354 A BICENTENNIAL HISTORY OF MISSISSIPPI crossed the Tombigbee near Columbus in 1540. Once white planters and their slaves began to plant the rich topsoil of the nearby lowland black prairie zone with cotton, the river and towns such as Cotton Gin Port, Aberdeen, and Columbus assumed new significance as commercial export and import centers by connecting the eastern Clay Hills to the larger world of Atlantic commerce. By the twentieth century, beef cattle and dairy cows formed the backbone of the local agricultural economy. These were supplemented by new industries, such as dairy farming and textile manufacturing, which were aided by the founding of the state’s land-grant university. Such change helped to set the stage for continued growth. Since 1960, several counties in the region have some of the fastest rates of population growth in the state, and their per capita income growth has increased as well. New industries such as steel, aerospace, and tire manufacturing, along with the state’s largest public research university, are currently helping Mississippi to realize a new and more innovative future for the region and state. The variety that distinguishes today’s Clay Hills, including the range of its geography, the diversity of its residents, its differing agricultural and manufacturing economies, and the gap between those counties in economic declines and those which are growing and prospering make the Clay Hills an especially difficult region to categorize. Through time, it has evolved into a region where many people—whether they were rich or poor, white, African American, or Native American, free or enslaved—ultimately found a niche, put down roots, built their families, made their livings, and constructed their communities. In short, it is a region in the state where people of diverse interests and backgrounds have long co-existed, albeit sometimes uneasily, each with their own unique vision of what the region was and could be. T he Clay Hills includes the sixteen north-central counties of Attala, Calhoun, Carroll, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Clay, Grenada, Holmes, Lowndes, Monroe, Montgomery, Noxubee, Oktibbeha, Webster, Winston, and Yalobusha. The region features six geographic zones ranging from high ridges and rolling hills to rich bottomlands, lowland forests, and grassland prairies. It is also marked by two significant rivers, the Tombigbee and the Yalobusha. Distinguished by a rolling topography and distinctive red clay soils, these hills cut a wide semi-circular swath from Tennessee to Alabama. These lands were long home to the Choctaws and Chickasaws, and members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians still reside in parts of this area today. Since cotton did not do as well in red clay soils of the hills in the eastern portion as in other parts of the region, early settlers and their families could usually carve out only modest if not hardscrabble existences growing corn and vegetables, raising cattle and hogs, and later raising dairy cows. The bluff or Loess Hills, with its more fertile soils, form a distinctive western boundary between the Clay Hills and the Delta. These hills served as a natural transport corridor between Memphis and Jackson, and has long been the route of one of the state’s principal railroads. Since the mid-twentieth century, Interstate 55 has redefined this corridor as a significant auto transport route bringing travelers and commerce to the area. The fertile brown loam soils found in the bottomlands also shaped the region’s and the state’s early agricultural history. These rich soils offered farmers real prospects of economic success, and before the Civil War, ambitious planters made this one of the state’s more important cotton producing areas. The eastern half of the Clay Hills is, except for a narrow band of forested flatwoods, distinguished by the steep ridges and bluffs of the Tombigbee or Tennessee Hills along its eastern edge. The Tombigbee River, now the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, offers water access to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile. The Tombigbee River Valley long served as an important transport, trade, and settlement corridor. The Choctaws and Chickasaws took first advantage by building villages and farms there. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his men, the first Europeans to visit Mississippi, FRENCH CAMP VISITOR CENTER Once a trading post off the Natchez Trace, French Camp now has the Natchez Trace Historic Village where visitors can see and experience what early Mississippi life would have been like for European settlers.