An area across Biloxi Bay from the city, called Old Biloxi, was first visited by French explorer Pierre LeMoyne d'Iberville in 1699. The explorer, who was looking for the mouth of the Mississippi River, was instructed by the King of France to claim the coastal region. D'Iberville sailed into Biloxi Bay with a small group of men and established Fort Maurepas and a similar colony on the east shore, now the site of Ocean Springs. The word Biloxi means "First People" and was the name of a local Native American tribe met by d'Iberville and his men when they explored the land. Since its discovery, eight flags have flown over the city including the French, English, Spanish, West Florida Republic, Mississippi Magnolia, Confederate State, Mississippi State, and that of the United States.
In 1719 Fort Louis was founded on the site of the present-day city, which served as the capital of French colonial Louisiana from 1720 to 1722. In 1783 Biloxi was taken over by the Spanish, who merely collected tariffs, while the area retained its strong French influence. The Spanish maintained their rule until 1810, when a rebellion occurred and the area was seized by American insurgents. At that time, Biloxi became part of the Republic of West Florida. Although petitions for statehood were denied, the Biloxi region became part of the Territory of Orleans (which had been part of the Louisiana Purchase). Two years later, in 1812, Biloxi became part of the Mississippi Territory. In 1814 a British attempt to capture New Orleans failed, but the British remained on nearby Ship Island until 1815. Finally, on December 10, 1817, Mississippi became the twentieth state of the United States.
During the 1820s Biloxi became a popular summer resort for New Orleanians wishing to escape their city's heat and yellow fever epidemics. Biloxi was incorporated officially in 1838. The city grew as families and their servants flocked to the area, which by 1847 had become the most important of the Gulf Coast's resort towns. By the middle of the nineteenth century even more people came for the ostensible healing powers of the waters, and for the balls, outings, and hunting events that enlivened the social scene.
At the time of the Civil War, Union troops took over nearby Ship Island and carried out a blockade of the gulf. Citizens protected the city from invasion by the Yankees through the threatening appearance of fake cannons, which were really only logs planted in the sand. Mullet fish, called "Biloxi bacon," saved the local populace from starvation in the war years. The first fish cannery opened in 1881, and the city's seafood industry quickly developed. By 1900 Biloxi was termed the "seafood capital of the world." Polish, Austrian, and Acadian French soon came to the city to work in the industry, adding their own cultural influences. Tourism flourished and more hotels were built to accommodate the visitors, many of them from the Midwest, who came to escape the harsh northern winters.
During the early twentieth century, the city grew and new developments included electricity, a street railway system, and telephone service. During the 1920s a paved highway was built along the beach, and more hotels were constructed as tourism increased. In 1928 the world's longest seawall, which spanned 25 miles of Biloxi's coastline, was dedicated. The 1930s saw the decline of the area's seafood industry, but a new boom took place during World War II when Biloxi was chosen to be the site of a new air force base.
Mid-century saw the construction of a four-lane superhighway and the production of a sand beach, thanks to the use of hydraulic dredges. The development of Edgewater Plaza Shopping Center took place in the early 1960s, and the mall has served to draw people from all over the region ever since. In 1969 Biloxi suffered considerable damage when Hurricane Camille ravaged the entire Gulf Coast area, but the citizens soon rallied and rebuilt their town. A new era began in the city in 1992 with the opening of the first Las Vegas-style gambling casino. The resort casinos with their 24-hour entertainment availability spurred a tremendous growth in both local and tourist populations, and restaurants and other businesses grew accordingly.
Biloxi suffered some damage from Hurricane Georges in 1998 but rallied a year later to celebrate its tricentennial with music fests, sporting events, exhibits, and tours. The city's ninth casino, the Beau Rivage, opened in 1999, further stimulating Biloxi's economy through tourism and gaming revenues.
Historical Information: Harrison County Library System, 1300 21st Ave., Gulfport, MS 39501; telephone (228)868-1383; fax (228)863-7433