December 10, 1817 – Mississippi Joins the Union as the 20th State

Mississippi’s name comes from the Mississippi River, which flows along its western boundary. The name of the river is from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi (“Great River” or “Gathering of Waters”).

Mississippi in the United States

Mississippi in the United States

On this date in history, Mississippi was admitted to the Union as a slave state, and on January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to declare its secession from the Union.

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At the time of the Civil War, the Mississippi River was the single most important economic feature of the continent. When the southern states seceded, Confederate forces closed the river to navigation, which threatened to strangle northern commercial interests. President Lincoln was well aware of the strategic importance of regaining control of the river, and thus considered Grant’s 1863 siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi to be key to winning the war. As he said:

We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can still defy us from Vicksburg.”

The Mississippi River continues to be important to the state, particularly because of its tendency to flood on an average of once every three years. In 1927, the state experienced severe damage, with a flood Herbert Hoover called “the greatest disaster of peace times in our history.” The flooding, which inundated parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee, left approximately 27,000 square miles underwater, ruining crops, damaging or destroying 137,000 buildings, causing 700,000 people to be displaced from their homes, and killing 250 individuals across the seven impacted states. You can read more about the great flood in this article for National Geographic by Stephen Ambrose.

A refugee camp at Vicksburg, Mississippi following The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

A refugee camp at Vicksburg, Mississippi following The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

A surprising fact about Mississippi is that it has an Official State Water Mammal, which is the bottlenosed dolphin. Dolphins visit the inland areas of Mississippi along the state’s Gulf of Mexico coastline. Once plentiful, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin population decreased significantly after the destruction of their habitat by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but in recent years they have started to come back.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins

The state also has an Institute for Marine Mammal Studies located in Gulfport. Its mission includes dolphin conservation, research and public education. In 2008, the Mississippi State Tax Commission approved a new “Protect Dolphins” license plate to benefit the Institute.

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