By Michael Thomason
Alabama became the nation’s 22nd state on March 2, 1819 when President James Monroe signed the Enabling Act Congress had passed the previous December. Due to slow communication between Alabama and Washington (there were no railroads or telegraphs, so fast news traveled by horseback), there was no celebration in the new state.
This reminds me of Mobile’s reaction 200 years later. We don’t seem particularly interested in the anniversary. Other parts of our state are celebrating, but we act as if it’s no big deal to us. After all, our city is 318 years old. In 1819 statehood was a very big deal for several reasons and we should explore them.
What became Alabama was the eastern part of the Mississippi Territory, established in 1798 to include all lands west of Georgia, south of Tennessee and north of the 32nd parallel. We found out exactly where that was within a year or two thanks to the Ellicott survey. It crossed north of Mobile just south of Plant Barry on the Mobile River. The Mississippi Territory was physically larger than any state in the Union and had little means of communication between the Mississippi River settlements such as Natchez, or the vast cotton-growing land to the north known as the Delta, and the eastern half of the territory.
That portion of the territory was Indian land and the only settlement worth the name, Mobile would remain in Spanish hands until 1813. Eventually a judge was selected by Thomas Jefferson to organize rudimentary government located at St. Stephens on the Tombigbee River; his name was Harry Toulmin, an English-born judge who had served the Federal government in a similar position on the Kentucky frontier. Toulmin certainly had his work cut out for him as the new settlers who filtered in from Georgia and from Spanish territory to the south were a diverse and often lawless lot.
So long as Indian tribes occupied the lands of the territory’s eastern half, little development was possible. The Indians largely used the land for hunting and growing small plots of vegetables as they had for generations, while settlers wanted it to grow cotton, for which it was ideally suited. In the early 19th century, the competing demands led to settler-Indian conflict, first with the Creeks and later other Native Americans.
In 1813 a war broke out in the southern half of eastern Mississippi Territory. It was a brutal conflict and in the end the Indians were forced to surrender most of their land, and it was thrown open to the settlers. The result was a land rush known as “Alabama Fever,” which continued until late in 1819.
The dynamics of the Mississippi Territory were shattered. As a result of the Indian Wars, the eastern portion of the territory was growing faster than the western, and might soon dominate territorial politics. The rules for entering the union as a state were quite clear: a territory needed to have a population of at least 60,000 and a constitution acceptable to Congress.
By 1816 the eastern portion of the territory had passed the population mark and its leaders, many of them from Georgia, could write an acceptable constitution. Also, other Southern states wanted the territory split so the slave-owning states would have four more members in the U.S. Senate. The question of slavery was eclipsing the issue of the frontier character of Alabama and Mississippi.
Mobile had been part of the Mississippi Territory since 1813 and the sleepy colonial trading village was seeing the first effects of the cotton boom. The old Indian trade was largely gone with the Indians’ defeat, but cotton was a far more lucrative replacement. Thanks to events north of the town, we were catapulted into a new world of riches, newcomers and boom-and-bust economic cycles.
Events moved swiftly after 1816. Leaders in both halves of the territory eventually concluded it should be split in two and early in 1817 Congress agreed. Mississippi became a state that year and Alabama followed in 1819. Some thought it should be named Mobile after its largest town, but as Natchez was on the western edge of the Mississippi Territory and thus remote from the eastern portion, Mobile was on the southern extremity of the new territory/state and similarly remote from the rest.
The location of the capital was quite important as there were two centers of growth by 1817, the cotton plantation lands, south of the Alabama River and its tributaries, and the fertile Tennessee Valley centering on the rapidly growing town of Huntsville, which was established in 1804. The Tennessee Valley looked to its majestic river to make contact with New Orleans and the rest of the nation and world. The southern portion looked to Mobile. Geography made overland travel between the two districts virtually impossible. The two would each try to dominate state politics, as they still do to a large extent.
In addition to white settlers, mostly from adjacent Southern states, slaves were brought in to clear land, plant and tend cotton. Many were shackled and marched in overland from coastal Southern states, but many also came through Mobile’s slave market. Few remained in Mobile, as their purpose was to make money in the cultivation of cotton, but Mobile made money on their sale. With the export of cotton, slave sales were a major source of profit. By 1860 almost half of the state’s population was made up of enslaved people, located principally on the Black Belt plantations north of Mobile. All the slaves came directly from American territory, though all were Africans.
Mobile, in the new state of Alabama, was rapidly losing its Creole heritage thanks to cotton. As Americans flooded in, they took over the town’s economic and political life. As it grew to be a city, it did so as part of the Alabama economy and became an Alabama city, its colonial heritage largely swept away by the state’s new economy and politics.
Today’s Mobile, like today’s Alabama, was a product of 1817 – 1819 events. We cannot undo that, so perhaps we should be celebrating our state’s bicentennial in 2019 before year’s end.
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