Mississippi is located in the deep South on the Gulf of Mexico, between Louisiana and Alabama. The entire state is heavily wooded except for the delta area which was cleared for cotton cultivation in the early 1800’s. The elevation is very low and the land very flat. Rivers flow through the wooded plains and into the Gulf or into the Mississippi River which runs along the western border of the state. The climate is hot, subtropical with long humid summers and short mild winters. Snow falls only very occasionally, especially the further south in the state you go. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and annual flooding are frequent natural hazards in Mississippi. The flat land, the regular flooding, and the warm climate make Mississippi very fertile for farming.
Mississippi was inhabited by the Mississippian mound building culture anciently. Later the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Biloxi, Yazoo, and Natchez tribes lived in this area. Europeans first explored the area with the Hernando de Soto expedition of 1540. The first European settlement was at Old Biloxi, settled in 1699 by French colonists.In 1716 the French founded Natchez, which became the largest city and trading center of the “New Louisiana” region. The French lost the Mississippi area after the French and Indian War and then it passed into American hands after the War of Independence which ended officially in 1783.
Mississippi territory was organized in 1798 from lands ceded by Georgia and South Carolina. American settlers poured west to Mississippi in search of open land to make into plantations. Land had been purchased form several tribes to create space for these settlers. The settlers were mostly slave holding southerners or poor white southerners. Cotton plantations became almost the only economic base of Mississippi. By 1817 Mississippi had enough of a population to be admitted as the 20th state.
The extreme heat and hard labor required on the cotton plantations, along with sometimes brutal punishment meted by slave owners, meant that new slaves were always needed to replace those worn out or killed by their harsh environment. Slaves were frequently “sold down the river” to Mississippi plantations, breaking up slave families. By 1820 laws prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment” of slaves in Mississippi were necessary to enact.
Civil War Era
By the 1850’s the white plantation owners owned vast tracts of land along the rivers where they grew nothing but cotton with nothing but slave labor. They became fabulously wealthy and lived like European nobility. The gap between rich whites and poor whites and blacks was enormous. The rich whites were highly motivated to maintain the status quo and so when political fervor over slavery reached a fever pitch with the election of Abraham Lincoln, those in power in Mississippi voted without hesitation to secede with the rest of the South.
After the Civil War the economy of Mississippi was ruined and the political power of the rich planters was destroyed. Freed blacks, blacks from the north, and poor whites gained control of government, instituting republican values and equality under the law for all. They also joined the Republican party in droves. Mississippi was restored to the Union in 1877, ending Reconstruction. By 1890 two-thirds of the land-owning farmers of Mississippi were black. But with the fall of cotton prices and several short but severe depressions many blacks lost their land, having to sell off to large white land owners. Some became share croppers, returning to a state of near slavery, and others moved to the cities. Slowly the rich whites gained power once again, disenfranchising the poor, which included a disproportionate amount of blacks, but also many whites, and instituting Jim Crow laws. The rich white Democrats began lynching anyone who voted Republican, white or black.
From the 1940’s through the 1970’s poor people, especially blacks, who were barred from education and jobs, flooded north to cities like Chicago and Detroit where they could find work. Over half a million people exited the state during these years. The Jim Crow laws ended with the Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s.
Today the total population of Mississippi is about 2.9 million. It is the poorest state with the lowest per capita income. Yet it ranks as one of the highest per capita in charitable giving. Following the Civil War years the state was very slow to improve infrastructure such as roads and levees. They were also extremely reluctant to provide education, especially for the poor and blacks. Therefore the economy was difficult and slow to industrialize and many residents remained trapped in poverty. Poverty and lack of opportunities for the poor in rural areas is still a big problem in Mississippi.
Fabulous Facts About Mississippi
- The state constitution declares that “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.”
- The Amtrack train, City of New Orleans, runs through Mississippi. Here’s the song
- Black and white Republicans were the first to establish schools for blacks during Reconstruction in the 1870’s. Before that there were no schools for black children at all in Mississippi. Julius Rosenwald, owner of Sears Roebuck, established funds with which to establish schools for blacks in rural areas, which otherwise could never have afforded schools.
- Blues and Jazz music are from Mississippi and its neighbors in the South.
- In the 1960s U Miss surgeons performed the first successful human lung transplant.
- Elvis Presley was born in the town of Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935.
- The Flexible Flyer sled was produced in Mississippi. Where they have no snow. Yup.
- Friendship Cemetery in Columbus was the home of the Memorial Day celebrations in the US when women decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers after the Civil War.
- Walter “The Refrigerator” Payton is a famous football player from Mississippi.
- Natchez once had more than 500 millionaires, second only to New York City in all the world.
- Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Jim Henson and Oprah Winfrey are all from Mississippi.
- The first black man to serve in the US Senate, Hiram Revels (1870), was from Mississippi.
Map of Mississippi Exploration
Download our free printable Mississippi Map. It’s pretty plain on purpose so you can customize it and make your kids fill it in. We include the border, some of the major rivers, dots for a few of the major cities and the longitude and latitude marks.
Things to label with the aid of a student atlas:
- Mississippi River
- Pearl River
- Yazoo River
- Gulf of Mexico
- Jackson (capital)
- Before the Civil War some free blacks in Mississippi and every other slave holding state had slaves of their own. In some cases they had purchased their spouse and children and because of strict laws were unable to free them, but in many more cases they used the labor of other human beings to enrich themselves. You can read about the slave owning blacks in this article.
- Which principles of good government did the early people of Mississippi offend that led to such abuses of the poor, both black and white? How did they stray from the ideals of the United States Constitution?
- If you had influence in Mississippi what steps would you take to improve the financial condition of the people? Which policies would be most effective and which would be longest lasting?
- Learn more about a famous person from Mississippi. What was their childhood like? What struggles did they overcome to achieve their successes?
- Mississippi is a Gulf state. Find out how the Horizon oil disaster affected the economy of Mississippi.
- What happened to the native people who once lived in Mississippi? Where did they end up? Were they treated fairly by the Europeans who replaced them? Research one or more of the tribes and find out.