Amite County, located near Mississippi's southwestern corner and across the border from the Felicianas in Louisiana, is today the source of enormous potential historical research. By late twentieth century standards, the area is relatively isolated. Only narrow county or dirt roads connect the logging trucks with the outside; no major highways were ever established in the county, and the one railroad has since been dismantled. Most of the locations listed on Amite County maps consist of a few houses, the remnants of farming communities, or are of families long dead. Once outside Amite, however, the traveler encounters two thoroughfares that connect the area to the rest of the world. Mississippi River borders Wilkinson County to the west, and both Interstate 55 and the railroad that connected New Orleans with Jackson, Memphis, and beyond, bisect Pike County to the west. Amite County has never been too far removed from the commercial centers of the South.

    The seat of Liberty, with a 1980 population of just over 600, was founded in 1809 and is the central hub of the largely rural county. The community still maintains its old buildings and continues to utilize them as they were originally planned. The hardware store and drug store signs proudly announce they have been in continuous service at the same locations since 1898 and 1905. Though Union troops pushed their way through the county on their way to and from New Orleans during the Civil War, the communities survived relatively unscathed. There was comparatively little wartime destruction; many antebellum homes are lived in today, and many original churches scattered throughout the county are still in use. The Amite County courthouse, erected in 1841, is the oldest extant courthouse in Mississippi. Continuously occupied, it houses a remarkably complete set of civil records dating back to before the county's founding in 1809.
    Amite County and the rest of southwestern Mississippi underwent a rapid transformation from wilderness to farmland in the first half of the nineteenth century. Settlers began venturing into the Amite River environs beginning in 1805 when the area was still part of Wilkinson County and Mississippi was still a territory. These pioneers came from Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas--the Aiken, Edgefield, and Ninety-Six districts of South Carolina in particular--and were either veterans or the children of Revolutionary War soldiers. Some traveled in large groups, stopping from time to time in the states and territories in between; many younger members of the traveling parties met and married their spouses along the way.  Many ventured into Amite via the territorial capital of Natchez in Adams County, a logical stop for supplies and information. By the time of the 1816 census, over 800 families were living in Amite County; almost all of the people who would probate wills during the remainder of the nineteenth century were already represented by names in this census.

    While most early pioneers traveled to Mississippi with little except a gun and other basic necessities, a few families arrived with the several slaves, home furnishing, and farm implements needed to carve a comfortable existence from the wilderness. A sampling of the estate papers of settlers who died in the decade after the county's 1809 founding indicate that cattle herding, livestock production, felling trees, and basic farming were the main economic endeavors of these new Mississippians.  As the lands were cleared for larger-scale farming in the late 1820s and 1830s, cotton began to be produced by many of the area families, thereby expanding the slave population in the county.  Cotton cultivation exploded in Mississippi the 1840s and 1850s as did the number of people moving through Amite County and its surrounds.   Many families listed in the 1860 Federal Census for Mississippi had arrived after 1850.

     Between 1861 and 1865 the lives and fortunes of Mississippians, indeed all Southerners, would change forever. While Amite County had little strategic military value, it lay within the overland route between Baton Rouge and Jackson. The courthouse in Liberty survived the war unscathed, but the Female Seminary in the town and a few of the prominent homes were burned by passing Union troops. The area's farms and livestock helped feed the armies that moved through, and many local sons enlisted to fight in one of the eleven companies formed in the surrounding area.

    In the ten years after the Civil War, political and the later economic recessions in the 1870s slowed own the area's growth. Yet for a few individuals, the economic and social conditions of Reconstruction era Amite County were not as bleak as subsequent generations believed. The surviving state inventories of women whose wills were probated between 1866 and 1870 enumerate farms well stocked with livestock, fodder, and foodstuffs and indicate that some families continued to cultivate cotton. Many families who had been wealthy before the war continued to enjoy a relatively high standard of living afterward.

    At the turn of the twentieth century, the communities of Amite County were no longer a series of small farming centers surrounding a sleepy county seat. In the early 1880s, the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Rail Road (Y&MVRR), later a branch of the Illinois and Central Rail Road (ICRR), arrived in the western part of the county and rapidly linked the area with the rest of the country. This rail system ran parallel to the Mississippi River and connected New Orleans and Mobile with Memphis and Cairo, Illinois. During the 1890s the Y&MVRR promoted the area through brochures circulated up North and abroad in order to lure white immigrants with the promise of lush farming lands and lumbering jobs.  People began migrating into the area, thereby infusing the old established families with new bloodlines, ideas, and money. The town of Gloster sprang up along the railroad and quickly attracted the county's professionals and businessmen. This community would soon supercede Liberty as the economic center of the county. The nearby lumber mill town of Crosby in the Homochitto Forest benefitted from its proximity to the railway, as did the early nineteenth-century settlement of Centerville. These three towns and the county seat of Liberty would become the main population centers of Amite in the twentieth century.

Excerpted from "A Circle of Neighbors and Kin:  Married Women's Wills in Amite County, Mississippi, 1840-1919." By Jennifer M. Payne, Rice University, Master's Thesis, 1996.

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Jennifer Payne
Last revised March 2, 1998.