By Mike Thomason
Alabama Heritage, Alabama from Territory to Statehood: An Alabama Heritage Bicentennial Collection (New South books, Montgomery, 2019) ISBN978-1-58838-399-0; Hardcover 200 pages, $39.95.
There are few books in print today that tell the story of our territorial and early statehood periods. None has ever done so in such a readable and beautifully illustrated manner as this new offering. Alabama Heritage magazine and NewSouth books have partnered to produce “Alabama from Territory to Statehood.” Set in the early years of the Nineteenth Century this is a surprising, relevant account for a Twenty-First century audience.
On December 14, 1819 Alabama became the nation’s twenty-second state. It had been the eastern portion of the Mississippi Territory since that was founded in 1798, and after Mississippi became a state in 1817, the Alabama Territory was established briefly before we became a state on December 14, 1819. The territory and state were born in conflict, but with high hopes for the future.
The turning point in Alabama’s territorial period was the Creek War. The defeat of the Creeks yielded rich lands for settlement. The lands the Indians surrendered, and all the tribes lost vast areas, triggered a land rush as settlers from eastern states flooded in motivated by “Alabama Fever.”
The territory’s population mushroomed to over 70,000 people in less than two years. Alabama boomed, but it was to be a short-lived boom for a national depression struck as Alabama was preparing its state constitution in the summer and fall of 1819. Then, as the settlers needed credit there was virtually none for land or much of anything else.
This included slaves needed to clear the rich land for planting. From a land boom such as the nation’s western frontier had not seen before Alabama endured a crippling depression, or “Panic.” The state survived thanks to a growing demand for cotton for mills in England and Europe and an amazing network of navigable rivers to ship the crop to New Orleans or Mobile.
After the Panic of 1819 passed and credit was available again, the slave population grew almost as fast as the white population. Slaves were owned by many of the yeomen, but the planters who acquired vast lands in the southern portion of the state and in the Tennessee valley had many more. While few white people objected to slavery and most Alabamians saw it as at least as a necessary evil to clear land and tend crops.
The tremendous number of slaves would, as the years rolled on, insure that frontier Alabama would eventually become a stalwart slave owning southern state. In 1861 with a population half slave and half free, it would secede for the Union it had so joyfully joined just 42 years earlier.
Frontier Alabama was divided by regional animosities between the Tennessee valley and the plantation land south of Montgomery. These divisions were powerful, and still are to this day. Also, we see clear evidence of dismissing Mobile as a sleepy Creole village languishing on the edge of the Gulf. Of course Mobile and Baldwin County, as we locate it today, did not join the Mississippi Territory until 1813. They were often dismissed as “foreign.”
Sadly echoes of that sentiment are evident in parts of this book as well and still animate individual’s attitude to L.A. If Alabama was affected by racial, regional and class divisions, some of which are eerily present today, it was a fertile country, which rewarded its American pioneers. It had also rewarded the Indians who were living here before the settlers rushed in after 1817.
It is impossible to describe each of the book’s chapters in this review. However some of the best are the introductory essay by Edwin Bridges on Alabama’s early history and George Shorter’s description of the recent archeological work at St. Stephens just north of Mobile.
Mike Bunn summarizes the territorial story quarter by quarter. Samuel Webb’s biography of William Wyatt Bibb, our first governor is fascinating. Kathryn Braund writes about the Creek Nation with great skill and understanding. Justin Rudder explains the powerful role of slavery in its early days and its defining legacy thereafter. Robert Gamble closes the book with his examination of early 19th century architecture.
Other articles are equally fascinating as readers of Alabama from Territory to Statehood will discover. The book also has a beautiful illustrated timeline and a fold out reproduction of a historic map of the Alabama Territory.
Perhaps the most appealing chapter in the book was written by Greg Waselkov. A professor in the Anthropology Department at USA, he explains the diversity that was present in Alabama before and after De Soto’s expedition in 1538-40. He tells the story very well and describes life in all parts of our state. He explains the nature of interaction between the Native Americans and the settlers and slaves carefully. He handles a difficult subject well, but so do the other authors in their articles.
Of course other readers will pick other chapters, and each of them is self standing. All of the books chapters first appeared in the Alabama Heritage magazine, where scholars write for the educated general public. The illustrations are simply outstanding, I have not seen better in any book. If you think that I exaggerate, you will change your mind when you see the book.
While there are no footnotes, other works are cited for those who want to dig deeper into a particular subject. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the readers enjoyment and appreciation of Alabama two centuries ago. All the authors should feel honored that their articles were chosen. These are among Alabama’s best scholars and we are lucky to have them working on our state’s early history.
“Alabama from Territory to Statehood” is beautiful and without subventions from several public and private organizations it would have cost closer to $100 than $39.95. Beautifully bound and printed on heavy chrome coat paper, it is more than most of us would have dreamed of. Kudos to everyone involved: the authors and above all Alabama Heritage and New South books. As we approach the state’s bicentennial it is hard to imagine anything coming out to rival this book. It will be a welcome gift for anyone on your Christmas list.
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