In the early 1700's, following LaSalle’s discovery of the mouth of the Mississippi, the French expanded their exploration of a vast territory along the Mississippi Valley extending from Canada to the Gulf coast which they named La Louisiane. Sieur d’Iberville was commissioned by King Louis XIV to colonize this area and in 1699 a small settlement was established near what is now Ocean Springs, however, it was soon moved across the Bay to a place they called Nouveau Biloxy (named after a local Indian tribe) which served briefly as the Capitol of the territory.
In 1723, lacking deep water access, the French moved the Capitol to New Orleans and abandoned the settlement. Few settlers remained and little development took place until the United States purchased the Territory in 1803. In 1817 Mississippi became a State and with the railroad and steam boats the Gulf Coast became a major focus of economic expansion, principally in the seafood and fishing industry. The Biloxi Seafood industry flourished and by the end of the Century large canneries were shipping seafood to all parts of the country. Ship building became a major activity and Biloxi soon became known as the Seafood Capitol of the Nation.
The Gulf Coast and the shallow waters of the Mississippi Sound dictated the need for specialized boats and the area produced two specific boat types indigenous to the area. The first were the small centerboard schooners (ranging is size from about 40 to 60 feet) known as Biloxi Schooners that fished the area from the late 1800s to well into the 1930s. The last of these schooners was the Mary Margaret built in 1929 in Biloxi at the well known boat yard of Jackie Jack Covacevich.
At 59 feet at the waterline the Mary Margaret was the largest of the Biloxi schooners ever built and is the only one ever built with a spoon bow (rather that the clipper bow of the preceeding schooners). Her size and greater sail area made her the fastest schooner to race in the Annual Biloxi Schooner Races held each Fourth of July in front of the Biloxi Yacht Club and she was never beaten.
These schooners were used primarily for oystering and shrimping and worked under sail until well into the 1930s but by that time powered vessels were becoming more common. When the State of Mississippi revoked the ban on oystering under power the end of the sail era was clear. As power began replacing sail, many of the schooners ininially added auxiliary engines but eventually were cut down and converted to fully powered vessels called powered luggers. Deck houses were moved to the stern with only the shortened fore mast remaining to be used to support trawling gear. The term lugger is of European origin and refers to a variety of small coastal fishing boats originally rigged with lug sails along the coast of France and Southern England.
With the schooner on its way out the powered lugger was becoming the fishing boat of choice. The size and shape of the schooner hull was quickly incorporated into new boats being built to replace the disappearing schooners. The result was a new and unique boat type, a bit longer than the schooners, that became known as the Biloxi Lugger adopting modern single or double trawl rigs. The Smithsonian Institution recognizes both the Biloxi Schooner and the Biloxi Lugger as specific boat types unique to the United States Mississippi Gulf coastal waters and both are represented in the Smithsonian’s National Watercraft Collection.
By 1940 the Mary Margaret had been converted to power, however, she continued to fish these waters well into the 1960s. She is shown in this scene under sail on the Mississippi Sound around 1930. While none of these schooners remain today, two replicas built in the 1980s, the Glenn L. Swetman and the Mike Sekul, carry on the Biloxi Schooner tradition out of the Port of Biloxi.