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Ante-Bellum Alabama: Town and Country was written to give the reader insight into importaant facers of Alabama’s ante-bellum history. Presented in the form of case studies from the pre—Civil War period, the book deals with a city, a town, a planter’s family, rural social life, attitudes concerning race, and Alabama’s early agricultural and industrial development.
Ante-bellum Alabama’s primary interest was agriculture; the chief crop was King Cotton; and most of the people were agriculturalists. Towns and cities came into existence to supply the agricultural needs of the state and to process and distribute farm commodities. Similarly, Alabama’s industrial development began with the manufacture of implements for farm use, in response to the state’s agricultural needs. Rural-agriculture influences dominated the American scene; and in this respect Alabama was typical of her region as well as of most of the United States.
METROPOLIS BY THE SEA
Among the many factors affecting the rise of Mobile to a position of importance as an agricultural market place in the pre-Civil War period, the most significant were port facilities, accessible and navigable rivers, cotton production, and the population of the region in which it was located. For these reasons perhaps more than any others "The city of Mobile has [had] the longest continuous existence of any settlement on the Gulf coast." In an era when water was the chief means of transportation in the South the port attracted wide attention. Alabama, its significant hinterland, possessed more navigable river miles than any other state in the nation. And most of the rivers converged on Mobile. The city's economic significance and prosperity also resulted from a booming and increasing production of cotton in Alabama and adjoining states, for it was the place where most of Alabama's cotton was sold before 1861. Moreover, then as now, farmers and planters needed extensive supplies in order to conduct their operations, and in Mobile they found their supplies in large quantities, usually obtainable on credit. In these as well as other respects Mobile served their needs. However, the city's population grew slowly before 1820; but from that date to 1860 the number of inhabitants increased from about 1,500 to nearly 30,000. At the outbreak of the Civil War it was the only city in Alabama containing as many as 10,000 people. Other important towns in 1860 were Montgomery, 8,843; Tuscaloosa, 3,989; Huntsville, 3,634; and Selma, 3,177; but Mobile, with 29,259 people, overshadowed all other urban areas. Alabama's population of 964,201 looked to Mobile as its metropolis by the sea.
Mobile's rise to a place of economic eminence extended over many years. Established as a French outpost in 1702 at a place known as Twenty-seven Mile Bluff, the settlement is said to have attained in its first year a population of 139, consisting of 9 officers, 24 sailors, 2 couriers, 14 workmen, 64 Canadians, and 26 soldiers. It was moved to its present site in 1711 and the next year became the seat of government of the Louisiana Province. That important position was maintained until 1720. Before the middle of the eighteenth century Mobile was in this and other ways superseded by New Orleans as the most important locality in the Gulf area. The future Alabama metropolis remained the chief trading center of the Muskogee Indians of its region, however, and its population increased to a respectable 300 or slightly more during this period. While under British control, from 1763 to 1783, Mobile was laid out in town plan. It annually shipped skins and furs valued at 12 to £15,000 to London, and a report was submitted to the Crown, in 1772, predicting that the Alabama River valley "in Process of time must Indubitably become a fine Settlement not Inferior by itself to any Province now known." Such a development might indeed have taken place shortly if the American Revolution had not come, for West Florida was, after all, the first British colony within the present boundaries of the United States west of the line of the Appalachian Mountains and possessed many attractions for settlers.
In 1785, during the period of Spanish rule, Mobile had 746 inhabitants, and three years later it claimed nearly 1,500. A traveler in the area in 1791 predicted even greater growth, prophesying "from its Locality [it] must 'ere long surpass Pensacola, in Population, Trade and Buildings." He added that the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Tombigbee and Mobile River valleys were being settled "by Corn, Hemph and Tobacco-Makers, who will have a nearer and better Navigation to Mobille [sic] than to Pensacola-add to this the Peltry-Trade, which will trebly exceed that of Tensocala [sic], ... being nearer to the Hunting-Grounds from whence they may have Water-Carriage, except at one or two places, where a slight portage will be necessary." However, these predictions did not immediately materialize, for Mobile was later described as being in 1804 "a city of West Florida, formerly of considerable splendor, but now in a state of decline."
West Florida, after its many trials and vicissitudes, finally became United States territory during the administration of President James Madison. Events, as far as Mobile was concerned, immediately speeded up considerably and noticeably: the town, consisting of less than 300 people, "came into American hands in 1813;" West Florida petitioned the United States Congress to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Territory of Mississippi, which had been created in 1798; that request was granted; and the Mississippi Territorial Legislature, in January, 1814, incorporated the so-called "President and Commissioners of the Town of Mobile." At about the same time there arrived in the Mobile area "an enterprising gentleman" named T. L. Hallett. "Besides merchandize for an extensive business" he brought along "several frames of houses with workmen ready to erect them." Hallett "first went to Blakely," a nearby town on the east bank of the Tensas River, "but so extravagant were the views of the lot owners, that he was induced to come to Mobile, where he settled, and became a very influential, active, and enterprising merchant." Hallett is credited with having given "prepondence to Mobile" over Blakely and should probably be considered as the town's outstanding citizen during its early formative years under United States control. In 1846, according to one traveler's description of Blakely, "Its beautiful hills, crowned by gigantic live oaks, refreshed by perennial springs of delicious water, are left to the enjoyment of the solitary keeper of a public house, who can solace himself with the occasional visits of the traveler." On the other hand, in Mobile the assessed value of real estate amounted to $198,000 as early as 1814.
Presumably, Mobile continued its rapid development between 1814 and 1817. In the June 7, 1817, issue of the highly respected Niles' Weekly Register (Baltimore) was printed the following glowing account of the town's progress as a port: "Mobile promises soon to become a place of much trade. The imports, coastwise, were valued at a million dollars for the last year—1700 bales of cotton were shipped there in the last six months, and a like quantity remained to be shipped." Colonel Nicholas Parmentier, a member of Alabama's well-known Vine and Olive Colony, wrote to a friend in July, 1817:
Until lately there was no quay at Mobile to moor vessels to. One is now constructing, which is to be built out far enough to have nine feet of water at its eastern extremity at low tide. It will when completed be very long. The city is situated on a sandy beach perfectly clear. The streets are from 60 to 100 feet wide. The houses are almost all of wood, one story high, with some few two stories. They are raised from two to four feet above the ground on piles of large dimensions. There are from 80 to 100 houses, and they continue to build very fast. The population is estimated at from 1000 to 1500, of every description.
During Alabama's short Territorial period Mobile cotton exports rose from 7,000 bales in 1818 to 10,000 in 1819. A total of 209 ships entered the port in 1817, the number increased to 280 the next year, and imports for 1818 amounted to $3,000,000. One contemporary newspaper stated that "the port of Mobile is crowded with vessels—among them one from Liverpool. The house-room of the town has been insufficient to accommodate the great influx of strangers." The same publication also claimed that the town had a population of 1,127 in December, 1818. This figure is open to question, however, because about a year later, on December 19, 1819, when the town was incorporated by the new Alabama State Legislature, it is credited with a population of only 809. It had about 1,500 inhabitants in the year 1820.
From these rather unpretentious beginnings Mobile gradually took on importance as a port during the decade of the 1820's. Flatboats had been worked on the rivers of Alabama for a number of years, with trips to Montgomery from Mobile requiring as much as three months. Both travel time and facilities were improved greatly in 1819, when a steamboat began service between Mobile and Demopolis; and steamboats were put to much wider use within the next two years. According to an account appearing a number of years later in the Mobile Register, "In 1821, there were two steamboats plying from Mobile on the Alabama, Tombigbee, and Warrior Rivers, the Harriet of forty-three tons, and engines of fifty horse power; and the Cotton Plant of eighty tons, and thirty horse power engines—both engines of the low pressure plan. But these, with the flatboats [on the rivers], were sufficient for a trade of ten thousand bales of cotton, and a little tar, pitch, and turpentine, beeswax, hides and tallow." In the year ending September 30, 1821, a total of 232 vessels entered the Mobile port, of which 192 were coasters and 42 were from foreign ports. Mobile was on the threshold of becoming a Gulf port of first-rate importance.
These boats and others handled more business the next year. Cotton, lumber, staves and peltries were exported to such places as Cuba, Gibraltar and New York; and the value of these 1822 cargoes, mostly produced in Alabama, was placed at approximately $2,250,000. A Mobile Directory reported that in 1822 "there were in the corporate limits 240 dwelling houses, 110 stores and warehouses, one Catholic and one Protestant Church, two seminaries, two printing offices, [a] Post Office, Customhouse, a Bank, three Hotels, ... with a winter population of about twenty-seven hundred." At about the same time Niles' Weekly Register advertised, "Mobile is becoming a place of great importance, and it is possible, may soon be one of the most populous of our southern cities." This year (1822) was also significant because it saw the construction of the first cotton press in Mobile.
Between 1820 and 1830 Alabama, referred to by one writer of the period as "the wonder of the south," witnessed a population increase from 127,901 to 309,527. This represented a ten-year growth of 141.6%, or one that was larger than that of any other American states except Illinois (185.4%) and Michigan (250.1%). Mobile naturally profited immensely from this influx of settlers to the state. It continued as the market-place of South Alabama, that is, for the counties of Shelby, Tuscaloosa and Fayette and the counties south of them. Territory to the east of Shelby was still Indian country. North Alabama, consisting of twelve counties as late as 1830, conducted most of its business with Tennessee and New Orleans because its outlet was through the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. The remaining twenty-four counties were considered by the United States Census Bureau as South Alabama since their outlet was through the Alabama River system. All of these latter counties, with the possible exception of Pike and Henry, which at the time were associated with the Chattahoochee River area and Pensacola, looked to Mobile as their seat of commercial activity. From September 1, 1819, to August 30, 1829, South Alabama produced more than half a million bales of cotton for shipment to the Mobile and world markets. Yearly production during the decade averaged about 55,000 bales, and the largest annual output, almost 90,000 bales, was made in 1827. At the close of the decade Mobile was outranked as a cotton port only by New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston. In tonnage of ships it ranked sixth in the South, after New Orleans, Charleston, Norfolk, Wilmington, and Savannah, in that order. Also of interest to Mobilians in the period was the arrival of a Pittsburgh barge, described as a "horse trough," stacked high with flour and bacon "from the back of Virginia." Of more lasting importance was the establishment of "a regular line of packets, ships of the first class, and of about 300 tons," to run monthly between Mobile and New York.
Three travelers who passed through Mobile during the 1820's have left some noteworthy impressions of the town. One New York businessman's report, as described in Niles' Weekly Register, was that eight steamboats were operating on the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers in 1823. The well-known and stolid Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, in January, 1826, praised the people for their erection of several brick houses and other buildings of the same kind of material. But he feigned astonishment at finding a number of gambling houses, kept by Frenchmen, paying a yearly tax of $1,000 each to city authorities for a license. He remarked, too, that he had been told that "respectable merchants were in the habit of going there to have an eye on their clerks, and also to observe what mechanics, or other small tradesmen, played [there, in order to] stop giving credit to such as haunted the resorts of these gentry...." No matter how naive the Duke might have been, he could have observed that among others frequenting the places were up-country planters who undoubtedly often managed to indulge in such activities while on their business trips to Mobile. Moreover, it is not too much to assume that merchants and planters conducted an appreciable share of their more sedate business over the gaming tables. The third traveler to be mentioned is the choleric and crusty Britisher, Captain Basil Hall, who, while in Mobile, was as usual mostly concerned with his personal comforts. He arrived in the city shortly after a devastating fire had destroyed about two-thirds of the city's business property. Hall later complained, "On the 7th of April , we reached what remained of Mobile, for the town had been almost entirely burnt down not quite six months before.... One of the few buildings which had escaped the fire, was a large hotel, and this, as might be supposed, was overcrowded from top to bottom, so that we had to squeeze into a most uncomfortable corner."
The fire mentioned by Captain Hall was indeed a dreadful occurrence, one report being as follows: "We have a list of the houses destroyed by the late fire [on October 21, 1827] at Mobile—they amount to one hundred and sixty-nine, exclusive of back buildings or outhouses, and much damage was done to the wharves. About 7-8th of the buildings destroyed were wood - hence the extent of the calamity. In many instances, entire sets of books of the merchants were destroyed [and] of course, large quantities of goods and furniture." But from this chaos the city proceeded almost immediately into one of its greatest boom periods before the Civil War. In 1830 it had a population of slightly more than 3,000 and ten years later 12,000 or more. Of all the cities of the United States having 10,000 people and over in the year 1840, Mobile's increase during the 1830's was proportionately the greatest. Editorializing in 1833 the Mobile Register proclaimed, "Six years ago, this city of Mobile was reduced to ashes, by a dreadful conflagration—it has since risen in all the vigor and beauty of a phoenix."
Such unusual developments resulted, as always, from unusual causes. In the first place the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians (estimated at about 19,200 in Alabama in 1829) were deprived of their Alabama lands during this period. About one-third of present-day Alabama was thereby opened to white settlers and by 1840 the state's population shot up to nearly 600,000, almost doubling in the ten-year period. Furthermore, cotton output in the state more than tripled during the 1830's, mainly as a result of an extraordinary increase in the Black Belt and South Alabama and in other portions of the newly settled Indian lands. South Alabama, which from this period must be designated merely as those regions trading directly with Mobile, pushed its cotton production from slightly over 100,000 bales in 1830 to more than 300,000 in 1838. This spectacular increase resulted primarily from the introduction of a new type of blightproof cotton and improved methods of drilling for water in the Black Belt area. Altogether, the amazing total of nearly 1,850,000 bales, each weighing approximately 500 pounds, was shipped to Mobile from between 1830 to 1839. In the first half of the decade cotton prices rose steadily from about 9¢ to 14¢ per pound. But with a greater output in Alabama and the South, coupled with the effects of the nation-wide panic of 1837, prices declined to 7¢ in 1839.
Excerpted from Ante-Bellum Alabama by Weymouth T. Jordan. Copyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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