8 A BICENTENNIAL HISTORY OF MISSISSIPPI Mississippi Before Statehood Mississippi, like most states, has a most curious shape. It is an irregular design, somewhat elongated, and except for the bulge along the northwest quadrant, it somewhat resembles a high-heeled boot with its toe pointing westward. But in reality, it really does not resemble anything; its shape is uniquely Mississippi and one of a kind. So how did this come to be? Why did Congress approve such a strange configuration 200 years ago? It turns out that there were good reasons for these asymmetrical borders, and there is a story behind every twist, turn, and straightaway. The stories tell of wars, treaties, and political in-fighting, and they begin some 325 years before that chilly day on December 10, 1817, when Mississippi officially became the nation’s twentieth state. When Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in search of a westward of passage to China, the original inhabitants of Mississippi were living in villages, mainly in three areas: the Tombigbee watershed, the Yazoo-Big Black-Mississippi watersheds, and the coastal region. Some of the villages were quite large with a few thousand inhabitants, and the population centers were often surrounded with smaller outposts, much in the manner of today’s suburbs. These permanent villages provided a stability through which people developed complex family and social structures, usually matriarchal. They formed tribal governments, and often formed federations with other tribes. They practiced religions that included the worship of gods, belief in an afterlife, and the establishment of an impressive body of oral history and lore. Art, in the form of carvings and engravings on pottery, also began to flourish. Burial ceremonies, seen as a necessary means of passage into an afterlife, became quite elaborate and led to the building of the famous mounds that served as burial sites, shrines, temples, and defensive structures. Although they still hunted, the tribes of the inhabited regions had become primarily farmers, and they subsisted on domesticated crops such as pumpkin, squash, and, most importantly, corn. They had no written language, but they had developed a rich oral tradition along with a complex set of religious and societal laws and practices. It was a stable culture that would have likely developed into an advanced civilization if given a few more centuries. But the outside world was about to send the emerging culture along a different path. European presence in the region stems from October 12, 1492, when Columbus’s explorers made landfall, not on the continent’s mainland, but (probably) on Watling Island, one of the islands of the Bahamas. He scouted the area, including Cuba and Hispanola, and gathered information from the indigenous peoples he encountered. From those meetings, he saw and heard evidence there were vast stores of gold in this newly discovered land. And to the rulers of Spain, gold was more alluring than spices ever could be. Columbus returned to the Court of Spain with news of his discovery of unknown lands and great riches, and was hardly allowed to catch his breath before he was sent back on a second expedition. He had reached Spain on March 15, 1493, and the return trip to the new world began just six months later on September 24. But this time, instead of the paltry three-ship fleet he had been provided on the first voyage, Christopher Columbus sailed out of the port of Cadiz in command of an impressive fleet of seventeen ships and an expeditionary force of 1,200 men. Their orders were to explore and to settle, to colonize the unknown land and appropriate its gold and jewels for Spain. The Spanish conquerors were known as conquistadors, and they set about their work with great enthusiasm. Some of the conquistadors sailed northward from the Bahamian and Cuban ports, and it is believed that they encountered Mississippi tribes along the coast—the Pascagoulas, the Biloxis, the Moctobys—as early as 1527, only thirty-five years after Columbus first arrived some 1,500 miles to the southeast. The famous exploration of Hernando de Soto was typical of Spanish forays into the newfound lands. He was commissioned to explore the uncharted land named “Florida,” which included the peninsula and all the land north and west of it that he could claim. He sailed out of Cuba, and on May 25, 1539, he landed on the peninsula’s west coast with an expeditionary force of 600 men, 200 horses, and a large number of hogs for food. With no charts to follow and little purpose other than finding gold, de Soto led his men northward to see what they could find. They were to wander throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and finally, Mexico, for four long years, losing over half their men and all of their supplies with nothing to show for it. As one article in Cotton Gin Port noted, “They followed a circuitous route using a procedure certain to irritate the native population and to generate violent resistance. De Soto moved his force from one important village to another. While based in each village he foraged in the entire province to supply his troops and animals. Following this pattern, he abused the native’s hospitality and alienated every group he met.” De Soto’s soldiers were outfitted in combat armor, had muskets and crossbows, and were mounted on horses.