From its days as home to American Indian tribes to its role in the Civil Rights movement, Mississippi has a history as long and winding as the great river that runs along its western border. France, Britain and Spain all raised flags over the region at one time or another before the United States created Mississippi Territory in 1798. Whichever twists and turns of history your Mississippi ancestors saw, you’ll find traces of their lives in the state’s genealogical records.
American Indians, including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Natchez and Yazoo, inhabited the lower Mississippi Valley for centuries before Europeans set foot there. Spain’s Hernando De Soto passed through in 1540, but France was first to establish a settlement: Fort Maurepas on the Gulf Coast in 1699. Natchez, founded on the Mississippi River in 1716, became the center of commerce and government. Britain won what’s now Mississippi in 1763 after the French and Indian War, but Spain wrested away control in 1781.
When the United States got the land after the Revolutionary War, the non-native population was largely English and Scottish, plus enslaved African-Americans, a few Frenchmen and a sprinkling of Spaniards. Congress created Mississippi Territory in 1798 and made Mississippi a state in 1817. By 1832, the United States had removed local Indian tribes, most to Oklahoma (see the October/November 2016 Family Tree Magazine for expert advice on tracing American Indian ancestors). Settlers from the Upper South flooded in. Mississippi’s economic base switched from tobacco and fur trading to cotton production, especially in the fertile Delta region (which technically isn’t a delta, but rather a floodplain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers). Slave labor and the cotton gin made the state wealthy and powerful. Just before the Civil War, 55 percent of its residents were enslaved.
Ancestors in the lower Mississippi Valley before US rule may be in provincial records—including censuses, birth and burial registers, and land grants—of the French, English and Spanish national archives. Fortunately, you can find many of these records in Mississippi Provincial Archives, a set of manuscript volumes transcribed by Dunbar Rowland. Eras covered include the French Dominion (1612 to 1663), English Dominion (1763 to 1783) and Spanish Dominion (1757 to 1820). Various volumes are digitized in the free collections at Google Books
, Internet Archive
and FamilySearch Books
. They’re also available at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH)
and on microfilm through the Family History Library (FHL)
. To find microfilm, search the Ancestry.com
and on microfilm at MDAH and the FHL.
Once Mississippi became a US territory, disputes arose over the validity of settlers’ land grants from France, Britain and Spain. Records of these cases are in the American State Papers
. A name index is in the book Grassroots of America: Index to American State Papers, Land Grants and Claims, 1789-1837 by Phillip McMullen (Arkansas Research). The FHL also has microfilmed territorial land and court records from 1798 to 1817 (run a Place search of the online catalog on Mississippi, then click Land and Property).
Civil War records
Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union, Jan. 9, 1861. Its strategic location along the Mississippi River meant it saw dozens of Civil War battles. About 80,000 white Mississippians fought for the South, and 500 joined Union armies. More than 17,000 African-American slaves and freedmen enlisted for the Union in the US Colored Troops.
Search for Civil War ancestors from either side in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database
. Union and Confederate service records for Mississippi are indexed at FamilySearch; search results direct you to record images on the subscription site Fold3
Confederate pensions are at MDAH, and browsable on FamilySearch. Except for a few widows’ pensions digitized at Fold3, Union pensions must be ordered via the National Archives and Record Administration’s (NARA) Order Online system
Though no comprehensive index exists for Confederate burials, many printed sources list them. Start with the 28-volume Confederate Burials by Raymond Watkins, available at many libraries and on FHL microfilm. Congress established the Southern Claims Commission to handle Southerners’ compensation requests for property confiscated by Union troops. Union loyalty was a prerequisite for remuneration, but that didn’t stop people from applying. Though indexes list claimants, your ancestor may have testified in another’s claim. Applications are digitized on Fold3, and on microfilm through NARA and FamilySearch.
Another postwar resource is the Freedmen’s Bureau (which also served displaced white Southerners) collection of ration, hospital, labor contract, marriage and other records, now digitized and free on FamilySearch. Family-Search also has records of 67,000 former slaves who opened accounts with the Freedman’s Savings Bank.
The first decennial federal census of Mississippi was taken in 1820. Records are available for enumerations through 1940 (except 1890, for which all Mississippi returns are lost except the Union veterans special schedule). Search US census records on large genealogy websites including Ancestry.com, Findmypast
Mississippi conducted numerous territorial and state censuses between 1798 and 1866. Many are incomplete and the information they provide varies, but they’re an excellent way to track ancestors between federal counts. You’ll find them microfilmed at MDAH and through FamilySearch, and online at Ancestry.com. State tax lists and county enumerations of “educable children,” which name heads of household and school-age children, can substitute for censuses. Some tax rolls are in the FamilySearch online collection titled Mississippi, State Archive, Various Records; look for others on microfilm at MDAH and through FamilySearch. FamilySearch also has many school censuses (1850-1892, 1908-1957), as does MDAH.
Land and court records
Once under US rule, Mississippi became a public land state, with the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) General Land Office processing land claims. To see if your ancestor received a land patent, search the BLM database. Most patents are digitized on this site, too. If you find one, order the associated land entry case file through NARA’s online ordering system.
Chancery court offices in each county recorded subsequent land transactions between private individuals. These courts also handled probate cases, which often name slaves who were part of a deceased person’s estate. FamilySearch and MDAH have microfilmed most original chancery court records. To find FamilySearch microfilm, search the online catalog by entering the county name in the Places box. In your search results, look under Land and Property for deed records and indexes. You can borrow films for viewing at your local Family-Search Center. Alternatively, you can request copies from the county clerk.
Statewide registration of Mississippi births and deaths began in 1912, although full compliance didn’t happen until 1921. Submit vital record requests to the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH)
. There’s no public index to birth records, but MDAH will search its microfilmed death index, dating from 1912 to the early 1940s, for a fee.
Statewide marriage registration started in 1926. Pre-1926 and mid-1938-to-1941 records are available only from the originating county circuit court, though most are on FHL microfilm. FamilySearch has a searchable index to nearly half a million marriages (1800-1911). Ancestry.com indexes statewide marriages before 1836 and some county records.
Other useful records
Still looking for your Mississippi kin? Try these sources:
- City directories: These telephone book precursors were published annually or biannually for cities and towns, making them handy for tracking migrations between censuses. Search city directory databases on Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.
- Newspapers: MDAH has an extensive collection of newspapers; see what titles it holds from your ancestor’s county or town at . Search digitized papers at the free Chronicling America and subscription sites GenealogyBank and Newspapers.com .
- MDAH digital collections: Even if you can’t visit MDAH in Jackson, you can visit to view a range of records including Mississippi Territory administrative papers, WWI statement of service cards and many historical photographs.
The Civil War and natural disasters left 30 “burned counties” where courthouse fires or floods destroyed records. Don’t give up—not all records were lost, and you may find copies or substitutes (such as voter lists and tax records) at the FHL, MDAH or in a neighboring county. Even if your family’s story is as winding as the river that gave Mississippi its name, the state’s rich resources will help you navigate to genealogical success.
1895 US Atlas-Mississippi
AfriGeneas: African Ancestry in Mississippi
Cyndi’s List: Mississippi
Documenting the American South
MDAH Digital Archives
Mississippi GenWeb Project
Mississippi Resources at RootsWeb
African Americans: A Mississippi Sourcebook
compiled by Anne L. Webster (Pioneer Publishing Co.)
Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi edited by Barbara Carpenter (University Press of Mississippi)
History of Mississippi: The Heart of the South
by Dunbar Rowland (The Reprint Co.)
Mississippi: Atlas of Historical County Boundaries edited by John H. Long and compiled by
Peggy Tuck Sinko (Simon & Schuster)
Mississippi as a Province, Territory and State
by J.F.H. Claiborne (The Reprint Co.)
Tracing Your Mississippi Ancestors by Anne S.
Lipscomb and Kathleen S. Hutcherson (University
Press of Mississippi)
Archives & Organizations
J.B. Cain Archives of Mississippi Methodism
Millsaps-Wilson Library, Millsaps College,
1701 N. State St., Jackson, MS 39210, (800) 352-1050, http://www.millsaps.edu/library/archives/library_cain_archives.php
Mississippi Department of Archives and History
200 North St., Jackson, MS, 39201,
(601) 576-6850, mdah.state.ms.us
Mississippi Historical Society
Box 571, Jackson, MS 39205, mississippihistory.org
Mississippi State University Mitchell Memorial Library
395 Hardy Road, Box 5408, Mississippi State,
MS 39762, (662) 325-7668, lib.msstate.edu
NARA Southeast Region
5780 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, GA 30260,
(770) 968-2100, archives.gov/atlanta
South Mississippi Genealogical Society
Box 15271, Hattiesburg, MS 39404, smsghs.tripod.com
University of Southern Mississippi
William David McCain Library
118 College Drive, Box 5148, Hattiesburg, MS 39406, (601) 266-4345, lib.usm.edu/spcol
From the August 2017 issue of Family Tree Magazine