One of the enduring images of the Old South is of the southern poor white. Commentators, writers, and historians have used “poor whites” as caricatures. Southern literature and historiography present powerful and divergent images of poor whites as everything from a dissolute and lazy underclass to the respectable “plain folk” of the Old South. Antebellum Mississippi (as well as the rest of the South) clearly had the latter and no doubt had the former, but these images do very little to help us understand the reality of white poverty at the time.
Antebellum Mississippi had only limited poverty, in part as a consequence of the newness of Euro-American settlement in the area—less than fifty years. As a rural, agrarian state, antebellum Mississippi did not experience significant urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, the prime contributors to poverty in nineteenth-century America. The poor were often mobile and thus invisible to the historical record. Regardless, antebellum Mississippi had no distinct poor white class; rather, individual Mississippians were poor. Their lives were obscure in the extreme but doubtless full of struggle and hardship. According to John Munn, a New Yorker who lived in Mississippi for fifteen years, “It is a remarkable feature of the society in the slave states, that a poor man—that is an object of charity—is seldom or ever seen, the sight of squalid poverty is rarely experienced.”
An understanding of poverty and the identification of the poor in the decade before the Civil War can be gleaned from manuscript census returns, tax records, board of police records, and anecdotal fragments from personal journals, letters, newspaper articles, and court records. These documents suggest that poverty was the condition of persisting propertylessness. Land or other forms of personal property were essential for economic and social success, and the absence of property signaled socioeconomic failure. Studies of adult males with stable residences in central Mississippi between 1850 and 1860 suggest that the acquisition of real and personal property was the norm. The small percentage of adult men who failed to acquire property can be considered poor.
A survey of propertyless workers in antebellum Mississippi also reveals the array of low-status jobs that sustained poorer Mississippians. Some scholars suggest that slavery degraded all labor, black and white, but most southerners labored hard and productively throughout their lives. Poorer Mississippians worked as teamsters transporting cotton. Ditchers (mostly Irish immigrants) drained swamps and built levees to open lands to farming. Woodcutters supplied steamships on the Mississippi River. Charcoal burners labored in the Piney Woods. Draymen moved cargo on the wharfs at Natchez. Others worked as shingle makers, raftsmen, herders, hunters, or fishermen. Most poor Mississippians were tenants or farm laborers. Some were squatters on small subsistence farms. While many in antebellum Mississippi held menial jobs and were propertyless at times during their lives, persistence in these conditions was uncommon. All evidence suggests that those who were poor struggled but functioned and participated in the state’s economic, political, and social life.
The best suggestion of real poverty in antebellum Mississippi comes from the evidence on paupers—the public dependents who received poor relief from Mississippi counties. For some, age or calamity created a poverty that became destitution. For those who could not sustain themselves, state law obliged county boards of police to serve as the “overseers of the poor.” This system of poor relief provided generously for those few people deemed the “deserving poor.” Census data from 1850 and 1860 record only 297 individuals receiving some form of public support as paupers. Almost half were elderly, while the rest were orphans, widows, disabled persons, and single women—people who lacked family to take responsibility for them.
- Charles C. Bolton, Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (1994)
- Christopher Johnson, “Poverty and Dependency in Antebellum Mississippi” (PhD dissertation, University of California at Riverside, 1988)
- Christopher Johnson, Journal of Mississippi History (February 1987)