Bicentennial

How Mississippi — and its Coast — came into statehood

Except for building of piers, this turn-of-the-20th-century Ocean Springs scene from Back Bay Biloxi looks much as the Mississippi Coast would have in the 1700s and 1800s. Sandy bluffs and moss-draped oaks defined the inland waterways.
Except for building of piers, this turn-of-the-20th-century Ocean Springs scene from Back Bay Biloxi looks much as the Mississippi Coast would have in the 1700s and 1800s. Sandy bluffs and moss-draped oaks defined the inland waterways. The Paul Jermyn Collection

Mississippians are not letting a major birthday such as the 200th slide into the history books as a footnote.

Not this time, anyway.

Residents learned their lesson well a century ago when they began organizing to celebrate the state’s 100th birthday in 1917. Amazing plans were laid for a World’s Fair–like exposition, aptly named the Mississippi Centennial Exposition, and construction of the buildings was begun when the state was forced to cancel.

War intervened

The United States’ entry into World War I quashed plans for the 1917 birthday party, and it became The Centennial That Never Was. The under-construction expo site in Gulfport, with its beautiful Spanish Mission–style halls, coliseum and administration building, was quickly transformed into a U.S. Navy Training Station.

The expo vanished into the swirl of patriotic war effort that buffeted the state and nation as it entered The Great World War, which European allies had been fighting for three years.

A do-over

Twenty-first century Mississippians who believe it is time to make up for the birthday-party deficit have designated 2017 as the Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration. In a nod to history, opening events for this year-long 200th observance will be Friday and Saturday at the same Gulfport site chosen for the centennial expo.

By war’s end, it was too late to resurrect the expo and the naval station transitioned into a Department of Veteran Affairs compound where military veterans were treated for the next nine decades.

Then Hurricane Katrinaa struck.

After the compound sustained huge loses in the 2005 storm, the VA combined the site’s capabilities with that of its Biloxi Back Bay medical site, and the federal government turned over the expo land to the city of Gulfport. The new name, Centennial Plaza & Festival Market Place, is reflective of both its historic beginning and the city’s plans to develop the prime real estate for tourism and community use.

The Friday and Saturday events at Centennial Plaza are billed as the Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration South — the Party of the Century. Other bicentennial events will follow around the state, culminating in December in Jackson with the opening of museums dedicated to civil rights and state histories.

The Coast: A history apart

This week, 100 years later than planned but never too late, the Mississippi Coast gets to celebrate a state birthday and its own unique place as the southern tip. The Coast is vital region of Mississippi with its economy and shared history, but it is also a place apart.

“When people not from here come to write or make movies or do history displays, it’s hard to convince them that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was not and is not that typical Mississippi image of ‘Moonlight, Magnolias and Plantations,’” said Charles L. Sullivan, historian, writer of numerous Coast history books, professor emeritus and archivist at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

“That antebellum image is out of place here. Upstate, cotton was the main crop and there were more slaves than whites.

“The Coast soil didn’t support good cotton growing. We harvested trees and seafood, and from the early days one of our best economic engines was tourism. Less than one-fourth of our population was slaves. The rich planters and businessmen from upstate Mississippi, New Orleans and Mobile brought their cotton money here and in that way, it did help develop the Coast.”

Mississippi Territory

When the Mississippi Territory was carved out of the Louisiana Territory in 1812, two southern counties were created — Hancock and Jackson. Today, the same land makes up the coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties and the coastal pineywoods counties of Pearl River, Stone and George.

The president orchestrating Mississippi’s creation was James Madison. James Monroe was in office when Mississippi became a state Dec. 10, 1817.

Attempting to sort this early history, including the wars, treaties, and land grabs involving England, France and Spain, can be mind-boggling. So, too, is the intrigue, events and cast of characters as Mississippi carved its permanent place in the Union.

Raising the U.S. flag

One memorable pre-statehood event occurred shortly after the West Florida Rebellion, which ended with the annexation of all the Mississippi coastline into the Territory of Orleans. All this is buffeted by disputes over what land was actually included in the Louisiana Purchase and the carving out of the Mississippi Territory.

To affirm this land claim and at Madison’s request, Orleans territorial Gov. William C. Claiborne sent a prominent New Orleans planter and physician to raise American flags at each inhabited spot, and present copies of the U.S. Constitution. That happened in January 1811 and Dr. William Flood made stops on the east bank of the Pearl River, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Biloxi and the Pascagoula River.

Pre-statehood Coast

Flood estimated fewer than 800 people lived along the coastline. Val Husley, who has worn assorted historian hats from college teacher to author and former Biloxi historical administrator, believes Flood’s 1811 trip provides a peek at what the Coast was like before statehood.

“Flood found ‘a primitive people of mixed origin, retaining the gaiety and politeness of the French, blended with the abstemiousness and indolence of the Indian,’” Husley said. “In 1817, the Coast was still virtually isolated, living hand to mouth, with nothing in common with agrarian Mississippi. Then New Orleans began to grow and so did the Mississippi Coast.”

On Dec. 10, 1817, Mississippi became the 20th state of the Union. Alabama followed suit two years later.

Diverse histories

These diverse and segmented histories create jigsaw puzzles for academically trained historians such as Sullivan and Husley, who are joined by a cadre of local historians spending decades assembling the pieces in books, articles, videos and lectures to put local people, places and events into perspective.

Digital technology, which does away with hand-locating old documents for research, makes the hunt and dissemination of accurate history easier.

History overload?

At no other time has the state and Coast known so much about itself. History conveyors have come a long way from the 17th and 18th century when early explorers and settlers shared campfire stories among themselves and with native Americans. A few even kept journals.

One of the first Coast descriptions comes from French Colonial expedition leader Pierre le Moyne, sieur d’Iberville, who wrote of his February 1699 Coast landing:

“The trees here are very fine, mixed: We are seeing many plum trees in bloom, tracks of turkeys; partridges which are no bigger than quail; hares like the ones in France; some rather good oysters.”

In past centuries, France and 1699 were touted as the Coast’s beginnings. Today we are more aware that 10,000 years before European royalty laid claims on the New World, native Americans lived on Mississippi’s coast. The temperate weather, agricultural possibilities, abundant seafood and natural resources then and now have attracted people here.

After Iberville tasted Mississippi Sound oysters, 118 years passed before the region became part of the 20th state. Sketchy census numbers show about 76,000 people on the land that would become Mississippi the next year. As the state celebrates 200 years, that population has risen to nearly 3 million.

Population growth

As for the six counties carved from the original two coastal counties, that combined population has jumped from a scant 2,000 in 1816 to 460,000 today. If a region or entire state is to be judged by the ebb and flow of its people, then those numbers are significant.

But the “influencers” of the intervening 200 years best tell the bicentennial story. Among them are hurricanes, several wars, yellow fever, a laid-back but resilient people, industrialization, tourism, seawall building, lumbering, seafood, agriculture, improved transportation, civil rights, space exploration, gambling and even an oil spill.

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.

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