To look back on the first days of statehood is to witness a naturally pristine Mississippi of ancient forests, Delta alluvial plains, waterways, hills in the north contrasted by a flat, sandy coastline bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
The newly minted state was mostly supported by upstate counties through cotton and slavery, small farms and a few impressive plantations that hinted at things to soon come. Traffic along the river that gave the state its name was vital to the moving of this young commerce.
Statehood arrived Dec. 10, 1817. That is why 2017 is being observed statewide as the state’s bicentennial.
Mississippi’s first century as the 20th state moved at a plodding pace — at least by 21st-century standards — given the effects of disease, war, slower-moving transportation and slow-to-come innovations.
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Mississippians today number about 3 million, a 40-fold increase since fledgling statehood.
In an 1816 census taken when the Mississippi Territory was considering splitting into states, 45,085 free whites and 366 free blacks lived on the 48,432 square acres that are today Mississippi.
But native tribes — the northern Chickasaw, central Choctaws and Natchez and on the coastline the Biloxis and Pascagoulas — weren’t counted. Slaves were, and they added 30,061 to the population.
That makes about 75,000 whites and blacks living in newborn Mississippi. When the first century of statehood ended in 1917, that number was almost 2 million.
Part of the story
Such figures tell only part of the statehood story. The concentration of people was upstate and in the Delta, where the soil was conducive to cotton growing.
The coast was a survival-mode frontier, still culturally influenced by Europeans who came in colonial times to establish footholds on the Gulf as original claims were lost. Then, as now, writers, visitors and even the locals remarked on the friendly, laid-back attitude of the region.
“I would say that the Coast is definitely different from the rest of Mississippi,” said Kenneth H. P’Pool, deputy historic preservation officer with Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “While Mississippians from the Coast to the Tennessee line have many commonalities, each region of the state has its own special character, and as a ‘variety is the spice of life’ kind of person, I find that endlessly fascinating and something to celebrate. As our Creole ancestors might have said, ‘Vive la différence!’”
Cultural influences on Coast
From a cultural standpoint, P’Pool said, the Coast is the northernmost reach of the Caribbean and was much more heavily influenced than the rest of the state by Mediterranean cultures, among them French, Spanish, Italian, Balkan.
“From a geographical standpoint,” he said, “the Coast’s situation along one of the New World’s great transportation and commercial thoroughfares — the Gulf of Mexico — both facilitated the region’s ethnic diversity and maintained its ties to the rest of the world much more easily than was possible for other regions of our state.”
Even the subtropical climate promoted a laissez-faire atmosphere that wooed early vacationers.
Coast is a panhandle
At the state’s creation, this southernmost tip formed a panhandle with two counties, Hancock and Jackson. Before the first century finished, this region commonly called the Mississippi Gulf Coast would be subdivided into the seaside Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties and the pineywoods counties of Pearl River, Stone and George.
This stubby panhandle is 80 miles long, 55 miles wide and has the 31st parallel as its northern boundary. At statehood, the Coast population was only 2½ percent of the state’s total. The number of slaves here is also comparatively lower, with 586 listed in the census.
Historians say these figures tell us the early Coast economy did not run on slave labor. Some enslaved people later worked in lumbering and brick works and a few cotton plantations struggling in poor Coast soil. Most were likely domestics in the Coast households of upstate planters and families from New Orleans and Mobile.
The wealthy who could afford to escape the plantations and disease-riddled big cities did so, and they chose Mississippi’s inviting seacoast as their escape. They turned the seashore into the destination it remains today.
Coast historian Charles L. Sullivan says transportation was the key to development in tourism, as well as seafood, lumbering and agriculture, the first financial engines of this region.
First, sailing sloops moved goods and people. Then came steamboats, and in 1827, steamers began regular routes between New Orleans and Mobile, with Coast stops. That doubled, then tripled the local population.
“Our Gulf Coast grew because of New Orleans and Mobile,” said Sullivan, archivist and professor emeritus at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. “Think of the Coast as an axis drawn between those two cities. Although the French landed here first in 1699, the history of New Orleans and Mobile predicated our later growth.”
The coming of the first railroad in 1870 was followed by others that opened up the pineywoods to lumbering. It took only one generation to fell the ancient giant yellow pine forests that were South Mississippi’s version of gold.
The railroads led to ports, chief among them the Port of Gulfport. It was financed by northern railroad magnate Capt. Joseph T. Jones who wanted to export the yellow gold. Rails also meant the Coast’s coveted seafood and winter vegetables could be transported around the nation.
Then came the automobile. The first arrived on the Coast in 1900 when roads were few and made of shell. This travel innovation gave Americans newfound freedom, and soon they demanded roads and bridges for their cars. The Coast happily responded.
‘The’ war of earlier times
No overview can ignore the four-year Civil War. Long after the fighting ended in 1865, the national division continued to affect this state in image, elusive prosperity and civil rights. Southerners love their family stories of romance and hard times, often not open to re-interpretation.
In January 1861, Mississippi became the second Southern state to secede. Because the namesake river was strategically important to both the Union and Confederacy, at least 18 major battles were fought in this state.
None was fought on the Coast. History books mention three smaller skirmishes. One was an 1862 drubbing of 3rd Mississippi Confederate troops in Pass Christian and another was a 1863 Pascagoula invasion by black soldiers of the 2nd Louisiana Native Guard.
The Union also put 18,000 soldiers on Ship Island to use as a springboard for taking and keeping New Orleans. Sometimes they raided the Coast for goods.
The residents of Biloxi, Ocean Springs and the other villages labeled “the Six Sisters” found their normally advantageous position between New Orleans and Mobile a hindrance. Early in the war, New Orleans was the first major Southern city to fall, but Mobile held fast.
“For three years, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a no-man’s land between Yankee-held New Orleans and Confederate-held Mobile,” Sullivan said. “On one hand the Coast people were being raided by the Yankees, and on the other, subjected to Draconian requisitions for men and supplies by the Rebels.
“Those who did not have the means to leave were starving. They swore oaths of allegiance to one side or the other, or waffled between the two.”
One Pass Christian man wrote, under the pseudonym Patriarch Dismal, that they survived on roots and fish. Sometimes, they boiled sea water to get salt to trade inland for corn.
And the other assorted ‘storms’
The Civil War was not the only time Coast people had to pull themselves back up.
Early into statehood they learned how being a coveted tourist destination for New Orleanians and upstate planters became a curse during yellow fever epidemics. Big-city folk fleeing to the “healthier” seashore brought the mosquito-borne disease with them and killed locals.
When the first century of statehood ended, so did yellow fever, for there now was a cure. But nothing could stop the onslaught of hurricanes, and 11 of them slammed the Coast that first century.
One memorable year, 1860, saw three storms taking lives, flattening towns and piers, pushing fishing boats into the woods. The same Patriarch Dismal remarked about a good thing — full employment among sawmill workers and mechanics in the massive rebuilding efforts.
That “we will persevere” holdover of frontier days continued to shape attitudes.
“Over the entire country hangs a glamour of romance,” travel writer Moses Folsom wrote when he described the Coast as “an order-loving and peacefully disposed community.”
Folsom also noted in 1888, “Modern ideas have taken deep hold of the people, manifested in the building of beautiful homes, the making of roads and streets, in the establishment of seafood factories.”
In 1904, Biloxi stole from Baltimore the title of Seafood Capital of the World. In 1907, Gulfport claimed the Yellow Pine Export Capital of the World. Long Beach, a newbie incorporated in 1905, would soon be Radish Capital of the World. In 1909, the Bass Pecan Co. of Lumberton printed its first catalog for what would become the World’s Largest Pecan Nursery.
And the first century under statehood wasn’t yet over.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald but continues to write her Sunday column, Mississippi Coast Chronicles. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.