The history of Mississippi’s capitals and capitols involves several towns and nearly a dozen buildings. Throughout Mississippi’s territorial period and well into its statehood, choosing a permanent capital and securing adequate meeting space for government officials were constant struggles.
When the United States Congress created the Mississippi Territory on April 7, 1798, out of land ceded by Spain, Natchez was chosen as the capital since it was already a substantial frontier settlement on the Mississippi River. No official capitol was built, and officials met wherever they could find space.
Even Winthrop Sargent, territorial governor appointed by President John Adams, was forced to work out of private residences, dating much of his correspondence from “Near Natchez,” “The Grove Plantation,” or “Bellemont.”
The General Assembly did not have a place to hold regular meetings until the territorial government secured the use of “Government House” from the military. The house was located on the bluff near old Fort Rosalie and had been used by the Spanish during their occupation of Natchez.
Political rivalry between local Republican and Federalist party members led to the 1802 relocation of the territorial capital to Washington, a small community six miles east of Natchez. Republicans, who gained power in the 1800 election of Thomas Jefferson as U.S. president, sought to move the capital away from what they had long viewed as the corrupt influence of “aristocratic” Natchez, a Federalist Party stronghold. No state capitol was built in Washington either, and the General Assembly often met in rented space in a tavern owned by Charles de France.
Back to Natchez
Upon Mississippi’s admission to the United States in 1817, the state constitutional convention determined that the first session of the legislature would meet in Natchez. Despite the convention’s act, the first session opened in Washington, but subsequent sessions met in Natchez until 1820. During this time the legislature often met in Texada, a privately owned house in Natchez which still stands today.
By 1821 efforts were underway to place the capital in the center of the state. The Treaty of Doak’s Stand, negotiated with the Choctaw Indians in 1820, had nearly doubled the amount of Mississippi land open to settlement. The rapid population shift away from the Mississippi River region to these new lands brought a decline in the political and economic power of Natchez and led to the end of its days as the center of the state’s political life.
As a first step to select a new capital, legislators chose in 1821 to temporarily locate the seat of government at Columbia. Meeting at Stovall Springs Hotel, they appointed a three-member commission to locate a site on a navigable river for a permanent capital near the center of the state. Thomas Hinds, William Lattimore, and James Patton were chosen for the task; Patton did not serve and was later replaced by Peter Vandorn.
The commissioners decided on Le Fleur’s Bluff on the Pearl River as the most favorable location for the capital. Named for the operator of a trading post, the site sufficiently met the search criteria: it was on high ground near a navigable waterway and had good water and fertile soil. The legislature accepted the commission’s recommendation and ordered the planning of the town of Jackson, named in honor of Andrew Jackson.
Abram de France, the brother of the owner of the Washington tavern the territorial legislature had used as a meeting place, and Bennet Hines were selected to construct the first statehouse in the new capital. The contract called for a 2,400-square-foot building. Their simple two-story brick structure, the first state-owned capitol, was located on the north corner of Capitol and President streets. The legislature first met in the new statehouse December 23, 1822.
Despite the prestige of being the state capital, the town of Jackson grew slowly. The city was less of a town than an isolated wilderness community, and for the next ten years several serious efforts to relocate the capital to relatively more affluent cities in the region were narrowly defeated. Jackson’s status as capital was not secured until the 1832 constitutional convention mandated it would remain the center of government until at least 1850.
Architect William Nichols
The legislature then called for the construction of a larger and more permanent statehouse in 1833. Architect John Lawrence started on the project the next year with a Gothic Revival design. Disappointed with his slow progress and faulty craftsmanship, the state replaced him in 1835 with William Nichols and had Lawrence’s false start torn down. One of the South’s premier architects, Nichols was architect of the North Carolina and Alabama statehouses. Despite Nichols’s ability, work on his Greek Revival capitol progressed slowly over the next several years as the project was delayed by economic depression, a lack of skilled labor, and shortages in building materials. Workers were still adding finishing touches when the legislature first met in the building in January 1839.
Capital on the move
The American Civil War (1861-1865) caused the next movement of the seat of government. During the conflict, Union troops occupied Jackson on several occasions, forcing most government officials to meet elsewhere in the state. Macon and Columbus both served temporarily as capital and hosted legislative sessions. In addition, some government officials operated at various times at Enterprise and Meridian.
The statehouse survived the war, but by the 1890s, it was in disrepair and could no longer meet the space needs of state government.
Architect Theodore Link
Attempts were made as early as 1896 to have a new capitol constructed, but it was not until Governor Andrew H. Longino’s urging during the 1900 legislative session that a new capitol was authorized. The project was financed by nearly one million dollars in back taxes owed by railroad companies. St. Louis architect Theodore Link was selected to construct the facility on the site of the old state penitentiary. Link designed the massive capitol in the Beaux Arts style, which featured elements from several classical architectural forms. Its elaborately decorated interior included various types of marble and was illuminated by 4,750 electric lights, a recent invention at the time of construction. The facility was dedicated June 3, 1903.
The capitol turns 100;
The old capitol becomes a museum
One hundred years later on June 3, 2003, Mississippians celebrated the anniversary of their capitol. Click here for the speech historian David Sansing, Ph.D., delivered at the celebration.
The 1839 Greek Revival capitol is now the Old Capitol Museum and it re-opened in 2009 after a three-year restoration following damage sustained from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Exhibits now interpret the distinguished history of the building, the role of government, and the importance of historic preservation.
J. Michael Bunn is executive director, Historic Chattahoochee Commission, and Clay Williams is director, Old Capitol Museum, Jackson, Mississippi.
Capital – The city or town which is the official seat of government in a country, state, or region.
Capitol – The building in which a legislative body meets; a statehouse.
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Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Mississippi, 1817-1857
Constitution of the State of Mississippi, 1817
Journal of the Constitutional Convention, State of Mississippi, 1817