Get ready to discover your Mississippi forebearers as you explore genealogical and historical treasures of the Magnolia State! Mississippi embraces a captivating past of native peoples, Africans, and immigrants who have transformed the state into a unique fusion of cultures. Enduring French, British and Spanish rule, removal of Native Americans, slavery, the devastation of the Civil War and the chaos of the Civil Rights Era, Mississippians have remained resilient. This guide will help you find your ancestor’s story within Mississippi’s collective heritage, which is preserved in the following easily accessible sources.
The place we now know as Mississippi was historically inhabited by several Native American tribes including the Natchez, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Biloxi, Pascagoula, Tunica and Yazoo. French missionaries were the first Europeans to colonize the area along the Gulf Coast in 1699, and the French establishment Fort Rosalie (now Natchez) along the Mississippi River, founded in 1716, spurred conflict with neighboring Native Americans.
France lost the Seven Years’ War to its rival, England, in 1763, ceding all its lands east of the Mississippi river. The southern half of the modern state of Mississippi became part of British West Florida. Spain allied with France against Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. So after the English were defeated, West Florida was relinquished to Spain. The United States and Spain disagreed on the location of their shared border (with Spanish claims extending well into modern Mississippi), but Spain surrendered its disputed land in 1798.
As the Revolutionary War ended, those seeking land and trade entered the region. Georgia originally claimed the American Southeast from its borders to the Mississippi River, though the state ultimately gave up the land to the federal government. The Mississippi Territory was finally demarcated in 1798, and included both modern Mississippi and Alabama.
Mississippi achieved statehood in 1817, just as concerted efforts to relocate Native American inhabitants were gathering steam. The last Native American lands (notably, those of the Chickasaw and Choctaw) were ceded in the 1830s. Nearly all tribal members were removed to Oklahoma as part of the Trail of Tears.
Slavery was legal in the new state, and Mississippi led the nation in cotton production largely because of its reliance on the institution. On the eve of the Civil War, the majority of Mississippi’s population was enslaved. Large plantations relied on slavery, though many smaller farmers did not have the funds to do so.
Mississippi seceded from the Union with the other slave states in 1861, and Mississippian Jefferson Davis governed the Confederacy. Major battles that took place in Mississippi include the Battles of Corinth (1862) and the Siege of Vicksburg (1863). Some populations—famously in the “Free State of Jones” in Jones County—resisted the war and actively rebelled against the Confederacy.
Reconstruction lasted for 12 years after the end of the war. In 1870, Mississippi returned to the Union. The new state government was initially made up of both white and Black legislators, and Hiram R. Revels (a senator from Mississippi) was the first African American elected to either house of Congress.
But in the decades that followed, subsequent governments enacted Jim Crow laws that institutionalized racial segregation and barred African Americans from various aspects of public life. This discrimination, as well as stalled economic prospects, led to the “Great Migration” of African Americans to areas north and west (especially cities) beginning in the 1910s. And Mississippi, along with Alabama, became the center of national attention in the 1950s and 1960s during the civil rights movement. Mississippi’s multicultural history is documented in Delta State University’s collection of oral histories, which document African American, Chinese, Italian and Jewish communities in the state.
And Mississippi State University is partnering with other institutions on the Lantern Project, which seeks to digitize records of enslaved people.
Mississippi History Timeline
1699 The French Fort Maurepas
(“Old Biloxi”) is
founded 1763 France cedes its land
east of the Mississippi
River to Britain
1783 The United States takes control of Britain’s land east of the Mississippi; southern Mississippi
stays part of West Florida, now owned by Spain 1798 The Mississippi Territory is incorporated, including both modern Mississippi and Alabama 1817 Mississippi becomes the 20th state to join the Union
1830 The Indian Removal Act authorizes the forced migration of native tribes from the Southeast to Kansas and Oklahoma 1861 Mississippi secedes from
the Union; it’s readmitted in 1870
1910 The first Great Migration begins as thousands of African Americans leave the South for northern and western states 1918 Humphreys County is created in the last major change to Mississippi’s county boundaries 1962 James Meredith becomes the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”)
The state government began compiling birth and death records in 1912. Certificates for births that occurred more than 100 years ago and deaths that occurred more than 50 years ago are available to anyone. But access to more recent certificates requires a qualified relationship to the person of record, and can be ordered from the vital records office. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) holds copies of death certificates from 1912 to 1943, which can be ordered through the department’s website. Reclaim the Records secured the index to these records, which it’s made available for free at the Internet Archive and at FamilySearch.
Marriage records were first kept by the state in 1926. Most counties kept records earlier, but many were destroyed over the years or in courthouse fires. MDAH has a pre-1926 statewide index to county circuit court records, plus copies of local marriage books. Some marriage records are available on FamilySearch; use the location search to find specific counties. You can also search records of marriages between the recently emancipated that were facilitated by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The vital records office has marriage information from 1926 forward (with the exception of mid1938 to 1941, when record-keeping duty temporarily returned to the circuit courts). You can order records from the vital records office, or from the county circuit court clerk’s office directly.
Divorce cases were decided by the state legislature prior to 1859, and are listed in the Index of Mississippi Session Acts, 1817–1865 available online at HathiTrust. Later divorces are held in the county chancery clerk office where the divorce occurred. The vital records office can conduct a five-year search to determine the specific location from 1926 forward; records themselves are kept at the chancery court.
Mississippi first appeared in the federal census as a territory in the 1800 and 1810 enumerations, but its entries in both have been lost. Look for Mississippians beginning in the 1820 census, the first after statehood. These records are mostly complete (except for the destroyed 1890 census), though a few counties are missing from the 1830 and 1860 counts. You can find federal censuses widely on websites like FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and Findmypast.
Supplementary schedules to the federal census can also be helpful. Ancestry.com has mortality schedules for the state (1850–1880), and slave schedules (1850, 1860) are available at Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. In addition, the 1890 Union veterans schedule survives for Mississippi (though, of course, most Mississippians who served did so for the Confederacy). Mississippi took its own censuses in various years, too, both as a territory and as a state. FamilySearch includes them in its collection of state archive records, and MDAH has browsable images of state censuses from 1818 to 1880. Ancestry.com has all surviving state and territorial censuses (including a Spanish 1792 census of the Natchez area) in a single collection.
Request land entry case files from the National Archives, and find free digitized images of land patents at the Bureau of Land Management. The First Landowners Project is a subscription-based, interactive patent map showing original landowners overlaid on a modern map and links to patent images at HistoryGeo.com. Subsequent deeds and land transactions occurring after the initial patent are held by the county’s chancery court.
Mississippi’s immigrants were naturalized through local courts until 1906, when the federal government centralized the naturalization process. Most counties filed these earlier naturalization records within their general court records. The Index to the Naturalization Records of Mississippi Courts, 1798–1906, by the Works Progress Administration is browsable on FamilySearch. FamilySearch also offers three sets of browsable images: one for Biloxi (1906–1945), one for Jackson (1911–1958), and one for the whole state (1936–1941). Ancestry.com hosts the collection “Mississippi, U.S., Naturalization Records, 1907–2008,” which has indexed images and an excellent explanation of naturalization records.
MDAH holds various Mississippi newspapers among its collection. Chronicling America offers free access to Mississippi newspapers as early as 1820, while subscription sites Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank also have Mississippi listings.
The Delta Blues Museum: Explore the heritage of this genre born in the Mississippi Delta. Exhibits include part of Muddy Waters’ home and the guitars of legends such as B.B. King; you also can see performances.
Elvis Presley Birthplace: Elvis may have left the building, but you still can trace his footsteps through the house where he was born and the park he frequented as a boy. Round out your tour at the museum.
Forks of the Road Slave Market Site: The Natchez slave market was the second busiest in the South. It became a refuge for emancipated people after Union troops captured the city in 1863. No remnants of the market remain.
Grand Gulf Military Park: This historic town and Civil War battlefield site includes a museum, original buildings, a cemetery and observation tower with views of the Mississippi River.
Grand Village of the Natchez Indians: The Grand Village was the home and ceremonial center of the Natchez Indians. The 128-acre site features a museum, replica of an Indian dwelling, ceremonial mounds and a nature trail.
Vicksburg National Military Park: After an intense engagement here, the July 4, 1863, fall of Vicksburg helped give the Union control of the Mississippi River. Take a 16-mile driving tour of the battlefield, stopping at hundreds of monuments and historic markers, the National Military Cemetery and a restored Union gunboat.
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