One of the most historic cities in America, Biloxi overlooks the sparkling waters of Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.
Founded by Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, in 1699, Biloxi MS took its name from the Biloxi Indians. This tribe was living at the site when Iberville and the French came ashore on February 13, 1699. The two groups got along well and Biloxi soon became an important French settlement.
In 1720, just twenty-one years later, the town was named capital of French Louisiana. Biloxi held the title only for three years, however, before losing it to nearby New Orleans.
Despite the relocation of the government, Biloxi continued to grow. The city became an English possession in 1763 as a result of that nation’s victory in the Seven Years War (called the French and Indian War in America). The British in turn lost possession of the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Spain two decades later. The Spanish had allied with the fledgling United States in the American Revolution and gained what was then known as West Florida at the end of that war.
In 1810, revolutionary forces took Baton Rouge from the Spanish and Biloxi became part of the short-lived Republic of West Florida. The nation is best remembered today for its flag, which consisted of a blue field with a single white star. It was the flag of the Republic of West Florida that the Southern states later flew as the “Bonnie Blue Flag” of Southern liberty.
The West Florida Republic did not last a single year before it was occupied by the forces of the United States. Biloxi, then home to around 420 people, became a U.S. city at last.
Mississippi became a state in 1817 and Biloxi, already known for its beautiful views and warm gulf breezes, grew as a resort city for the inhabitants of the interior. It became known as a favored place to escape the heat and humidity of the Mississippi summer, a status it enjoys to this day.
Hotels were established and in 1848 the famed Biloxi Lighthouse was built to provide navigational assistance to the steamboats, schooners and sloops that used Mississippi Sound. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, however, brought a sudden but temporary halt to the city’s development as a summer resort.
The beacon of the Biloxi Lighthouse was darkened by the Confederates who also mounted cannon in the unfinished fort across the sound on Ship Island. Southern forces soon evacuated the fort, however, and it fell into the hands of the Union army, which pushed forward its completion and named it Fort Massachusetts. It stands on the island today as a remarkable example of 19th century military construction.
Biloxi itself surrendered to the Union Navy on December 31, 1861. It would take many years for the city to regain its status as a favored resort area. It eventually did so, however, thanks in no small part to the arrival of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Davis came to Biloxi to live at Beauvoir, a charming home that overlooked the sparkling water. It was here that he completed the writing of his monumental The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.
Jefferson Davis lived our the final years of his life in Biloxi. His beloved Beauvoir was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but has been beautifully restored.
Biloxi became the Seafood Capital of the World during the early 20th century. As many as 40 seafood factories operated in the city during the 1920s. Gulf Coast shrimp are still known as the finest in the world.
What would become Keesler Air Force Base became part of the city with America’s entry into World War II. Medical facilities on the base played a critical role in the early fight against cancer for veterans and their families.
In 1969 and again in 2005, Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast were targeted by two of the worst hurricanes in human history. Hurricane Camille hit the city on August 17, 1969, with sustained winds of 190 miles per hour and gusts of more than 220 miles per hour. A wall of water more than 17 feet high came up from Mississippi Sound, sweeping away people, homes and businesses.
Biloxi rebuilt and its location and resources turned it into a prime area for development when Mississippi approved legalized casino gambling in 1992. On August 29, 2005, however, Hurricane Katrina hit the city with the highest storm surge ever recorded. More than 28 feet high, the surge swept over the beaches and demolished an estimated 90% of the buildings in the city.
As the wind and rain calmed and the high water receded, people looked up to see an American flag hanging from the still-standing Biloxi Lighthouse. The beautiful white tower became a symbol of the city’s resilience and Biloxi tackled the process of rebuilding with a determination all but unmatched in American history.