Located in north-central Mississippi, Yalobusha County was founded in 1833. Named after the Yalobusha River, the county has two seats, Water Valley and Coffeeville. In its first census in 1840, Yalobusha County had a population of 12,248, with 56 percent of residents free and 44 percent enslaved. With 195 people working in industry, the new county had Mississippi’s fifth-highest number of manufacturing employees.
By 1860 Yalobusha County’s population had topped 16,000, and 56 percent of residents were enslaved. Yalobusha’s farms and plantations practiced mixed agriculture, concentrating on corn, livestock, and cotton. Likely because it was a railroad center, Yalobusha attracted a large number of immigrants. In 1860 the county was home to 345 foreign-born free people, the second-highest number in Mississippi. Most were German, English, and Irish.
As in much of Mississippi, Methodists and Baptists dominated religious life in 1860. The county had fifteen Baptist congregations, thirteen Methodist churches, and eight Presbyterian churches.
Coffeeville was the site of Civil War fighting in 1862, when Confederate forces led by William Edwin Baldwin clashed with Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant. After the war, Mississippi military and political leaders Edward Cary Walthall and L. Q. C. Lamar had a law practice for a time in Coffeeville.
The population remained steady in the early postbellum period, and in 1880 African Americans made up a small majority of Yalobusha’s 15,649 people. About half of the county’s farmers owned their land, and while manufacturing employed only 44 residents, the railroad became crucial to county life. The first labor union in the state, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, organized in Water Valley in 1869, and famed railroad martyr Casey Jones belonged to a Water Valley union. In the 1870s more than 400 Swedish immigrants lived in Yalobusha County, most of them working for the railroads.
In 1900 Yalobusha County was home to 19,742 people, with African Americans slightly outnumbering whites. The county had a substantial industrial workforce of 420 men and 54 women employed by 57 establishments. As in many parts of Mississippi, most white farmers (just over half) owned their land, while most black farmers (81 percent) worked as tenants and sharecroppers. In the 1930s boosters in Water Valley claimed the town as the Watermelon Capital of the World, and the town hosts an annual Watermelon Festival.
Three writers of note grew up in Yalobusha County in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Historian Dunbar Rowland, born in the small town of Oakland in 1864, became the first director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in 1902 and continued in the position until his death in 1937. He wrote and edited numerous works, including a two-volume history of the state published in 1925. Poet and novelist Hubert Creekmore was born in Water Valley in 1907, attended the University of Mississippi in the 1920s, and set much of his work in Mississippi. Journalist Minnie Brewer was born in Water Valley, though her family moved to Clarksdale during her childhood.
Yalobusha’s population declined slightly in the early twentieth century, falling to 17,750 by 1930. Whites outnumbered African Americans by about 1,200. Despite the increasing size of Coffeeville, the county retained its agricultural economy with 2,710 farms, two-thirds of them run by tenant farmers.
The county’s population declined more dramatically in the mid-twentieth century and by 1960 was just 12,502. Almost a third of the working population had jobs in agriculture, and about 15 percent worked in manufacturing, especially in the apparel industry.
By 2010, Yalobusha County, like many nearby counties in north-central Mississippi, had a predominantly white population and had shown no significant change in size since 1960. An arts community developed in Water Valley, in part as a result of Fat Possum Records, a creative blues studio founded in the 1990s. In 2010 the county had 12,678 residents.
- 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)