Land and slaves were the foundation of the settlement of Mississippi, the heart of antebellum America’s Cotton Kingdom. In 1817, when Mississippi earned statehood, its population of European and African descent was concentrated in the Natchez District, the core of colonial settlement in the eighteenth century, and almost the entire non-Indian population lived in the southern portion of the state. A succession of treaties between the United States and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians between 1801 and 1832, culminating in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) and the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832), dispossessed Mississippi’s indigenous nations of almost all of their lands. As twenty thousand Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians were removed from Mississippi in the 1830s, the federal government surveyed the newly acquired land and converted it to salable real estate, opening millions of acres in central and northern Mississippi to agricultural development. Combined with high cotton prices, the sale of these federal lands generated “flush times” in Mississippi between 1816 and 1819 and again between 1833 and 1837, but the collapse of cotton prices at the end of each boom left many Mississippi landowners struggling with debt. Migration to newly opened areas shifted the center of gravity of Mississippi’s population away from the colonial core of settlement. The five southwestern counties comprising the heart of the old Natchez District (Adams, Amite, Franklin, Jefferson, and Wilkinson), harbored more than half the state’s non-Indian population in 1820 but accounted for less than 10 percent of the state’s population in 1860.
The high cost and sickly reputation of land in Mississippi’s fertile floodplain contributed to different patterns of settlement in the western and eastern regions of the state. Large cotton plantations characterized the western counties, where the Mississippi River’s alluvial soils attracted wealthy slave owners willing to pay top dollar for the richest cotton-producing lands. The counties of the Natchez District and the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta boasted many of the wealthiest planters and some of the highest proportions of enslaved people (often more than two-thirds) in the United States. In contrast, the eastern counties tended to attract small planters and farmers in search of relatively inexpensive land. These counties were more likely to have white majorities. Enslaved people accounted for less than 30 percent of the population in the southeastern Piney Woods counties of Jackson, Harrison, Greene, and Perry and the hilly northeastern counties of Tishomingo, Itawamba, and Tippah. The plantation-oriented counties of the Upper Tombigbee River Basin (Noxubee, Lowndes, and Monroe) were an important exception to this regional pattern. Most of Mississippi’s white households did not have slaves in 1860, and plantation households (conventionally defined as those with twenty or more slaves) constituted a minority of all white households with slaves.
Where did Mississippians come from before the Civil War? According to the 1850 census, more than half of the state’s roughly 296,000 white inhabitants came from elsewhere in the United States—most from other southern states. Less than 10,000 had been born in northern states or outside the country. The same census did not enumerate slaves’ nativity, but few would have been born in Africa or the Caribbean because of the prohibition on foreign slave importation into the Mississippi Territory enacted by Congress in 1798 and strengthened by the 1808 ban on importing slaves into the United States. Historian Michael Tadman has estimated that 235,000 slaves were taken to Mississippi from other slave states between 1820 and 1860, some in the company of migrating owners and others ensnared by the interstate slave trade to be sold at venues such as the Forks of the Road market in Natchez. The movement of slaves to Mississippi peaked in the booming 1830s, when more than 100,000 slaves may have entered the state. In every decade except the 1840s, the slave population grew faster than the free population: on the eve of the Civil War, 55 percent of the state’s population was enslaved. “We repose on a volcano,” warned a Vicksburg newspaper in 1831.
Mississippi’s mix of frontier free-for-all and plantation society was highly combustible. One revealing episode occurred in west-central Mississippi in the summer of 1835, when rumors of banditry, slave insurrection, and covert abolitionism rocked Madison County. The panicked response of a local vigilance committee left at least seven white men dead and several others banished. An unknown though certainly larger number of slaves were also executed for their real or imagined participation in the rumored uprising. The panic rippled through the state. In Vicksburg, several gamblers and slaves were hanged after clashing with local citizens. Such proceedings exposed deep fears of social disorder among Mississippi’s white elites. They resorted to force when necessary to establish order and protect slavery, but more effective than force in the long run was the emergence of institutions that “civilized” the frontier, including courts, churches, and schools. Historians have often emphasized the rampant materialism that characterized the southern frontier in the first half of the nineteenth century, but Mississippi’s history is unfathomable without recognizing that along with all that cotton, the seeds of Mississippi’s evangelical religious traditions were sown in camp meetings and revivals and the secret brush arbors of slaves.
Mississippi’s ancient landscape underwent a profound ecological transformation in the early nineteenth century. Slaves and small farmers drained swamps, cleared canebrakes, and carved fields out of the forest. The dedication of tremendously fertile lands to cotton catapulted Mississippi into the leading ranks of the world’s cotton producers. Its bumper cotton crop for 1859–60 exceeded 1.2 million bales, more than any other state. While the people of Mississippi remained predominantly rural and agricultural, the cotton economy inserted them into the transatlantic Industrial Revolution and made them dependent on the world market, a power beyond their grasp and control.
- Thomas D. Clark and John D. W. Guice, The Old Southwest, 1795–1830: Frontiers in Conflict (1989)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
- John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770–1860 (1988)
- Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (1989)