eight men.
By 1900 Prentiss County was home to 15,788 people. Industrial growth was substantial, with fifty establishments employing 143 workers. As in much of Mississippi, a substantial difference existed between the landownership rate for white farmers (about 50 percent) and the rate for their African American counterparts (11 percent).
In the early twentieth century, Baptists and Methodists made up more than 90 percent of Prentiss County’s church members. In the 1916 religious census, the largest groups of churchgoers belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; the Southern Baptist Convention; the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Missionary Baptists.
By 1930 the Prentiss County population had reached 19,265. Like much of northeastern Mississippi, Prentiss County was overwhelmingly white (87 percent). The census counted only two immigrants—one each from Scotland and England. The county had no urban population, and almost two-thirds of the county’s 3,713 farms were operated by tenants. Corn and cattle were the most important farm products. Prentiss was one of the early counties to receive power through the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In 1929 the Mississippi State Medical Association inaugurated publication of a journal, Mississippi Doctor, in Booneville. In 1948 Northeast Mississippi Junior College was founded in Booneville, and in 1957 it began offering the state’s first associate degree in nursing.
Notable natives of Prentiss County include Elijah Pierce and Orma Rinehart “Hack” Smith. Born near Baldwyn in 1892, Pierce became an extraordinary sculptor who used wood to create artworks with religious themes. Smith, born in Booneville in 1904, became a US district judge who oversaw cases involving the integration of Mississippi’s schools.
Between 1930 and 1960 Prentiss County’s population declined to 17,949, with whites continuing to make up close to 90 percent of county residents. By 1960 more than 30 percent of the workforce was employed in manufacturing, with most women making clothing and men building furniture and harvesting timber. Agriculture accounted for a quarter of the county’s workers, who raised corn, soybeans, and livestock. By 1980 the population had risen to 24,025.
In 2010 Prentiss, like most northeastern Mississippi counties, remained predominantly white and growing, with a population of 25,276.
- 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)