One of five states bordered on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, 1,520 square miles (about 3%) of Mississippi are covered by water. The Mississippi River flows along much of the state's western border with Louisiana and Arkansas. Other major rivers include the Big Black River, Pearl River, and Yazoo River. Major lakes include Ross Barnett Reservoir, Arkabutla Lake, Sardis Lake, and Grenada Lake. The origin of the name Mississippi may be from the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian words "mici zibi," which means "great river" or "gathering of waters."
What sites are underwater?
Given its Gulf location and its rivers, chances are good that there are many underwater archeological sites in Mississippi's offshore and riverine waters. Some of the types of sites found in the Gulf of Mexico are Native American sites that became inundated when sea level rose after the last Ice Age. Others are sunken ships of exploration, Spanish plate fleet wrecks, sunken 19th century steamships, and wrecks from the Civil War, World War II, and other conflicts. Many shipwrecks lie on the bottom of the Mississippi River and the state's other major rivers. Two Civil War era shipwrecks include the USS Cairo and the Star of the West.
USS Cairo photographed in the Mississippi River area in 1862 with a boat alongside the port bow, crewmen on deck, and other river steamers in the background. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
The USS Cairo was an ironclad river gunboat built in 1861 for the U.S. Army's Western Gunboat Flotilla. Transferred later to the Union Navy, the ship was on patrol in 1862 clearing mines from the Mississippi River when it struck a torpedo that was detonated from the river bank, becoming the first ship to be sunk by a naval mine. The wreck was discovered in 1959 by divers and, with support from the state of Mississippi and others, it was recovered in 1965. Much of the hull and its contents including weapons, munitions, naval stores, and personal gear of sailors were damaged during salvage but efforts were made to clean and reassemble it. Later, the vessel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and given to the National Park Service for restoration and display at Vicksburg National Military Park.
The Star of the West was a side-wheeled steamer, built in 1852, that was used by the Confederates and renamed the CSS Philip. In 1862, the Confederates scuttled the CSS Philip in the Tallahatchie River near Greenwood to block the advancing Union Navy. Now the property of the U.S. General Services Administration, the shipwreck is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as nationally significant.
Who takes care of Mississippi's underwater archeological sites?
The Historic Preservation Division and the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History administer the Antiquities Law of Mississippi. The state retains title to all abandoned shipwrecks in state waters and has made them Mississippi landmarks that may not be taken, altered, damaged, destroyed, salvaged, or excavated without a permit or contract from the Board. The state has issued guidelines for underwater archeological research as part of its "Guidelines for Archaeological Investigations and Reports in Mississippi" available on its website.
What permits do I need to study shipwrecks?
The Board of Trustees issues permits to other state agencies or institutions and qualified private institutions, companies, or individuals for taking, salvaging, excavating, restoring, or conducting scientific or educational studies on Mississippi landmarks, if the Board determines doing so would be in the best interest of the State of Mississippi. In addition, the Board is authorized to enter into contracts for the discovery and salvage of sunken or abandoned ships or wrecks of the sea under certain circumstances.
What laws concern underwater archeology in Mississippi?
The Antiquities Law of Mississippi is codified at Mississippi Code Annotated § 39-7-1, et seq. This law authorizes and directs the state to locate, protect, and preserve all sites, objects, buildings, shipwrecks, and locations of historical, archeological or architectural significance in, on, or under any lands, tidelands, submerged lands, and seabed under the jurisdiction of the state.