Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770-1860

Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770-1860

Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770-1860

Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770-1860

Synopsis

Mississippi represented the Old South and all that it stood for perhaps more than any other state. Tracing its long process of economic, social, and cultural evolution, Christopher Morris takes a close look at one of those "typically" Southern communities, Jefferson Davis's Warren County, the northern-most of the five old river counties located in the state's southwestern corner. Drawing on wills, deeds, court records, as well as manuscript materials, Morris shows a transformation of a loosely knit, typically Western community of pioneer homesteaders into a distinctly Southern society based on plantation agriculture, slavery, and a patriarchal social order. Farmers and herders first settled this "western" region around present-day Vicksburg At the turn of the nineteenth century, the wealthiest cattle herders began to acquire slaves and to plant cotton, hastening the demise of the pioneer economy. Gradually, all farmers began to produce for the market, which in turn drew them out of their neighborhoods and away from each other, breaking down local patterns of cooperation. Individuals learned to rely on extended kin-networks as a means of acquiring land and slaves, giving tremendous power to older men with legal control over family property. Relations between masters and slaves, husbands and wives, and planters and yeoman farmers changed with the emergence of the traditional patriarchy of the Old South. This transformation was the "southern" society Warren County's white residents defended in the Civil War.

Excerpt

This is the story of how one place--Warren County, Mississippi--became a Southern place. It was not always thus. Once this small piece of land and the society upon it was Native American, then French, then Spanish, then English, and when it became a part of the United States, when it became American, it was really more Western than Southern. Only after a long process of economic, social, and cultural evolution did the people of European and African descent, who at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century made it their home, develop a way of life that contemporary Americans and later historians identified as Southern.

A few years ago I presented some of my work on Warren County at a session at one of the many annual historical conventions. a commentator offered me the sort of criticism that can make a beginning scholar consider career alternatives. He suggested, not quite so bluntly, that I was wasting my time. We need to understand Mississippi society during the heyday of slavery and King Cotton--he scolded me--when it was definitely Southern. How it became Southern is not important; it was inevitable.

That criticism forced me to consider some of my assumptions about the historical process, and after doing so I realized that my disagreement with my colleague was total. Nothing is inevitable, not even Mississippi's becoming Southern. If I may paraphrase paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould: While we may speak in terms of life's or history's probabilities, we have to be prepared for the contingencies. of course, that is what makes history so much fun, at least for me. I am not willing to take it for granted that Warren County, Mississippi, was destined to become Southern. I want to know how and why; this book offers some answers.

I am pleased to acknowledge the assistance, advice, and encouragement of a number of people, and to thank them for their kindness. Sam Hill and Helen Hill, who happened to be visiting Mississippi for a semester when I made my first research trip gave me a place to stay in Jackson. Helen drove me to Vicksburg on that first unforgettable visit to what would be my home away from home. At Vicksburg the staff at the Old Court House Museum . . .

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