Mississippi Territory

Mississippi Territory
Territory of Mississippi
Organized incorporated territory of the United States




Flag of Mississippi Territory


Location of Mississippi Territory
Government Organized incorporated territory
 - Established April 7 1798
 - Georgia recognizes its present borders 1802
 - Georgia cession added to Mississippi Territory 1804
 - Mobile District annexed 1812
 - Alabama Territory created March 3, 1817
 - Statehood December 10 1817
~ Mississippi Territory ~
Issue of 1948

The Territory of Mississippi was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from April 7, 1798, until December 10, 1817, when the final extent of the territory was admitted to the Union as the state of Mississippi.

The Mississippi Territory was expanded in 1804 and again in 1812 until it extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the southern border of Tennessee. (Georgia gave up the northern portion in 1802, and the Gulf Coast region was acquired from Spain.) Originally Mississippi Territory included what is now Alabama, and 9 months before Mississippi was admitted into the Union in 1817, the Alabama Territory to the east was separated out on March 3. [1] On December 10, 1817, Mississippi was admitted to the Union as the 20th state.[1]

The Mississippi Territory was organized in 1798 from land that had been disputed by the U.S. and Spain until Spain ceded its claim with the Treaty of Madrid initially signed between the two countries representatives in 1795. This area extended from 31° N latitude to 32°28' North, or approximately the southern half of the present states of Alabama and Mississippi.

The state of Georgia maintained a claim over almost the entire area of the present states of Alabama and Mississippi (from 31° N to 35° N) until it surrendered its claim in 1802 following the Yazoo land scandal. Two years later, Congress extended the boundaries of the Mississippi Territory to include all of the Georgia cession.

The final boundary between Georgia and Mississippi Territory was defined to follow the Chattahoochee River north from the border with Spanish Florida. However the Chattahoochee's upper course veers northeast, deep into Georgia. So the boundary was defined to follow the river until it turned northeast, and then to follow a straight line north to the 35th parallel (whose role in state borders dates back to the split of North and South Carolina in 1730). The line was not run straight north but rather angled to meet the northern border of the territory one-third of the way west, leaving the other two-thirds for two future states (Alabama and Mississippi—though their angled boundary ended up stopping at the Tennessee River).[2]

In 1812, the United States annexed to the Mississippi Territory the Mobile District of West Florida, claiming that it was included in the Louisiana Purchase, although Spain disputed this and maintained its claim over the area. In the following year, General James Wilkinson occupied this district with a military force, the Spanish commandant offering no resistance. This annexation gave to Mississippi Territory the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between the Perdido River and the Pearl River (comprising what is now part of Alabama).

On March 3, 1817, the Mississippi Territory was divided, when the western portion became the state of Mississippi, and the eastern became the Alabama Territory,[1] with St. Stephens, on the Tombigbee River, as the temporary seat of government.

Congress delineated the boundary between Mississippi and Alabama by dividing the territory into approximately equal sized parts, similar in size to Georgia. The agriculturally productive lands were divided by a straight line running south from the northwest corner of Washington County (as it was defined at the time) to the Gulf of Mexico. The border north of this point was angled eastward in order to keep Mississippi and Alabama roughly equal in size. At its northern end this angled border follows a short section of the Tennessee River. Congress chose this boundary because if the straight line had been run all the way to the Tennessee border Mississippi would have jurisdiction over a small piece of hilly land cut off from the rest of the state by the wide Tennessee River.[2]



The attraction of vast amounts of high quality, inexpensive cotton land attracted hordes of settlers, mostly from Georgia and the Carolinas and from tobacco areas of Virginia and North Carolina at a time when growing tobacco barely made a profit. From 1798 through 1820 the population soared from less than 9,000 to more than 222,000. Migration came in two fairly distinct waves - a steady movement until the outbreak of the War of 1812 and a flood from 1815 through 1819. The postwar flood was caused by various factors including high prices for cotton, the elimination of Indian titles to much land, new and improved roads, and the acquisition of new direct outlets to the Gulf of Mexico. The first migrants were traders and trappers, then herdsmen, and finally farmers. The Southwest frontier produced a relatively democratic society.[3]


After 1800 the development of a cotton economy in the South changed the economic relationship of native Indians with whites and slaves in Mississippi Territory. As Indians ceded their lands to whites, they became more isolated from whites and blacks. A great wave of public sales of former Indian land plus white migration (with slaves) into Mississippi Territory guaranteed the dominance of the developing cotton agriculture.[4]


William C. C. Claiborne (1775–1817), a lawyer and former Democratic-Republican Congressman from Tennessee (1797–1801), was governor and superintendent of Indian affairs in the Mississippi Territory from 1801 through 1803. Although he favored acquiring some land from the Choctaw and Chicasaw, Claiborne was generally sympathetic and conciliatory toward Indians. He worked long and patiently to iron out differences that arose, and to improve the material well-being of the Indians. He was also partly successful in promoting the establishment of law and order, as when his offering of a two thousand dollar reward helped destroy a gang of outlaws headed by Samuel Mason (1750–1803). His position on issues indicated a national rather than regional outlook, though he did not ignore his constituents. Claiborne expressed the philosophy of the Republican Party and helped that party defeat the Federalists. When a smallpox epidemic broke out in the spring of 1802, Claiborne's actions resulted in the first recorded mass vaccination in the territory and saved Natchez from the disease.[5][6]

David Holmes was the last governor of the Mississippi Territory, 1809-17. Holmes was generally successful in dealing with a variety of matters, including expansion, land policy, Indians, the War of 1812, and the constitutional convention of 1817 (of which he was elected president). Often concerned with problems regarding West Florida, he had a major role in 1810 in negotiations which led to the peaceful occupation of part of that territory. McCain (1967) concludes that Holmes' success was not based on brilliance, but upon kindness, unselfishness, persuasiveness, courage, honesty, diplomacy, and intelligence.[7]

The eastern half of the Mississippi Territory was labeled the Tombigbee District and later Washington County. Ignored by the territorial government, the inhabitants were beset by hostile neighbors, militant Indians, and the usual frontier problems of land claims and establishment of law. Solutions to these difficulties came slowly, and were not completely resolved when the territory gained statehood as part of Alabama in 1819.[8]


Contrary to the theory that the abundance of land would create distinctly American democratic institutions, English common law dominated the development of the judicial system in the Mississippi Territory. The citizenry considered the laws imposed by Winthrop Sargent, the territory's Yankee governor, as repressive and unconstitutional. 'Sargent's Code,' however unpopular, established the first court system for the territory and served as the precedent for later revisions. An 1802 judiciary act considerably simplified the court system. Several judicial reorganization acts followed in 1805, 1809, and 1814, though a modified form of Sargent's county court system and the considerable power held by judges continued. While the credentials of the members of the first territorial court were questionable, the quality of judges in later courts steadily grew. Recounts the tenures of several of the territorial court's judges.[9]


While the Catholic Church was active along the coast, Protestant religious activities began inland in the Mississippi Territory after 1799. Free thought, skepticism, deism or indifference to religion were characteristic of the wealthy planters and land speculators, as newcomers were far more interested in seeking riches in this world than in the next. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians formed the three leading denominations in the territory. Protestant ministers won converts, often promoted education, and had some influence in improving the treatment of slaves.[10]

War of 1812

The people of the Mississippi Territory demanded entry into war with Britain in 1812. By 1810 belief in the national policy of economic coercion was waning in the Southwest, while desire for unrestricted trade as well as for vindication of national honor was rising, intermingled with desire for Spanish Florida. Problems of land claims, Indians, internal improvements, and statehood issues continued, however, to excite more local interest than the coming of war. Most saw no conflict between war issues and local interests; in fact, some foresaw war as a way of resolving certain local problems.[11] Following a successful attack on a white expedition at the Battle of Burnt Corn, the Red Sticks, a hostile faction of the Creeks, determined to attack and destroy Fort Mims in the eastern part Mississippi Territory. Poor scouting, an attack at noon when most of the garrison was eating, seizure of the port holes by the Indians, and inability to close the main gates were all elements in the defeat on 30 August 1813. Of the 275 to 300 whites and half-breeds in Fort Mims at the time of the attack, between 20 and 40 escaped; therefore, around 247-260 whites, half-breeds and friendly Indians were killed in the battle. Creek losses were at least 100 killed. The massacre had significant short- and long-range implications. Immediately, the fall of the fort started a major Indian war in the South that resulted in a substantial build-up of American forces in the area - which probably prevented the British from occupying an undefended Gulf Coast in 1814. More important, the relationships between Americans and the Southern Indians drastically changed. The Creeks, who had been living peacefully and in close contact with the settlers of the Mississippi Territory, lost more than half their land, and within 20 years had to move west of the Mississippi. Brigadier General Ferdinand L. Claiborne, commander of the Mississippi militia, was not to blame for the massacre, but Major Daniel Beasley was guilty of gross negligence. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814) on March 27, 1814, United States forces and Indian allies under General Andrew Jackson defeated the Red Sticks, killing most of the warriors and sending the rest fleeing to Florida where they joined the Seminole tribe.[12]

Further reading

  • Guice, John D. W. "The Cement of Society: Law in the Mississippi Territory," Gulf Coast Historical Review 1986 1(2): 76-99
  • Hatfield, Joseph T. "Governor William Claiborne, Indians, and Outlaws in Frontier Mississippi, 1801-1803," Journal of Mississippi History 1965 27(4): 323-350
  • Haynes, Robert V. "Territorial Mississippi, 1798-1817," Journal of Mississippi History 2002 64(4): 283-305
  • Haynes, Robert V. "Historians and the Mississippi Territory," Journal of Mississippi History 1967 29(4): 409-428, historiography
  • Haynes, Robert Vaughn. The Mississippi Territory and the Southwest Frontier, 1795-1817 (University Press of Kentucky; 2010) 431 pages
  • Lowery, Charles D. "The Great Migration to the Mississippi Territory, 1798-1819," Journal of Mississippi History 1968 30(3): 173-192
  • Moore, Margaret Deschamps. "Protestantism in the Mississippi Territory," Journal of Mississippi History 1967 29(4): 358-370
  • Usner, Jr., Daniel H. "American Indians on the Cotton Frontier: Changing Economic Relations with Citizens and Slaves in the Mississippi Territory," Journal of American History 1985 72(2): 297-317 in JSTOR</

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Timeline 1811-1820" (events +sources), Algis Ratnikas, Timelines of History, 2007, webpage: TL-Miss.
  2. ^ a b Stein, Mark (2008). How the States Got Their Shapes (paperback edition). HarperCollins. pp. 11–17. ISBN 978-0-06-143138-8. 
  3. ^ Lowery (1968)
  4. ^ Daniel H. Usner, Jr., "American Indians on the Cotton Frontier: Changing Economic Relations with Citizens and Slaves in the Mississippi Territory," Journal of American History 1985 72(2): 297-317 in JSTOR
  5. ^ Hatfield (1965)
  6. ^ Laura D. S. Harrell, "Preventive Medicine in the Mississippi Territory, 1799-1802," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 1966 40(4): 364-375
  7. ^ William D.; McCain, "The Administrations of David Holmes, Governor of the Mississippi Territory, 1809-1817," Journal of Mississippi History 1967 29(4): 328-347
  8. ^ Robert V. Haynes, "Early Washington County, Alabama," Alabama Review 1965 18(3): 183-200
  9. ^ Guice (1986)
  10. ^ Moore (1967)
  11. ^ Robert V. Haynes, "The Southwest and the War of 1812," Louisiana History 1964 5(1): 41-51
  12. ^ Frank L. Owsley, Jr., The Fort Mims Massacre. Alabama Review; 1971 24(3): 192-204

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