Found Any Pearls Lately?

by Bruce Reeves - November 3, 1975

The Pearl River has its beginning in the historic area of the Nanih Waiya Indian Mounds of Winston County. There, legend has it, is where the Great Spirit told the Choctaw Indians to make their home. The river then flows southward through central Mississippi bringing with it the vast potential of an abundant water supply. Continuing through Jackson, the Pearl flows through Georgetown, Monticello, Columbia and on past NASA Test Facilities before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Pearl was discovered by Beinville, a French explorer. He named the river Perle (later changed to Pearl) when he supposedly found an abundance of pearls on the banks of the river. These pearls were from oyster shells which the Indians had used to clean out their canoes. Today, however, no one knows where either the shells or the pearls are. Many people have explored the Pearl. These include Louis LeFleur as he traveled the river selecting a site for a fur trading post. Indians of Choctaw, Chickisaw and Biloxi rowed up and down the river in canoes.

The river history and its relationship to early settlement, development and present life of the river area is one to be reckoned with. Businesses have been dependent on it for growth. When the white man came, he found savage Indians near the river. The swamps have been the hunting ground for the Indian and the white man for many years. As the area is still timbered, game is still plentiful. There are many kinds of wildlife along the river including deer, beaver, mink, turkey and various types of duck. Thirty-nine species of snakes are found in the area including six poisonous types. Also found are many numerous species of fish.

Along the Pearl, there have been and always will be many prominent towns. A few of those were Philadelphia, Rockport, Oma, Pearlington, Logtown and Gainesville. Philadelphia was an outlet for keel boats. Edinburg and Carthage had ferry crossing and steamboat landings. Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, was the site of LeFleur's trading post. Georgetown had a boat landing. Rockport had a ferry. Because the Pearl was so wide, it made shipping easy. Pearlington, Logtown and Gainesville became important industrial communities because of the timber along the banks. After depletion of the timber, however, these old towns have faded away and today with the Mississippi Test Facilities of NASA, the towns of Gainesville and Logtown have been completely obliterated.

The water history of the Pearl has also been interesting. In March of 1902, Charlie Freeny had the following entries in his diary:

In January 1940, the river froze over from bank to bank in the Carthage area. The older residents said this was the first time they had seen it frozen here. In strong current, the ice did not extend completely across the river, but in eddy places it did. In Edinburg, the ice was so thick, the children enjoyed skating upon it.

Keel boats were used before and after the [Civil] war. The first one was owned by Harvey Gill. He made one trip each month from Carthage to New Orleans. The speed was slow - four miles per hour down and two, up. In the 1860's, Sam Salter and Cap Atkinson built a keel boat for W. A. Burnisde. It was placed on the waters of Lake Burnside which runs into the Pearl in Neshoba County. It was propelled by the hook and jam method. One crew in front had a hook which was thrown around trees or roots along the banks. When the hook was pulled, the boat was propelled forward. A second crew had long poles which was used to push the boat. The trip to Jackson from Philadelphia by keel boat took about fifteen days. This keel boat took was sunk by the Yankees in 1864. Later, practically all farmers owned a boat since these transported farm products only.

For a number of years, the Pearl was navigable as far up the river as Edinburg. Small boats, some propelled by steam, made irregular runs to Carthage in the 1870's. They were used to carry small cargoes to Carthage from the larger towns down river.

The first definite record of a steamer on the upper Pearl was found in The Mississippian on December 4, 1835. In the paper, Captain James Latham informed the public he intended to run the steamboat Choctaw from New Orleans to Jackson and return throughout the season.

In May of 1838, lumber was brought to Jackson on the steamer Alice Maria to build the first state capitol.

In 1840, there was a floating grocery store on the river. It consisted of the steamer Geneva and the barge Leman. For sale on his barge were 200 sacks of salt, fifty-three barrels of whiskey, fourteen of molasses, thirteen of sugar, fifteen bags of coffee, gunpowder and shot. Captain Winslow was willing to trade his supplies for cotton and deerskins.

On December 26, 1843, Marcus Hilzheim announced that he had made arrangements to run a small steamer between Hinds and Neshoba counties. On December 27, 1844, Mr. Hilzheim and A. E. Haynes announced that they would have a small steamer on the river in January. It would run from Carthage via Jackson to New Orleans. Mr. Haynes promised free passage to persons sending freight on the first trip. Thereafter, passage would be governed by the customer's freight. Cotton to New Orleans cost $1.50 a bale. To bring freight back, a dry barrel was fifty cents, 100 pounds was $2.50. General passage to New Orleans was ten dollars.

On January 13, 1848, Captain D. W. Boss advertised the "Pearl River Steam Packet," the new steamboat Caroline. After the Caroline, no other boat was recorded on the upper Pearl until December 14, 1858. This was when Turner Ellis and J. H. Ledbetter announced that the Ranger would leave six days later for New Orleans. They said she would load there for all points between the mouth of the Pearl and Carthage. Thereafter, they stated that it would run between Jackson and Carthage. The Ranger was commanded by Ed Hart. It left New Orleans on January 7, 1859, and reached Jackson on the thirtieth. On February 22, the boat burned three miles above Grant's Mill. The boat and freight of 415 bales of cotton was lost. The boat carried no insurance and was an estimated loss of 25,000 dollars.

After the Civil War, the first steamer on the Pearl was the Steadman, which ran around the 1870's. Next on the river was the Oliver Clifton built by James Hamilton. In the 1880's, it made weekly trips between Jackson and Carthage. It would leave Jackson every Saturday and would arrive in Carthage every Tuesday. The next day it would leave and would arrive again in Jackson on Friday.

In 1885, the O. R. Singleton was built. It ran from Edinburg to Jackson and in 1892 was bought by a group of Carthage merchants. Loaded with seventy-five tons, it took a week for the boat to go to Jackson and come back.

The first gasoline boat to serve the people of Leake County was Captain Henry Caldwell's Belle of the Bends. The late Mr. Perce Phillips, a worker on the boat said the following:

The boat sank when it hit a cypress snag at Buzzard's Bend. The motor, however, was salvaged and was used in the Juanita and still later in the Caldwell No. 3.
The Juanita

The Caldwell No. 3

River transportation was so important that the United States Government kept snagboats on the river to keep it free. The first was the Black Warrior. The last was the Pearl, which operated as far up the river as Rockport. In 1903, Dan Walker was the captain of the Pearl. The boat was thirty feet wide and about eighty feet long. It had a cabin for the workers with a private bunk and storage area for each man. it also had a steam powered crane which was used to pull objects out of the water and place them on the banks. Anything the crane could not move was dynamited out.

The Black Warrior

[Added in 2023]Because the snagboats used a LOT of manual labor, they also had floating hotels - like the one pictured below - to house all of those workers.

In 1844, it was announced that with about 75,000 dollars, the Pearl might be made navigable for small steamboats from the Gulf to Jackson three-fourths of the year. Also during winter and spring, this could extend 100 miles up river.

In 1948, the Jackson Chamber of Commerce saw the possibility of building a dam across the Pearl to provide a water supply and a recreation area.

In 1958, the Mississippi State Legislature created the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District and empowered them to construct and operate a reservoir on the Pearl River. Its construction was finished in 1962, and was named in honor of the former Governor Ross R. Barnett. The main dam is earth sixty-four feet high and three and one-half miles long. It has ten concrete spillways which have a total discharge of 180,000 cubic feet per second. The reservoir is a fifty square mile lake beginning just north of Jackson and ending six miles south of Carthage.

Presently being completed on the Pearl, are many water parks. These parks will provide recreation and pleasure for local residents. Among their many features are boat ramps, picnic areas, camping spots and in some even tennis courts. These parks will be located in Philadelphia, Edinburg, Carthage, Riverside, Georgetown, Atwood, Columbia, Summit, Bogue Chitto, Walker Bridge and Walkiah.

Yes, from Nanih Waiya to NASA or from Philadelphia to the Gulf of Mexico, the Pearl River contains much history and many stories. It has fulfilled its purpose in the past and will continue to do so as it makes history.


"Bulldozer Can't Budge It - Observers Think Object is Old Anchor for River Ferry," Jackson Daily News (September 2, 1953).

Harry and Donna Caldwell. Pearl River (June 11, 1975). (Also they were the source for the four pictures.)

"Chamber Eyeing Building of Dam at Pearl River," Jackson Daily News (November 10, 1948).

Dearman, Mildred. "Early Leake Procedures Unique," The Carthaginian (July 17, 1975), 2.

Dearman, Mildred. "Sixty Years of the Good Life," The Carthaginian (March 11, 1971), 1a, 3b, 6b.

Freeny, Charlie B. Diary excerpts. March 1902.

"Keel Boats of the Pearl," Neshoba County Microfilm, National Archives, Jackson, Mississippi.

McCraw, Edythe W. "The Mighty Pearl," Mississippi News and Views (January 1963), 14.

"Navigation of Pearl River," The Mississippian (November 20, 1844).

"Pearl River Boatway Map Edition Two." (Pearl River Basin Development District, 1975).

"Pearl River Freezes Over," The Carthaginian, LXIX (February 1, 1940), 1.

Thigpen, S. G. Pearl River Highway to Glory Land (Kingsport, Tennessee: Kingsport Press, Inc., 1965), p. ix.

Thigpen, S. G. "'Snag Boat' Kept Pearl River Safe." Jackson Daily News (December 1, 1971), 14a.

Wells, Frank C. and Humphreys, Jr., Canoy P. "Pearl River Boatway Map from Ross Barnett Reservoir to Jackson." (U. S. Department of the Interior, 1974).

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