Located in Mississippi’s southwestern corner, on the Louisiana border, Wilkinson County was one of the state’s original counties, formed in 1802 and named for Revolutionary War general James Wilkinson, the first governor of the Louisiana Territory. Part of the original Natchez District, the area that became Wilkinson was home to a great deal of early travel and occasional controversy between Americans and Spanish officials. The county seat is Woodville. Other towns include Crosby, Doloroso, Pinckneyville, Rosetta, and Fort Adams. The Homochitto and Buffalo Rivers flow through Wilkinson County, and a portion of the Homochitto National Forest is located there.
In the early 1800s Wilkinson was one of the state’s most heavily populated counties, with almost 10,000 people—59 percent of them enslaved—listed on the 1820 census. Ten years later, only Adams County had more residents than Wilkinson’s 11,686, and Wilkinson was one of just three counties in which slaves comprised more than two-thirds of the population. Woodville was home to one of Mississippi’s slave markets. By 1840 the population had topped 14,000, and more than 76 percent of county residents were slaves.
South Carolina native Abram Scott moved to Wilkinson County as a young man before fighting in the War of 1812 and becoming Mississippi’s governor in 1832. Andrew Marschalk, the state’s leading newspaper publisher in the early 1800s, worked primarily in Natchez but also established a newspaper in Wilkinson County.
By 1860 Wilkinson’s population had grown to almost 16,000, of whom 14,467 (82 percent) were slaves. Like many counties dominated by plantation slavery, Wilkinson produced far more cotton than corn. Wilkinson’s twelve manufacturing establishments employed 143 people. Most notable was a large, steam-powered cotton mill that Edward McGehee built in 1850. Eighteen of the county’s thirty churches were Methodist institutions.
Born in Kentucky, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis moved with his parents to a plantation home in Wilkinson County. Joseph Davis, Jefferson Davis’s nephew, grew up in Woodville, worked as a lawyer in Madison County, and became a Confederate general. Carnot Posey, born in 1818 in Woodville, was a lawyer, planter, and Mexican War figure before serving with the Wilkinson Rifles in the Civil War and rising to the rank of general. William Lindsay Brandon moved from Adams County to Wilkinson in the 1820s and became a planter. He lost a leg early in the war but nevertheless became a brigadier general in 1864. African American troops in the 3rd Regiment Cavalry fought in the Woodville area, which was also the site of a wartime hospital.
Wilkinson’s concentration on cotton and its large African American majority continued to define it after the Civil War. The population grew to almost 18,000 by 1880, with African Americans making up 80 percent of residents. Agriculture in general and cotton in particular continued to dominate the county’s economy.
In 1900 Wilkinson County’s population was 21,453, with African Americans. Only 9 percent of Wilkinson’s 2,072 black farmers were landowners, compared to almost two-thirds of the county’s 615 white farmers. Wilkinson was home to about 100 immigrants, mostly Irish, Germans, and Italians, and its forty manufacturing establishments employed 48 workers, all male.
Wilkinson County’s population declined steadily in the early twentieth century. By 1930 the county had fewer than 14,000 people, and the share of African Americans had declined to 70 percent. When L. O. Crosby reopened a lumber mill in the county, residents named a community in his honor. The central feature of the economy remained agriculture, with 2,160 farms, 72 percent of them operated by tenants. During World War II large numbers of soldiers trained at the US Army’s Camp Van Dorn, located in Wilkinson and Amite Counties. The facility was the site of significant racial tension and violence.
Two notable musicians were born in Woodville and gained fame outside Mississippi. Both William Grant Still, born in 1895, and Lester Young, born in 1909, were the sons of musician parents. Sometimes called the Dean of African American Composers, Still was educated and made most of his music outside the South. Young grew up in New Orleans, became a skilled saxophonist, and moved first to the Midwest and then to New York, where he gained the nickname Pres, short for “President of Tenor Saxophonists.” Born in Wilkinson County in 1940, Anne Moody wrote a 1968 autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, that details her life in and near Centreville as well as her time as a civil rights activist in Jackson.
Between 1930 and 1960 Wilkinson’s population remained steady at around 13,000. The county had a growing manufacturing base, primarily in timber, as well as a persistent problem with poverty. In 1960 almost a quarter of the county’s working people had manufacturing jobs, particularly in the furniture industry; others found employment related to the county’s twenty-three oil wells. More than a quarter of workers were involved in agriculture, producing soybeans, corn, oats, and cotton.
Wilkinson’s population declined steadily over the next three decades, shrinking by about 25 percent. In 2010 the county had 9,878 residents, 71 percent of them African American.
- 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)