Founded in 1833, Smith County, a small county on the edge of the Piney Woods region in south-central Mississippi, was named for Maj. David Smith, a hero of the American Revolution who later settled in Mississippi. The seat of Smith County is Raleigh, while other communities include Mize and Taylorsville. In the 1840 census, Smith County had three times as many free people (1,542) as slaves (419). By 1860 the population had increased substantially, reaching 5,443 free people and 2,195 slaves.
Antebellum Smith County ranked in the bottom quarter of the state’s counties in most forms of agricultural production. However, the county was decidedly agricultural in 1860, with only twenty-five people working in industry—primarily the county’s three lumber mills. That year, Smith County had twenty-three churches: ten Baptist, nine Methodist, one Presbyterian, and three Lutheran.
In the 1850s William Harris Hardy founded a school and began practicing law in and around Raleigh. He organized a Confederate military company, the Smith County Defenders, in 1861. He later became an aide to Gen. James Smith before pursuing a postbellum career as political figure, judge, and the founder of several South Mississippi towns, including Hattiesburg. Confederate general and Mississippi governor Robert Lowry also spent several years practicing law in antebellum Smith County. Raleigh suffered considerable destruction in 1863 when Union forces led by Benjamin Grierson led a raid through northeastern and central Mississippi, destroying transportation facilities and capturing weapons and soldiers.
In the postbellum period, Smith County experienced relatively little population change. In 1880 the county had 8,088 residents, 6,452 of whom were white. Landowners cultivated 88 percent of working farms, so the county had few tenants and sharecroppers. Smith remained low in state rankings in the production of cotton and corn, but its residents ranked in the middle of the state in raising livestock.
By 1900 the county’s population had grown to 13,055, with whites accounting for most of the population. Three-quarters of Smith’s white farmers and almost half of its black farmers owned their land. Industry was emerging slowly, with just fifty-seven workers in 1900.
According to the religious census of 1916, more than two-thirds of all church members in Smith County belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, Smith had the second-highest number of Southern Baptists in the state. Others with substantial memberships included the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Missionary Baptists.
Smith County’s population grew slowly in the early 1900s, exceeding 18,000 by 1930. Smith continued to have a large white majority, with whites comprising 81 percent of the population. Smith County had no urban center and few industrial workers. In contrast to late-nineteenth-century trends, by the early 1900s half of the county’s 3,277 farms were operated by tenants.
By 1960 the county’s population had declined to 14,303 and was 77 percent white. About half of Smith County’s working people made their living in agriculture. Smith had a high number of hogs, while its farmers grew substantial amounts of corn, soybeans, and cotton. Almost 20 percent of the county’s workers had manufacturing jobs, primarily in the apparel industry. With ten oil wells, Smith County ranked second in oil production. In the twenty-first century Smith County became one of Mississippi’s leading producers of poultry.
Prentiss Walker, who in 1964 became the first Republican elected to the US House of Representatives from Mississippi in the twentieth century, was born in Taylorsville. Walker gave up his House seat after only one term and was unable to reclaim it in later elections. Other notable people from Taylorsville include National Football League players Jason Campbell and Eugene Sims.
In 2010 whites made up about three-quarters of Smith County’s population, which had increased to 16,182.
- 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)