Hernando De Soto's expedition undoubtedly passed (1540–42) through the region, then inhabited by the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez, but the first permanent European settlement was not made until 1699, when Pierre le Moyne, sieur d'Iberville, established a French colony on Biloxi Bay. Settlement accelerated in 1718, when the colony came under the French Mississippi Company, headed by the speculator John Law. The region was part of Louisiana until 1763, when, by the Treaty of Paris (see Paris, Treaty of) England received practically all the French territory E of the Mississippi River and also East Florida and West Florida, which had belonged to Spain.
English colonists, many of them retired soldiers, had made the Natchez district a thriving agricultural community, producing tobacco and indigo, by the time Bernardo de Gálvez captured it for Spain in 1779. By the Treaty of Paris of 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, the United States (with English approval) claimed as its southern boundary in the West lat. 31°N. Most of the present-day state of Mississippi was included in the area. Spain denied this claim, and the long, involved West Florida Controversy ensued.
In the Pinckney Treaty (1795), Spain accepted lat. 31°N as the northern boundary of its territory but did not evacuate Natchez until the arrival of American troops in 1798. Congress immediately created the Mississippi Territory, with Natchez as the capital and William C. C. Claiborne as the governor. After Georgia's cession (1802) of its Western lands to the United States (see Yazoo land fraud) and the Louisiana Purchase (1803), a land boom swept Mississippi. The high price of cotton and the cheap, fertile land brought settlers thronging in, most of them via the Natchez Trace, from the Southern Piedmont region and even from New England. A few attained great wealth, but most simply managed a living.
In 1817 Mississippi became a state, with substantially its present-day boundaries; the eastern section of the Mississippi Territory was organized as Alabama Territory. The aristocratic planter element of the Natchez region initially dominated Mississippi's government, as the state's first constitution (1817) showed. With the spread of Jacksonian democracy, however, the small farmer came into his own, and the new constitution adopted in 1832 was quite liberal for its time.
Land hunger increased as more new settlers arrived, lured by the continuing cotton boom. By a series of treaties (1820, 1830, and 1832), the Native Americans in the state were pushed west across the Mississippi. Mississippians were among the leading Southern expansionists seeking new land for cotton cultivation and the extension of slavery. After 1840 slaves in the state outnumbered nonslaves.
On Jan. 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union. State pride was highly gratified by the choice of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. Civil War fighting did not reach Mississippi until Apr., 1862, when Union forces were victorious at Corinth and Iuka. Grant's brilliant Vicksburg campaign ended large-scale fighting in the state, but further destruction was caused by the army of Gen. W. T. Sherman in the course of its march from Vicksburg to Meridian. Moreover, cavalry of both the North and South, particularly the Confederate forces of Gen. N. B. Forrest, remained active.
After the war Mississippi abolished slavery but refused to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and in Mar., 1867, under the Congressional plan of Reconstruction, it was organized with Arkansas into a military district commanded by Gen. E. O. C. Ord. After much agitation, a Republican-sponsored constitution guaranteeing basic rights to blacks was adopted in 1869. Mississippi was readmitted to the Union early in 1870 after ratifying the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and meeting other Congressional requirements.
While Republicans were in power, the state government was composed of new immigrants from the North, blacks, and cooperative white Southerners. A. K. Davis became the state's first African-American lieutenant governor in 1874. The establishment of free public schools was a noteworthy aspect of Republican rule. As former Confederates were permitted to return to politics and former slaves were increasingly intimidated (see Ku Klux Klan), the Democrats regained strength. The Republicans were defeated in the bitter election of 1875. Lucius Q. C. Lamar figured largely in the Democratic triumph and was the state's most prominent national figure for many years.
In Reconstruction days the Republicans could win only with solid African-American support. After Reconstruction blacks were virtually disenfranchised. White supremacy was bolstered by the Constitution of 1890, later used as a model by other Southern states; under its terms a prospective voter could be required to read and interpret any of the Constitution's provisions. Because at the turn of the century most black Mississippians could not read (neither could many whites, but the test was rarely applied to them) and because the county registrar could disqualify prospective voters who disagreed with his interpretation of the Constitution, African Americans were essentially disenfranchised.
From the ruins of the shattered plantation economy rose the sharecropping system, and the merchant and the banker replaced the planter in having the largest financial interest in farming. Too often the system made the sharecroppers, white as well as black, little more than economic slaves. The landowners, however, maintained their hold on politics until 1904, when the small farmers, still the dominant voting group, elected James K. Vardaman governor. Nevertheless this agrarian revolt did not alter a deep-seated obscurantism that was reflected in the Jim Crow laws (1904) and in the ban on teaching evolution in the public schools (1926). Mississippi has made attempts to wipe out illiteracy, but it still has the highest illiteracy rate in the country. Another reflection of the social structure of the state was Prohibition, put into effect in 1908 and not repealed at the local level until 1959.
Following the disastrous flood of 1927 the federal government took over flood-control work—constructing levees, floodwalls, floodways, and reservoirs; stabilizing river banks; and improving channels. Navigation, too, has not been neglected; the Intracoastal Waterway provides a protected channel along the entire Mississippi coastline and links the state's ports with all others along the Gulf Coast and with all inland waterway systems emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, opened in 1985, connects the Tennessee River in NE Mississippi with the Tombigbee River in W Alabama.
Mississippi is still plagued by racial problems, which have changed the state's alignment in national politics. In 1948 Mississippi abandoned the Democratic party because of the national Democratic party's stand on civil rights, and the state supported J. Strom Thurmond, the States' Rights party candidate, for president. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racial segregation in public schools (see integration) occasioned massive resistance. Citizens Councils, composed solely of white men and dedicated to maintaining segregation, began to spring up throughout the state. In the 1960 presidential election Mississippians again rebelled against the Democratic national platform by giving victory at the polls to unpledged electors, who cast their electoral college votes not for John F. Kennedy but for Harry F. Byrd, the conservative senator from Virginia. In 1964 the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater carried the state; in 1968 presidential candidate Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, who had become famous for opposing integration, won the state.
In 1961 mass arrests and violence were touched off when Freedom Riders, actively seeking to spur integration, made Mississippi a major target. However, there was not even token integration of public schools in Mississippi until 1962, when the state government under the leadership of Gov. Ross R. Barnett tried unsuccessfully to block the admission of James H. Meredith, an African American, to the Univ. of Mississippi law school. In the conflict the federal and state governments clashed, and the U.S. Dept. of Justice took legal action against state officials, including Barnett. Two persons were killed in riots, and federal troops had to be called upon to restore order. Racial antagonisms resulted in many more acts of violence: churches and homes were bombed; Medgar Evers, an official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was killed in 1963; three civil-rights workers (two white, one black) were murdered the next year; and there were many less publicized outrages.
After the passage of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, many black Mississippians succeeded in registering and voting. In 1967, for the first time since 1890, a black was elected to the legislature, and African Americans, almost 36% of the state's citizens, are now as well represented in Mississippi politics as in any state, with a large degree of cross-racial voting. In spite of these advances, in 1992 it was necessary for the U.S. Supreme Court to order the state college system to end its tradition of segregation.
In Aug., 1969, Mississippi and Louisiana were devastated by Camille, one of the century's worst hurricanes. In Apr., 1973, the Mississippi River rose to record levels in the state; floodwaters covered about 9% of Mississippi, including parts of Vicksburg and Natchez, causing massive property damage. Economic problems continued in the 1980s and 1990s, as the state struggled to shift emphasis from manufacturing to the service sector and to avoid the national trend of industrial decline. Mississippi and Louisiana again suffered widespread devastation, even greater than that from Camille, when Hurricane Katrina struck both states in Aug., 2005.