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The Pearl ‘Never Does Nothing’

By Sara Richardson, July 10, 1985


It would be difficult to name any one thing, natural or man-made, that has had a greater effect on Rankin County’s development than the Pearl River.

What measuring devices can estimate the utter misery its flooding has caused, to say nothing of the cost in dollars and cents? The “Gold Coast” era would not have been the same without the Pearl River. On the positive side of the ledger, Rankin County owes its existence as a separate political entity, at least in part, to the Pearl River.

During the years that the area now known as Rankin County was a part of Hinds (1821-1828), citizens living near its eastern edge had to travel all the way to Jackson to transact any business with the local government and on very poor roads. Besides, when they got there, they had to cross the Pearl, not by bridge, but by ferry.

If you have read our book, “A History of Rankin County, Mississippi, Vol. I”, you have seen a copy of the petition some of these citizens presented to the Legislature, asking that the portion of Hinds County east of Pearl River be made a separate county.

Also on the positive side, consider the Ross Barnett Reservoir, which would not exist except for the river, although it must be said that there have been some negative effects of the reservoir. Everyone knows that numerous drownings have occurred, and not everyone has forgotten that many people who were third and fourth generation owners of some of the land were forced to sell it, regardless of sentiment. Still, the Ross Barnett Reservoir has helped Rankin County in many ways.

We have read statements about “the mighty Mississippi and the muddy Pearl” in the same paragraph, if not the same sentence. We object somewhat to these descriptions, because we have seen times that the Pearl was indeed mighty and also times when the Mississippi was very muddy.

The river has had its impact upon much more than Rankin County, of course. It was extremely important to our predecessors, the Indians, although they did not call it the Pearl. It was a Frenchman, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, better known as Bienville, who gave the river the name Pearl because of the pearls discovered on its banks. They had come from the shells the Indians used to scrape out their canoes.

Apparently the Indians called the river by various names. Among these were Talcatcha, Eclinatcha, or Hacha, according to the diary of another French man, Roullet, who in 1732 drew a map showing the course of the river. A minor Indian tribe, the Acolapissas, who lived on the lower Pearl near its mouth, called the Pearl the half-way river. The Choctaws, we are told, called it Bokshaha. None of these Indian names stuck, however, as the Indian name Pelahatchie did. We have seen it spelled Pilahatchy. There is also Ettacouchee Creek, but the largest municipality in Rankin County is not the City of Boksha or the City of Talcatcha, but the City of Pearl.

Throughout the years of Rankin County’s existence, Pearl River has had varying degrees of importance as a navigable stream. There was a time when the settlers in and near Richmond, thought to be the county’s first settlement, believed that the Pearl would one day rival the Mississippi in this respect. That never happened, of course, and the fact that it did not is cited as one reason why the Town of Richmond was never rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire.

The Pearl and its tributaries drain many acres of land along its course. It has provided billions of gallons of water for cities and towns along the way. Its headwaters rise from springs in the north central hills. Near its source is Nanih Waiya, sacred mound of the Choctaws.

Wide and slow-moving, the mighty, muddy Pearl makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Forming the boundary between Jackson and Rankin County, it continues to affect the lives of all of us who have crossed it, by ferry in the old days, now by bridges that are marvels of engineering. Sometimes it provides pleasure, sometimes pain and sorrow, often employment. It never does nothing.

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