Tunica County was established in 1840, close to three hundred years after Hernando de Soto traveled through the area. Both the county and county seat (also Tunica) are named for the Tunica Indian word meaning “the people.” The county was established with a tiny population of 821, of whom 30 percent were enslaved. By 1860 the free population remained small—just 883 people—though the slave population had increased to 3,483. With slaves making up almost 80 percent of residents, Tunica County had one of the highest percentages of slaves in Mississippi.
Located in the Delta in northwestern Mississippi, the county developed an agricultural economy based on cotton and large-scale slavery. Its agriculture mixed cotton with corn and livestock, and despite its small population the county ranked eighteenth in the state in the value of its agricultural property. In 1860, Tunica had only four churches, all of them Methodist, the fewest in the state, and had no manufacturing establishments or persons employed in manufacturing.
In the postbellum period, large numbers of African Americans moved into the northern Delta. Despite losing part of its territory and population to Tate County in 1873 and Quitman County in 1877, Tunica’s 1880 population rose to 8,461, and 85 percent of residents were African American, the third-highest proportion in the state. Sharecroppers and tenants cultivated about three-quarters of the county’s farms. As in most counties dominated by tenant labor, Tunica produced far more cotton than corn or livestock. According to the 1880 census, Tunica County remained extraordinarily agricultural, with just one manufacturing firm employing three people.
Tunica County’s population almost doubled between 1880 and 1900, reaching 16,479. The vast majority of residents—14,914—were African Americans, and most made their living in agriculture as tenants and sharecroppers. Only 6 percent of the 2,713 black farmers owned their land, while more than a third of white farmers did so. As in other areas dominated by tenancy, farms were small, and the primary crop was cotton. The county had 125 industrial workers and a small but growing immigrant population of 47, most of them from Germany, Ireland, or China.
In the early twentieth century, 70 percent of the county’s church members belonged to Missionary Baptist groups, while 20 percent worshipped at Colored Methodist Episcopal churches.
By 1930 Tunica County’s population had increased to 21,233 and remained overwhelmingly (86 percent) African American. As in much of the Delta, tenant farmers predominated, operating 94 percent of all county farms. Tunica’s agriculture concentrated on cotton as well as corn and hogs.
Highway 61, sometimes called the Blues Highway, runs through Tunica County. Blues performer James Cotton, born in 1935, grew up outside of the city of Tunica, and bluesman Son House lived and worked on nearby plantations. Harold “Hardface” Clayton, an African American businessman born in Tunica in 1916, ran a number of small businesses in the city. He found success and fame through his gambling establishments long before the growth of casinos in the region and was celebrated for hosting blues musicians in his cafés and bars.
By 1960 Tunica had experienced a sharp decline in population and employment opportunities that led to severe poverty. The county had just 16,826 residents, 80 percent of them African American. Agricultural workers made up two-thirds of Tunica County’s workers, tying Issaquena County for the highest percentage in Mississippi. Cotton continued to lead crop production, with soybeans and wheat increasing in importance. Only 4 percent of Tunica County’s workers held jobs in industry.
In the 1960s Tunica contained the state’s highest percentage of people with fewer than five years of education and the lowest percentage of people who had completed high school. Tunica County was one of the poorest counties in the United States, and its population continued to decline in the 1970s and 1980s.
Tunica has experienced some economic improvements since the 1990s, though their effects have often been uneven. Casino gambling has provided some benefits for Tunica’s communities. In addition, improved roads, new government spending, and a new airport created opportunities for economic growth. Nevertheless, Tunica County’s population decreased further between 1960 and 2010, when it had 10,778 residents. As in neighboring DeSoto, Tate, and Panola Counties, the white proportion of Tunica County’s population grew during this period, though African Americans remained a substantial majority and a Hispanic/Latino minority emerged. African Americans accounted for 73.5 percent of Tunica County’s residents, while 23.7 percent were white, and 2.3 percent were Hispanic/Latino.
- Mississippi Blues Trail website, www.msbluestrail.org
- 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)