People around the world know of a place called Mississippi. Given the same Ojibwa name as the “great river” that runs along the area’s western side (recorded far upstream in 1666 as Messipi by French explorers), the place is legendary. As a bounded area or an ordered unit of space—a state—Mississippi is one thing. As a place, it is quite another—or at least it is more. In the geographical imaginations and the mental maps of many people, Mississippi holds a place. While those imaginings may not please us all, this, too, is part of who we are, who we have been, and what this place is. Mostly, though, this place we call Mississippi is many things. It is many different places with different landscapes and different cultures.
From its highest land surfaces (Woodall Mountain, 806 feet) in the northeastern Tishomingo Hills near Tennessee and Alabama, Mississippi gently undulates downhill toward both the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. There, a narrow coastline faces the shallow Mississippi Sound and its barrier islands, beyond which lies the Gulf. Within the belted coastal plain of which Mississippi is a part, different landform (physiographic) regions, defined by surface formations, soils, and vegetation, provide subtle diversity both physically and culturally.
This geography makes Mississippi quite fascinating. Just like forests, hills, prairies, and coasts, expressions of culture change from place. Physical and cultural geographical characteristics interact and contribute to making places. The food we eat, the way we pray, the houses we build, the plants we grow, the cities we make, and the things we do for a living are as much a part of Mississippi’s geography as our forests, hills, and rivers. Seeing how these things change across the state helps us understand a little more about who and what Mississippi is.
On a variety of Mississippi landscapes—pine-forested hill lands, narrow strips of plains, river valleys, and a coastal plain—humans have long found different ways to make livings and function as complex societies. In so doing, we produce distinct cultures and cultural landscapes. The landscapes that we make, then, serve both as rich contexts for life and as archival repositories, stores of information on who we are and were. Reading these landscapes throughout Mississippi can be as captivating, intriguing, and enlightening as any great book.
Mississippi is part of the Gulf Coastal Plain, mostly lowlands and low rolling hills. A humid subtropical climate provides general warmth and moisture throughout the year. Average temperatures vary from 82 F in July to 48 F in January, with the north becoming much cooler than the south in the winter months. Northern portions of the state receive approximately fifty inches of rainfall annually, with that number increasing toward the south to approximately sixty-one inches per year on the Gulf Coast. As a result of these climatic conditions, the environment sees rapid and significant plant growth, leading to an abundance of forestlands and long growing seasons, both of which have been integral to Mississippi’s historical development.
Mississippi generally can be divided into four geographic regions: Pine Belt (Piney Woods or Southern Pine Hills), Northern Hills, Gulf Coast, and Yazoo Basin (Delta). Finer distinctions within these regions, especially the Pine Belt and Northern Hills, help distinguish more specific landform regions, which often have distinct cultural expressions. For example, the Northern Hills region contains the Northern or Red Clay Hills, Flatwoods, Pontotoc Ridge, Black Prairie, and Tishomingo (or Northeastern) Hills. The Black Prairie, a flat narrow strip of limestone-derived soil extending from Alabama (again, a former coastal plain), differs from the rest of the Northern Hills in its soil and related older plantation history and high African American population. However, most of the Northern Hills has a relatively high degree of cultural similarity. Mississippi’s geographical diversity is probably best seen within this landform region classification system.
Understanding the origins of these landform regions even helps explain where Mississippi came from. Beginning about two hundred million years ago, the Appalachian and Ouachita Mountain systems were basically connected in a single range that faced a southern coastline. Around ninety-five million years ago this chain was broken. Many think that this gap formed when it passed over a geologic hot spot, which pushed the land up two or three kilometers before it began to erode back down. When the land surface was no longer over the hot spot (about eighty-five million years ago), the land slowly sank back to where it had been, but the top two or three kilometers was missing. This gap—a depression called the Mississippi Embayment—created an opening for the new Mississippi River. At that time, the region now known as the Northeastern Hills or Tishomingo Hills—geologically distinct in Mississippi and the foot of the Appalachian Mountains—was the only land surface of modern Mississippi that existed.
Glaciers, droughts, and floods subsequently came and went across North America, and temperatures and the sea level rose and fell. Sediment steadily washed down from the Appalachians and into the embayment, slowly settling along the coast and building land.
Successive waves of deposition during different climatic regimes built more land, leaving exposures along or near former coastlines. Fossil sand dollars on the Chickasawahay River north of Waynesboro and other evidence testifies to the existence of these earlier coastlines. The belted coastal plain that is the Gulf Coast South, including most of Mississippi, slowly developed.
As rivers brought different types of sediment to the growing coast, different types of land surfaces came into existence. Some were built and then modified through erosion. The northwest-southeast trend of the natural regions testifies to their history as former gulf and/or river coastlines. The infamous and remarkably flat Delta is simply an alluvial flood basin lying next to these higher former coastlines and filled with the sediment of Mississippi and Yazoo River floods.
One distinct and more recent landform, the Loess Plateau or Loess Bluff region, is characterized by a fine silt deposited (presumably by wind) along the terraces overlooking the Mississippi River during and following the last North American glacial period. This layer, thickest at the western edge of the terrace overlooking the river valley (up to twenty-seven meters at Vicksburg), overlays other landform surfaces and thins toward the east. Easily eroded, high bluffs drop sharply to the river valley, providing protective sites for early important river towns such as Natchez and Vicksburg. These bluffs also housed ancient hardwood forests—for example, the big trees and numerous waterfalls of Clark Creek Natural Area near Fort Adams. The fertility of loess soil provided a context for Mississippi’s early settlement in the Natchez District and its early plantations. However, the soil’s tendency to erode hindered expansion. In fact, some scholars still define the Natchez District as a distinct culture region within Mississippi based on this early settlement and the related cultural diversity that characterizes the area.
An important part of who we are is where we are. In making our way in the world, we humans always influence environmental landscapes, at times with dramatic results. This, too, is part of our cultural imprint. Mississippi is certainly not immune to the human imprint, and practically everywhere in the state has been affected—our forests, pastures, lakes, and rivers. The postbellum removal of the giant hardwood forests of the Yazoo Basin and the destruction of more than 98 percent of the Pine Belt’s great longleaf pine forests are good examples of our potential to effect change. That Mississippi has no place unaltered by humans is more or less certain.
Within Mississippi’s different landform regions, settlement has taken many forms over time. The landscapes of Mississippi have experienced different cultures and histories as different groups of people have deployed a variety of adaptive strategies for different things and at different times, leaving a mosaic of cultural patterns.
The cultural and historical geography of Mississippi reflects the human drama that has unfolded in this warm, humid place. Historically, Native Americans hunted and farmed river valleys large and small. These groups eventually built cities, particularly along the edge of the Mississippi River Valley. Emerald Mound, near Vicksburg, is the second-largest mound in North America and provides a good example of the achievements of what is widely known as Mississippian culture. These complex societies experienced dramatic disruption as soon as the first Europeans passed through.
Europeans colonized the region beginning on the coast in 1699 and along the Mississippi River, particularly near Natchez in 1716. The slow processes of land appropriation and indigenous genocide that characterized European colonization may have started here with Hernando de Soto. By 1817 the territory was defined by its admission as a US state, and the process of colonization sped up, particularly after the 1831 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek removed most indigenous inhabitants from the territory, opening it up for others.
The state generally was settled throughout the 1800s, largely by farmers and loggers and the towns that provided services to those settlers. Migrants from the East trickled in as land was opened for settlement, slowly cleared of its native inhabitants, and repopulated by Anglo and Celtic Protestants and African Americans. Some of the earlier Europeans were Anglo-Celtic cattle herders who practiced open-range herding in the grassy savanna landscape of the longleaf pine forests. Early plantations developed in the Natchez District and eastern Black Belt. Peasant farmers, mostly Anglo-Celtic, cleared farmland throughout the state. The Delta was cleared and settled primarily in the decades after the Civil War. The Pine Belt was settled more substantially around the turn of the twentieth century as the giant longleaf pine forests were cut for export.
Race constitutes an important component of this settlement history. The history of race in Mississippi is inherently a matter of geography. From the processes of migration and cultural diffusion to settlement patterns, voting patterns, and economic patterns, race manifests itself spatially. Segregation is among the most obvious examples. An understanding of race and race relationships is imperative to any attempt to understand Mississippi. In addition to indigenous genocide and the Trail of Tears, the long drama of “blacks” and “whites” in Mississippi has left a marked cultural geography, affecting where and how we live, how we worship, where we go to school, where we work, where we eat, where we socialize, and with whom. From the well-known Map of Mississippi Blues Musicians to Nina Simone’s song “Mississippi Goddam,” this geographical legacy has left imprints at many levels.
Until the 1930s African Americans were Mississippi’s largest ethnic group, meaning that African American culture has had a tremendous impact. However, many other groups have moved, lived, cooked, worshipped, and spoken here—Choctaw, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Italians, Jews, French, Chinese, and others—creating a more complicated story that is also inherently a story of geography.
Like the river from which the state takes its name, Mississippi’s geography continues to change. People move in and move out, changing cultural values and behavior. Rivers meander and change their courses, confusing political borders. Economic developments change lifestyles, environments, and towns. The evolution of technology and social values changes lands and lives throughout the state. How it all looks in the future is up to us.
- S. S. Chapman, G. E. Griffith, J. M. Omernik, J. A. Comstock, M. C. Beiser, and D. Johnson, Ecoregions of Mississippi (2004)
- Ralph Cross and Robert Wales, Atlas of Mississippi (1974); Igor I. Ignatov, “Natural History and Phytogeography of the Loess Hills and Ravines, Lower Mississippi Embayment” (PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2001)
- Terry G. Jordan, North American Cattle Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation (1993)
- Arthell Kelley, Mississippi Geographer (1975, 1976, 1978, 1981)
- Arthell Kelley, Southern Quarterly (July 1963)
- James W. Loewen, Mississippi Geographer (1974)
- Stewart G. McHenry, Mississippi Geographer (1979)
- Mikko Saikku, This Delta, This Land: An Environmental History of the Yazoo-Mississippi Floodplain (2005)
- Roy B. Van Arsdale and Randel T. Cox, Scientific American (January 2007)