Guest Essayist: Clay Williams

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Mississippi followed a long, winding path to reach statehood. Following thousands of years of various Native Americans inhabiting the landscape, European powers burst upon the scene in the 1500s. Between then and the late 1700s, Spain, France and England had all claimed at least portions of the area we now know of as Mississippi. When the fledgling United States acquired the area in the late eighteenth century, it took nearly twenty years before Mississippi became this nation’s twentieth state.

Congress established the Mississippi Territory on April 7, 1798. Spain had claimed a large portion of the area but had given up much of its rights by 1795. Initially, this region consisted of a strip of land between the Mississippi and Chattahoochee Rivers but by 1812, it encompassed all of the present-day states of Mississippi and Alabama. The territorial government consisted of a governor, three judges and a secretary who served as a ruling council. Once the population level reached a certain number, the territory could apply for the second territorial stage which included an elected assembly and a delegate to Congress. Eventually, a territory could apply for statehood.

The new government faced a variety of difficult issues: conflicting land claims, tense relations with Native Americans, and the continuing interference of the Spanish. Severe political factionalism also dominated territorial politics which hampered the Mississippi Territory’s governors as they attempted to deal with these problems. It was not until near the end of the territorial period when the area’s residents became focused on the drive for statehood and the political rivalry began to subside.

The residents of the Mississippi Territory were primarily former British or Spanish citizens or natives of other parts of the United States who had migrated to the region in pursuit of land and opportunity. Following the conclusion of the Creek War in 1814, the most important event in the development of the region, a flood of immigration into the region occurred. By the time of Mississippi’s statehood in 1817, the area’s population had swelled to over 200,000

While the Territory remained overwhelmingly rural, it included several noteworthy towns such as Washington, Port Gibson, Mobile, and Huntsville. Natchez was by far the most important town in the Territory. Laid out by the Spanish in the late 1700s, the city became the cultural and economic center of the Territory as well as the seat of political power throughout the period.

Whether they lived in a city or in the countryside, most Mississippi Territory citizens’ lives revolved around agriculture. Cotton became by far the most profitable and important crop. Just as importantly, the profitability of cotton production gave rise to the widespread growth of slavery in the Mississippi Territory. Slaves had first been brought into the region during the colonial era, but it was during the territorial period that their population grew in significant numbers. The institution exerted great influence on the Territory’s economy and laid the foundation for a pattern of economic and social development that would dominate much of Mississippi’s history for the next fifty years.

Arguments over whether the Mississippi Territory would enter the union as one state or two had begun almost immediately after its organization in 1798. Aware of the economic and political dominance of their portion of the Territory, many western residents, specifically those in the along the Mississippi River near Natchez favored admission as a single state so that they might maintain their influence. Many eastern residents in the Mobile region, however, initially felt that their interests were neglected due to the great distance between themselves and the territorial capital as well as other inherent differences in economy and lifestyle. After the Creek War, however, the situation reversed. The population of the eastern section of the Territory grew rapidly as settlers migrated onto former Creek lands. Realizing the potential to exert more influence on any new state of which they were to be a part, many eastern section residents now began to favor admission of the Territory as one state. Sensing the future diminishment of their influence, those in the western section now advocated division.

In the end, Congress divided the territory in large part to allow four new seats in the Senate instead of just two. President James Madison signed the enabling act that granted admission of the western section of the Territory as the state of Mississippi on March 1, 1817; the eastern section was organized as the Alabama Territory at the same time. The line of division, which still serves as the boundary between Mississippi and Alabama today, was designed to be a compromise between the wishes of western and eastern residents of the Territory although many residents of both areas remained unhappy.

In July of 1817, forty-eight delegates from Mississippi’s fourteen counties met to draft the new state’s constitution. The constitution established Mississippi’s government and recognized Natchez as the state’s capital. This charter document kept power in the hands of the few as only white men of property could vote or hold office. Many statewide elected officials were elected by the legislature and the amendment process was difficult.  In keeping with its agricultural roots, slavery was expressly protected. President James Monroe on December 10, 1817, signed the resolution that admitted Mississippi as the nation’s twentieth state. Territorial governor David Holmes won election as the state’s first governor. Electors also chose George Poindexter as its only congressman and Walter Leake and Thomas H. Williams as its first senators.

Mississippi has since written three more constitutions over the past two hundred years. The next constitution written in 1832 mirrored the Jacksonian age by expanding those who can participate in government to all white men. After the Civil War, the 1868 constitution extended voting rights to all men, regardless of race. The state’s current constitution, written in 1890, reversed these democratic gains by requiring poll taxes and literacy tests to qualify to vote. These measures decimated the number of registered African American voters; measures that were not overturned til the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Clay Williams serves as Sites Administrator for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History where he oversees operations for six museum sites (Eudora Welty House and Garden, the Manship House Museum, the Old Capitol Museum, Winterville Mounds, Historic Jefferson College, and the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.)  He has been published several times in such venues as the Journal of Mississippi History, The Mississippi Encyclopedia, and Mississippi History Now. His first book, Battle for the Southern Frontier, the Creek War and the War of 1812, co-authored with Mike Bunn, was published in July 2008 from The History Press.  He is currently under contract to co-write a volume with the Heritage of Mississippi Series on Frontier Mississippi (1800-1840).

 

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