The history fo the mississippi Gulf Coasthas been shaped as much by the will of nature as by the whims of man.

Devastating hurricanes with names such as Betsy and Camille have become dividing points in Coast history, as have manmade landmarks such as the sand beach and casino gaming. The Coast has benefited greatly from the bounty of the gulf; it also has grown through the might of the military.

The first Europeans to set foot on the Coast arrived more than 300 years ago, when the French explorer Pierre Lemoyne d’Iberville and his men landed in the Biloxi area in 1699. Until then, the area had been inhabited by Native American tribes including "the Biloxis," meaning first people.

The French set up a fort in what is now Ocean Springs, and in 1719 Biloxi became their capital of the Gulf Coast. That distinction didn’t last long, however; in 1722, it moved to New Orleans.

Over the next nine decades, control of the area, which was part of the West Florida province, shifted from the French to the English to the Spanish. In 1810, the area became part of the United States when it was added under the Louisiana Purchase. In January 1811, the American flag was raised for the first time on the Mississippi Coast.

Mississippi entered the union in 1817, and the antebellum period saw the development of several communities that now exist as cities. Biloxi was incorporated on Feb. 8, 1838. Also taking shape were Ocean Springs, Mississippi City of Handsboro (which became part of Gulfport), Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.

graphicNature intervened in the 1840s and ‘50s, when a Yellow Fever epidemic swept the Gulf Coast, particularly the urbanized areas of Mobile and New Orleans. Residents of those areas fled to the Coast, creating a demand for summer homes, cottages and hotels — the beginnings of the tourism industry. Ultimately, though, the disease followed the visitors to their new home.

Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union. Although several key Civil War battles were fought in the state, the Coast escaped major conflict. Federal troops did take over Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis spent his final days at his Biloxi home, known as Beauvoir.

After the war, the Mississippi Coast began to develop the industries and image that carried it through most of the 20th century.

In 1881, the first cannery opened on Biloxi’s Back Bay; only a decade later Biloxi would have the largest seafood industry in the country, and in 1910 proclaimed itself the Seafood Capital of the World.

A new city sprung up to serve as "the Port of the Gulf." That city became Gulfport, building on a rail line that delivered pine for export.

As the area grew in population, it also grew in ethnicity. Already heavily influenced by the French, the Coast saw an influx of Slavonians who helped in the seafood industry, a move that would be repeated in the 1970s by the Vietnamese. Protestants from northern parts of the state followed the rail line down to Gulfport, setting it apart from the predominantly Catholic populations to the east and west.

The waterfront saw its own new developments. In the 1920s a newly paved road known as the Old Spanish Trail ran along the shoreline. To protect the road from the elements, a 25-mile seawall was built, running from Pass Christian to Biloxi. Nearly 30 years later, in 1955, the waterfront became a beachfront — and a major tourist attraction — when sand was pumped in to create a 300-foot sloping beach.

graphicWhile seafood, tourism and trade were blossoming, another important element of Coast life was coming into place: the military. In 1938 construction began in Biloxi on a new Army Air Corps training facility. Named for a Mississippian shot down in World War I, Keesler Air Force Base remains today one of the premier military installations in the world and an important contributor to all facets of the community. Keesler was awarded the Governmental Friend of Tourism Award for 2002, a testimony to their community dedication. Also in 1938, Ingalls Shipbuilding began production in Pascagoula and is now a part of the prestigious Northrop Grumman Corporation.

For many on the Coast, the most defining moment of the 20th Century came on Aug. 17, 1969 with Hurricane Camille. The Coast had seen many deadly storms, such as the Hurricane of 1947 and Hurricane Betsy in 1953. But Camille — the Storm of ’69, the Storm of the Century — was more than just another hurricane. With winds of up to 210 mph, it was the most powerful hurricane to strike the North American continent.

Coming ashore in Pass Christian, Camille changed the landscape of the Mississippi Coast and the lives of thousands of people. The final death toll was 272; about 100 people were missing; and nearly 50,000 homes destroyed or damaged. Despite the destruction, the Coast rebuilt quickly, but growth slowed during the 1970s and ‘80s as two of the prime industries — tourism and seafood — slumped and underwent changes.

Then came another date that brought major change: Aug. 2, 1992 — the opening of the first casino on the Mississippi Coast, the Isle of Capri Casino. The growth and development of the Coast’s casino industry fueled an economic turnaround for the last decade of the 20th Century, reviving tourism, attracting other businesses and establishing the Mississippi Coast as one of America’s dynamic areas for the 21st Century. n

(Among the sources for this information were The Sun Herald.)

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