Pearl River County, Mississippi
Historical Sketch of the County
The county obtained its name from the stream called the "River of pearls" by French explorers who discovered it in 1699. One Penicaut, a member of the expedition says in his annals, "Here we found those shells with which Indians scrape out their canoes after burning. Beautiful pearls are sometimes found in those shells. We presented some two dozen or more to M. Bienville, our commander.
[Dunbar Rowland, Mississippi the Heart of the South, vol. II, p. 166]
Because Pearl County was unable to maintain itself, chiefly through the lack of development, the organization act was repealed in 1878. Its territory was returned to Hancock and Marion Counties and the records made during the six years of its existence were deposited with the two older counties. (Laws, 1878, pp. 153-154)
A thriving sawmill and lumbering business grew up during the next few years making it possible to re-establish the county as pearl River County, the same land being taken again from Hancock and Marion Counties to form the new county (Laws, 1890, pp 89-91). The boundaries were described as follows: "beginning at the point in the middle of Pearl River, in the center between townships 4 and 5 in the county of Hancock, thence running east through ranges 18, 17, 16, 15 and 14 to the line between ranges 13 and 14; thence north on said line to a point one mile north of the 31st parallel of north latitude; thence west to the dividing line between ranges 15 and 16; thence south to said 31st parallel; thence west along said 31st parallel to the center of Pearl River; thence southwest along the thread of the stream to the point of beginning". Poplarville was made the county seat and the first officers were appointed by the governor. Pearl River County is bounded at present on the north by Marion and Lamar Counties; on the east by Forest and Stone Counties; on the south by Hancock County, and on the west by Pearl River which separates it from the Louisiana Parishes of Tammany and Washington. The boundaries were change din 1904 when some of the ocunty's northern territory was taken in the formation of Lamar County (Laws, 1904, Chapt. 102) and were changed again in 1908 when an area 9 miles in depth was obtained from Hancock County (Laws, 1908, p. 89)
The region in which Pearl River County is situated, known alternately as West Florida, the Mobile District, and the Mississippi gulf Coast section, was explored by the French brother Le Moyne d'Iberville and de Bienville in 1699 and 1700 after they had established a base at Biloxi on the coast. The section was part of the vast territory belonging to the Choctaw Indians but they used it mainly as a hunting and fishing ground, making regular excursions to the coast to eat the oysters which they found along the river. Huge piles of shells near the coast show that this custom was followed for many years prior to the coming of the French.
A map of the Mississippi region and Province of Louisiana by Elder Homan, dated 1687, but evidently published in the first part of the 18th century, shows that the Colopissa Indians lived on the lower reaches of the Pearl River. Legend has it that the Colopissa or Accolopissa Indians originated from the Five Town tribes of the Choctaw Indians. A group of braves, because of the pleas of the maidens they were wooing, refused to make war on the French. the braves were banished from the tribes but they held to Choctaw customs and took the name of Accolopissa, meaning "no homes". They were the smallest tribe numerically in the South. They became the ardent friends of the whites and established themselves in the lower southern sectors of Mississippi and Louisiana. It is believed that this small tribe withdrew entirely from the Mississippi region to Louisiana after France lost the territory to the English in 1763
[J.H. Bailey, Commentaries, Southern Indian Tribes, pp. 401-402]
[Transcribed and Submitted by Kim T.]
The early settlers of Hancock County from which came a part of the land that formed Pearl River county, were clustered principally on the coast, engaged mainly in the fishing and oyster business. The original pioneers of Marion County which furnished the remainder of Pearl River County's area, turned to farming and to the sawmill and lumbering industries. The seepage from the population centers of these two counties, in which 17,840 people lived in 1890 (11th Census of the U.S.) was sufficiently large at that time to establish and maintain the new county supported by flourishing lumbering and turpentine businesses and a fairly prosperous agricultural development.
When the county was re-created on February 22, 1890, Poplarville was made the county seat (Laws, 1890, pp. 89-91). The first officers, appointed by the governor, were A.F. Rawls, P.E. Williams, James Smith, Joseph E. Wheat, and Thomas Martin, members of the board of supervisors; James M. Shivers, sheriff and tax collector; Rufus L. Ratliff, circuit and chancery clerk; Eli P. Stewart, assessor; and Andrew Smith, treasurer. By 1892 a two-story brick courthouse was erected. The three story brick and stone courthouse now in use was built in 1918 (Minutes, Board of Supervisors, may 10, 1918, pp. 12-13). The first building is utilized as a public school.
The population of Pearl River County, 2,957 in 1890 (11th Census of the U.S.), by 1930 had increased to 19, 405, of which 14,209 were native white and 5,149 were Negro (15th Census of the U.S.). Lumbering continues to be the principal industry, augmented by the production of turpentine and other naval stores. There are 57,835 acres of timbered lands in the county assessed, exclusive of timber, at $224,265. The timber, estimated at 38,398,611 board feet, was assessed at $3,153,465 (Report of the State Tax Commission, 1936, p. 65), better than 50 percent of the $6,005,761 total assessed valuation of all property. Of the county's 797 square miles of area, only three and one-half percent is under cultivation (Biennial Report of the Secretary of State to the Legislature of Mississippi, 1933-35, p. 213). In 1936 agricultural products raised in the river and creek bottoms and on the cleared lands had a total value of $709,912 including $67,261 in cotton, $186,027 in corn, and $456,624 in vegetables and leguminous crops (Bulletin, Report of Agricultural Production in Mississippi in 1936, State Department of Agriculture). Dairying and livestock raising have become increasingly important in recent years as the farmers have come to realize that the county's excellent grazing lands afford good pasturage. In addition, the sandy soil that predominates on the uplands has been found to be adaptable to the cultivation of tung trees. There has been a steady development in the production of highly valuable tung oil from the nuts of the trees, especially in the vicinity of the town of Picayune in the southwestern corner of the county. Poplarville, the county seat, with a population of 1,498 in 1930 (15th census of the U.S.) is situated in the north central section of the county on U.S. Highway 11 and on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. The Pearl River Valley Railroad runs between Nicholson and Rowlands in the western part of the county, while the Mississippi Southern Railroad covers the eastern portion.
[Excerpted from: "Inventory of the County Archives of Mississippi: Pearl River County"; Prepared by The Historical Division of Women's and Works Progress Records Survey Professional Projects Administration; February 1938]
[Transcribed and Submitted by Kim T.]
From the Hattiesburg American (Hattiesburg, Mississippi), dated August 9, 1928:
Ex-Slave Sees Poplarville As Overcrowded Plantation
Poplarville, Miss., August 9 – As seen through the reminiscing eyes of “Uncle” Ike Rayford, humble, courteous former slave, the city of Poplarville is today just an overcrowded plantation. And to him the visualized plantation is the estate of his former owner, the late “Poplar” Jim Smith, from whom the city received its name, and who was the first white settler here.
Uncle Ike is a familiar sight on Poplarville’s main thoroughfare, where he spends his leisure time between assignments of mowing lawns. Aged, white-haired and bent, the old man attracts an interested gathering whenever he talks of Main Street in the days when it was just a cow trail running through the center of “Marse Jim’s” plantation.
When the old negro was purchased as a small boy by “Poplar” Jim for $700, he was known as a “cow-pen boy,” his duty being, as he terms it, “to tend to de calves.” The Civil War and the hated Yankees promoted Uncle Ike from the cow-pen to the fence “jam.” When word reached the Smith plantation that the enemy was approaching, Ike was posted in the “jam” to warn the household of their approach.
On being freed at the close of the war, Ike was claimed by his father, and taken to Pearl River for five years. There he married Milly, a former slave girl of Miss Louise Askew. Milly lives with him in their shanty here at Poplarville.
Next to his “Marse Jim” and his Milly, Uncle Ike bestows most of his affection on his eldest son, who lives in Chicago, the name of which he pronounces with great difficulty and with a particular accent of his own.
“I jes natchally lost count,” Uncle Ike answered when his age was asked. He added that the exact date of his birth has been a question with him ever since the family Bible containing birth and death records was destroyed by fire.
From the Hattiesburg American (Hattiesburg, Mississippi), dated April 2, 1929:
Pearl River County, Once Home of Caesar Indians, Records Amazing Growth
By Frankie B. Stewart
Poplarville, Miss., April 2 – When the frontier receded farther westward from the Appalachian Mountains, pioneers from the eastern states sought new homes. Some of them settled along the eastern banks of the Mississippi river, and the southern part was organized into the state of Mississippi in 1817. The state was divided into large counties, and later they were subdivided.
In 1882, people of the southern part of the state decided to organize another county, between Marion and Hancock, taking a part of each county to make a new one. The land selected for the new county, was inhabited by a tribe of Indians called Caesar after their chief, and the white inhabitants came from Virginia and North Carolina, their ancestors being from the British Isles.
The county was organized by an act of the legislature in 1882. The name chosen for new county was “Pearl,” after the river which was at that time a boundary line between the county and the state of Louisiana. The county officers were appointed by Governor Robert Lowry.
Covers Brief Period
The history of Pearl county only covers a brief period of years. The courthouse was a Masonic building, near Pearl River, at a point called Byrd’s Chapel. It was burned a short time after the county’s organization and the important records, papers and historical data was destroyed.
By the act of the state legislature in 1884, “Pearl” county was abolished, and it went back to its respective counties, because of financial reasons. Hancock and Marion were in debt when Pearl county was organized and it had to share part of the debt, which it could not meet; for there was only one landowner, “Poplar” Jim Smith, paid an Indiana ten bushels of corn for his claim. The balance of the land was public.
Marion county was divided into two districts, with Columbia and Purvis as county seats, thus the northern part of the abolished Pearl county was in the eastern district, with Purvis as county seat.
After Pearl county was abolished, northern syndicates bought the virgin forest of the south for a very small sum. Some of the timber was located in Pearl county. D.A. Blodgett was the main purchaser.
By an act of the legislature in 1890, the county of Pearl River was organized. It had the same seat as Pearl county; two districts each were taken from Hancock and Marion to form the new county. “Pearl” could not be used as a name for the county by a law passed by the legislature, and the River was added to the old name, thus making the complete name of “Pearl River” county.
The principal land-owners at the time of the re-organization of Pearl River county, were: A.B.F. Rawls, “Poplar” Jim Smith, Jim Bilbo, W. Calvin Stewart, Joel Baughman, Luther Rawls, J.E. Stewart, Jim Wheat, and Albert Amacker. Their claims were mostly along the banks of Pearl river, where the land is very fertile.
A railroad was begun before Pearl county was abolished, and completed some time afterwards. After the organization of Pearl River county, it was the main source of rapid progress made by the county.
The first officers of Pearl River county were appointed by Governor John Marshall Stone. They were: Col. J.M. Shivers, sheriff; T.R. White, clerk; J.L. Bonner, Superintendent of education; and B.F. Rawls, generally known as the father of the county, was selected as president of the board of supervisors, who were: P.E. Williams, James M. Smith, Joseph Wheat, and Thomas Martin. Two of these members are living today. They are James M. Smith and P.E. Williams. These officers’ salaries were very small and the function of their positions was quite different from the official duties of today. Every man had to work the road two days each year, regardless of position; business was stopped in order for the men to work.
On a large tract of land owned by “Poplar” Jim Smith, through which the railroad ran, then the New Orleans and Northeaster, but now the Southern, a suitable site was chosen as a county seat. It was named in honor of it owner and called “Poplarville.” He had given part of it to a Rev. T.D. Bush as a salary, to come as a pastor to the place, and Rev. T.D. Bush is later years sold it to a Dr. Z.S. Goss.
The first courthouse was built in 1892 by Camp and Hinton for the sum of eight thousand, two hundred and ninety-eight dollars ($8,298). It is now the building occupied by the Pearl River County Hospital.
Boarding School Built
In 1892, there was built in Poplarville a boarding school, which was the largest of any similar institution in the state, and enrolled pupils over a wide territory. W.I. Thames presided over the institution as superintendent for 16 years.
In 1892, the first election was held, the following officers being chosen: N. Batson, sheriff; H.G. Stewart, representative; G.W. Bilbo, assessor; R.L. Ratliffe, chancery and circuit clerk; W.C. Anderson, superintendent of education; P.E. Williams, president of the board of supervisors, who were: G.W. Smith, W.C. Stewart, R.T. Martin, J.L. Strahan, and Andy Smith was treasurer.
A few years after, in 1900, the northern part of the county, in which was located the growing town of Lumberton, withdrew from the county, thus depriving Pearl River county of a sawmill industry.
In 1908, Picayune, which was located in Hancock, was part of the land annexed to Pearl River county. It has always been a sawmill center, and is located in a fruit-growing section.
An A.H.S. was organized in 1910 supported by private subscription for the first year due to the fact that state funds were enjoined because they were not establishing an A.H.S. for negroes in the county where the A.H.S. for whites was established. This was the first A.H.S. to meet with favor in the state. Since the injunction was dissolved, the A.H.S. has been run by state appropriations and local taxes. This A.H.S. has been considered and is yet one of the best in the state. In 1923, the A.H.S. was made a junior college taking the name of “Pearl River College.” It is now recognized by all the state’s institutions and is an active member of the American Junior College Association. It is located in Poplarville. Its graduates are able to get full credit for work done.
Named Model County
Pearl River county led the state in building consolidated schools and teachers’ homes, and it was, for four years, designated as a model county, receiving a large amount of funds from Rockefeller Foundation.
The county furnished one governor twice for the state, who is Hon. Theo. G. Bilbo, and some of the most prominent members of the legislature.
A large and more modern courthouse was needed as the county expanded and population increased. So the contract was let in 1918 to Dabbs and Wetmore of Meridian. After all furnishings were bought, the lawn graded and fenced and shrubbery planted, it cost the county $130,000.
Assessment of Pearl River county for 1928-1929: Land assessment, $7,889,215; personality assessment, $2,245,808; railroads and public service corporations, $2,091,517; total assessment for the county, $12,226,540.
The population today is 18,000. There has been 20 percent increase in the last six years in both white and colored residents. The population of the county seat, Poplarville, is 1800.
There are 33 schools in the county, 2700 automobiles, 260 miles of gravel roads, two experimental stations (one at McNeill and the other at Poplarville), and five sawmills.
The investments in schools are as follows: A.H.S. and Junior College, $250,000; Separate districts, $275,000; Consolidated, $513,000; Rural, $37,000; Negro rural, $10,000; Other public buildings, $250,000.
The county has a health doctor and nurse, a county home demonstration agent, and a county agricultural agent. There are two hospitals in the county, one in Poplarville, the Pearl River County Hospital, the other the Martin Sanitarium, is located in Picayune.
The soils of the county are good for any kind of vegetation. Fruit raising and truck farming are the principal industries since nearly all the timber has been cut. The Orangeburg soil of the county is considered by agronomists to be the best in the United States. It is especially adaptable to fruit trees. Satsuma oranges are raised extensively in the county and carloads are shipped each year.
Peaches at Picayune
Picayune is the center of the peach orchards and in June of each year a pageant is staged that rivals any pageant of its kind.
The water has been tested by mineralogists and they have said purer water could not be found.
The officers of the county serving from 1928 until 1932, are: Harvey S. Stewart, sheriff; H.K Rouse, chancery clerk; L.T. Simpson, circuit clerk; J.D. Smith, assessor; A.B. Nicholson, superintendent of education; Leopold Locke, county attorney; J.S. Moody, president of board of supervisors, who are: Hanin S. Stewart, G.W. Amacker, M.D. Tate, Pate Lumpgin, John Lumpkin, representative and Henry Yawn, senator.
On June the third, 1926, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a beautiful monument to the memory of the Confederate Veterans, Women of the South and the Soldiers of the World War. It is standing on the lawn in front of the courthouse, made of marble, and cost $8,500.
Nature has given Pearl River county its share of gifts. The scenery is lovely all the year but especially in the spring, a beautiful picture is made never to be forgotten if once seen.
Everything is just awakening in the spring from a short winter’s nap, the trees are budding, flowers are blooming, and forming a gorgeous carpet, the brooklets flowing gaily along. The golden sun shining brilliantly, the wind humming among the trees and the birds singing merrily, makes one glad to live in this old world, and especially in Pearl River county, where people have good health to enjoy such pictures as the one above.
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