Social and Economic History, 1817–1890

During the first seven decades of statehood, Mississippi experienced major social and economic changes.

An initial demographic and economic transformation occurred in the two decades after 1817 with the removal of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians. Even before statehood, the two tribes faced increasing pressure to cede their substantial landholdings to white settlers looking to establish farms and plantations. These tensions only increased after 1830, when the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Bill, which codified the government’s resolve to remove the remaining Indians from the eastern United States to designated areas west of the Mississippi River. Southern Indians such as the Choctaw and Chickasaw faced a clear choice: they could either accept federal assistance and relocate west to lands promised by the federal government, or they could stay in Mississippi and be subject to state laws that destroyed their tribal and personal rights and made them subject to harassment and incursions by white settlers who coveted land. Consequently, in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) and the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832), the Choctaw and Chickasaw respectively ceded their remaining tribal lands to the State of Mississippi. Although several thousand Choctaw and a smaller number of Chickasaw stayed in Mississippi after most of the two tribes moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), those who remained in the state faced a difficult life characterized by poverty, few legal protections, and harassment by white Mississippians.

With the Choctaw and Chickasaw removed from their ancient homeland, white settlers flooded into the state, and many of them brought black slaves with them. By 1840 blacks outnumbered whites in the state, and on the eve of the Civil War, Mississippi had 437,404 African American residents. As the population increased, so did the production of cotton. Mississippi became the heart of the Old South’s Cotton Kingdom, producing 20 percent of the world’s supply of the fiber by 1860. As a result, Mississippi remained an overwhelmingly rural state, and Natchez was the only settlement with a pre–Civil War population that exceeded five thousand. The few towns that developed generally existed to supply the rather limited legal, administrative, and social services required by the surrounding agricultural areas. One of the more notable features of Mississippi’s antebellum towns is that they were home to a small population of free blacks, which totaled only 773 in 1860, as well as to small enclaves of residents of various ethnic groups.

Although antebellum Mississippi had significant numbers of cotton plantations worked by African American slaves, the state had three distinct regions prior to the Civil War, each with its own demographic profile and social relations: the plantation districts along the Mississippi River below the Delta and in the valley of the Tombigbee River, where cotton was the primary crop; the white-majority yeoman farming and small slaveholding areas throughout most of northeast and east-central Mississippi, where some farmers produced cotton but most practiced subsistence agriculture; and the livestock-tending and timber region of the southeastern piney woods, where little cotton was produced.

African American slavery existed in all these districts, though the vast majority of slaves worked and lived in the plantation neighborhoods, where their forced labor made possible the “good life” for Mississippi’s planter class, especially in Natchez and other places that were home to a number of superplanters. The nature of slavery in Mississippi varied over time and from place to place, as did the conditions of life for the average slave. However, the circumstances of bondage, whatever their harshness, failed to quash the spirit of Mississippi slaves. They creatively resisted slavery in a variety of ways and strove to nurture two important institutions, the family and religion, despite the many obstacles imposed by enslavement.

The Civil War undermined the notion that a slave society represented the best arrangement for maintaining a world in which all white men remained essentially equal. Conscription, draft exemptions for planters, the tax in kind, and Confederate impressment policies heightened class tensions between the “common whites” of Mississippi and wealthier whites. By 1863 halfhearted support of the war effort plagued many parts of the Mississippi home front, and many common whites had come to view the struggle as a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. The war not only revealed class divisions in white society that had festered below the surface for much of the antebellum period but also ravaged the state economically and demographically. In addition to the massive loss of capital because substantial amounts of the state’s wealth had been invested in the ownership of other human beings, fighting on Mississippi soil had left part of the state in ruin. Moreover, not only had thousands of soldiers from the state died in the fighting, but substantial numbers of Mississippi civilians, both black and white, had also been killed.

The disappearance of the state’s slave population represented the biggest change to come out of the Civil War. While Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment formally eradicated slavery, many black Mississippians helped to force their own emancipation during the war. Some escaped to Union lines when the opportunity arose. Others used the disorder created by the conflict to assert their freedom from bondage. At Davis Bend, the plantation owned by Joseph Davis, brother of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, slaves began to operate the plantation for their own benefit when Davis fled as Yankees approached in 1862. At the end of the war, the freedpeople moved to organize their own communities, with churches, fraternal societies, and a range of other facilities. Among the most important institutions the former slaves sought to create were schools. The desire for an education led black parents to move to the more urban parts of the state and often led plantation workers to make the establishment of a schoolhouse a primary condition of signing labor contracts. This desire for schooling among the freedpeople became perhaps the most important spur for Mississippi’s creation of a rudimentary system of public schools in 1870, during the brief time that blacks exercised significant political power during Reconstruction.

White Mississippians did not welcome black emancipation. Indeed, defining the new status of the freedpeople became a vexing question for white Mississippians, who struggled to address that question for at least the next century. Most immediately, black freedom, combined with northern victory and Republican Reconstruction, tended to unite whites after the war, subsuming the class divisions that had arisen briefly during the conflict. With the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which promised equal protection of the laws and suffrage for male former slaves, white Mississippians resolved to regain the upper hand. Fearful of the political power blacks had secured during Reconstruction and certain that blacks wanted not only political and civil rights but also social equality (that is, miscegenation), white Mississippians mounted a campaign of fraud, intimidation, and terror to restore white rule and white supremacy, culminating with the 1875 state elections.

Despite the upheaval and changes of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the legacy of the Old South continued to permeate Mississippi life. The state remained overwhelmingly rural with an agricultural economy still ordered by the production of cotton on plantations. The opening of the Delta lands after the Civil War solidified the state’s position as a major cotton supplier. Emancipation, however, transformed the way that cotton was produced. Former slaves dreamed of becoming yeoman farmers, but they had no land and few resources or access to credit to acquire farms. The former planters hoped to maintain their plantations with black labor, but their initial efforts to compel the freedpeople to work in gangs for wages proved unsuccessful. By the late 1860s a compromise had been worked out: sharecropping. White landowners allowed blacks to live on plots of land and provided tools and typically a “furnish” of supplies on which the croppers could live; blacks agreed to provide the landowner with a share of the cotton crop. The arrangement allowed blacks to direct the labor of their families and establish some semblance of agricultural independence—more than under slavery or a wage system of agricultural labor—but many former slaves became trapped in a cycle of permanent debt, in part caused by steadily declining cotton prices after the war but also encouraged by planters who saw the crop lien system associated with sharecropping as a way to entangle nominally free labor in a dependent relationship.

The agricultural economic system fashioned after the Civil War also ensnared many of the state’s white yeomen in its trap. Although many of them had focused on subsistence farming before the war, more began to practice commercial cotton farming afterward, lured by the need for cash to pay for debts acquired during four years of war and the increased taxes levied during Reconstruction as well as by the greater possibilities to produce for the market as the state expanded its rail lines. As cotton prices tumbled, many white yeomen who banked their future prosperity on cotton production lost their land and descended into the ranks of tenants and sharecroppers. By 1900, 85 percent of black farmers and more than 35 percent of white agriculturalists did not own the land they worked.

Though cotton remained king in Mississippi after the Civil War, the state experienced some important industrial growth and economic diversification. In large part as a consequence of outside capital and state policies that provided tax breaks and grants of land to developers, Mississippi’s system of railroads improved dramatically after the Civil War. In 1860 the state had only 862 miles of track, and much of it was destroyed during the war. By 1900, 2,788 miles of railroad line crisscrossed the state. Industrial development followed the railroad-building boom. Between 1880 and 1900 the value of products manufactured in the state increased by more than 150 percent.

Perhaps the biggest industrial development of the postbellum years was the rapid expansion of the timber industry in the Piney Woods of South Mississippi. By the time of the Civil War, lumbering already represented one of the major economic activities of the Piney Woods, but the improved transportation system developed after the war accelerated development of the industry. During the 1880s speculators (many from outside the state) acquired title to large areas of land, much of it thick with first-growth longleaf yellow pine. For example, one Michigan speculator, Delos Blodgett, acquired 721,000 acres in the Piney Woods region. Within two decades, Mississippi produced enough timber to rank third among US states. The rapidly growing industry attracted new residents to South Mississippi, including a significant number of black migrants searching for work beyond the cotton plantations further north. Many of the workers lived in timber camps, mobile communities that followed the shearing of South Mississippi’s pine stands, a process that reached its height between the late 1870s and the early 1930s. At the same time, the timber industry led to the creation of new towns in the southern part of the state. One such settlement founded in the 1880s, Hattiesburg, rapidly grew into a city that served as the capital of Mississippi’s lumber landscape.

The timber industry also played a major role in economic growth along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Gulfport, founded in the 1890s, eventually became the major terminus for exporting pine timber out of South Mississippi. In addition, improved transportation and preservation methods enabled seafood to become a major industry during the 1880s, further boosting the Gulf Coast economy. In 1881 a group of Gulf Coast men started a company that utilized new techniques to can shrimp and oysters caught off the Gulf Coast. Within a few years, Biloxi and then other coastal communities developed seafood plants. The seafood trade, in turn, attracted European immigrants, especially from Yugoslavia.

Further Reading

  • Charles C. Bolton, Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (1994)
  • Bradley G. Bond, Political Culture in the Nineteenth-Century South: Mississippi, 1830–1890 (1995)
  • James E. Fickle, Mississippi Forests and Forestry (2001)
  • Winthrop D. Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (1993)
  • Anthony Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (2009)
  • John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770–1860 (1988)
  • John C. Willis, Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil War (2000)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Social and Economic History, 1817–1890
  • Author
  • Keywords Social and Economic History, 1817–1890
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date January 28, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 26, 2018