The History of Biloxi, Mississippi

The former capital of Louisiana, a melting pot of race, ethnicity, language and culture, and home to a hopping tourist trade. No, this is not New Orleans, but rather Biloxi, Mississippi. Since its settlement in the late 17th Century, Biloxi has gone through many transformations. From the capital of French Louisiana, to a sparsely populated and overlooked backwater, to the seafood capital of the world and now to a city known primarily for riverboat casinos, Biloxi is familiar with rebuilding and resilience.

In 1698, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville set sail from France with a mission: to find the mouth of the Mississippi in the new world and claim it for his country. Five months later, in February of 1699, d'Iberville and his crew landed and established the first permanent French settlement in Louisiana. Upon landing, d'Iberville encountered the Biloxi Indians who helped him to find the mouth of the Mississippi and subsequently formed a strong alliance with the French. D'Iberville built his fort on Biloxi Bay and the settlement grew to include cabins, farms, warehouses and vendors. Biloxi succeeded Mobile as the capital of Louisiana in 1720 and remained so until 1723 when it was moved to New Orleans.

Having lost the French and Indian War, in 1762 France ceded all of French Louisiana to Spain, an ally. A year later, Spain ceded to Britain the part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi. In 1779, the Mississippi coast was once again ceded to the Spanish. The settlers living on the coast revolted against the Spanish rule and Biloxi became a part of the short-lived Free and Independent Republic of West Florida in 1810. After 90 days as a republic, President James Madison claimed the region as part of the Louisiana Purchase. After some weak protest from the Republic's government, the western part of West Florida was incorporated into the Orleans Territory and the eastern part, including Biloxi, was annexed to the Mississippi Territory.

When Mississippi became a state in 1817, Biloxi was simply a sparsely inhabited backwater between New Orleans and Mobile. The population was small and mainly consisted of French and Creoles who fished, grew crops of rice and vegetables, and made a living making pitch and tar. In 1827, a steamboat packet began to run between New Orleans and Mobile, which brought a new population and a new economy to Biloxi. New Orleanians traveled to Biloxi during the summers in hopes of getting away from the yellow fever epidemics. Many fine hotels and boarding houses were built around this time to accommodate them. Also, wealthy people from the surrounding areas, particularly New Orleans, built large summer homes on the coast.

As the tourist industry grew, Biloxi also received an influx of immigrants looking to work in the other developing industries in the area. The seafood industry brought in Bohemians and Yugoslavs while the lumber industry employed large groups of African Americans and Cajuns from New Orleans. Many Italians, Lebanese and Greeks came to open restaurants and many Irish people came to Biloxi as railroad workers or domestics in the large houses along the coast.

During the Civil War, Union Naval Forces operated from Ship Island off the coast of Biloxi. Biloxi surrendered to them on December 31, 1861, several months after fighting began. Biloxi struggled throughout and immediately after the war, but when the L & N Line established a flag stop at Biloxi in 1872, the town was revived. The railroad brought a new group of tourists in from the Midwest, many for whom Florida was too expensive. It also brought a new group of snowbirds who built homes in Biloxi and stayed through the entire winter.

The railroad also brought a boom to the seafood industry as fishermen found they could ship their wares to a greater part of the country. Lopez, Elmer and Company became the first cannery in Biloxi in 1881 and four more opened soon after. Each cannery had its own fleet of boats fishing in the Gulf in order to the control the harvest and maximize profits. By 1900, Biloxi was being called the "Seafood Capital of the World" and by 1910 the city was the world's largest exporter of raw oysters. In the 1920s, there were more than 40 seafood factories in Biloxi, producing primarily oysters and shrimp.

The first groups to come work in the seafood factories were the migrant Bohemians and Poles from Baltimore and Cajuns from Louisiana. Seafood factory owners transported them to Biloxi in boxcars and built camps for the seasonal workers to live in, which consisted of rows of shotgun clapboard houses. The factories then began employing Slavic immigrants from the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea who had come to the States seeking political asylum from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fishermen came from all over the world to work in Biloxi, including France, Italy and Greece. In the 1970s, a large number of Vietnamese immigrants also came to Biloxi as fishermen.

In the early days of the fishing industry, most fishermen sailed Biloxi schooners. These boats were distinguished by their shallow drafts suited to inland bodies of water, and their broad beams built to hold large crews. Their strong sail power allowed them to drag the oyster dredges and shrimp nets that their fishing required. Boat building was an important tradition in many of these fishing families as were the schooner races of the White Wing Queens. These races were highly competitive and allowed fishermen to prove their sailing skills to one another. The fastest boat from each cannery competed and the entire community turned out to watch and cheer on the fishermen. These races continued through 1933 when the Mississippi Seafood Conservation laws approved power boat dredging and most fishermen abandoned their schooners for these newer engine-powered vessels.

In addition to the seafood industry, the building of Keesler Air Force Base brought many new citizens to Biloxi. In 1941, Biloxi was selected as the site for a training base for the Army Air Corp. After the Air Force was established in 1947, the base became known as the Keesler Air Force Base. During World War II the base was used primarily for basic training, including the training of the Tuskegee Airmen, but after the war the base expanded its training to include a radar school and a radio operations school. Keesler was the largest training base through the 1970s. Many men and women who served at the base grew to know Biloxi and a number chose to retire in the community.

On August 17, 1969, Hurricane Camille tore through Biloxi leaving a wake of destruction (for more information, see the History of Hurricanes in Biloxi). The citizens of Biloxi began rebuilding immediately after the storm and the economy slowly recovered. The economy got a boost in 1992 when the State of Mississippi legalized dockside gambling. Biloxi was a natural place to establish these off-shore gaming facilities given its coastal location and its popularity as a vacation spot. Biloxi became one of the largest gambling centers in the southern United States. Before Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi was home to nine casinos and the tourism, hospitality, gaming and construction industries were all experiencing rapid growth.

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