Agriculture was practiced by Indians such as the Creeks and Cherokee in the east, and the Choctaws and Chickasaws in the west when Spanish explorers arrived. The first known European contact with what would become Alabama occurred in 1519 when Alonso Alvarez de Pineda sailed in Mobile Bay. Cabeza de Vaca (and possibly Pánfilo de Narvaez) visited Alabama in 1528, and the Spanish did not really explore the area for another two decades, when Hernando de Soto led an expedition into the region about 1540.
Conflict between the Spanish and local Indian tribes, as well as French and English explorers, kept the Spanish from establishing a colony. The first permanent European settlers in Alabama were French. The LeMoyne brothers, Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d'Iberville, and Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, sailed into Mobile Bay in 1699, and in 1702 the French were established at Fort Louis de la Mobile, the first permanent European presence, near present day Mobile.
The French and British contended for the furs gathered by Native Americans. The British gained control of the area in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris after the French and Indian Wars, but had to cede almost all the Alabama region to the U.S. and Spain after the American Revolution. When Spain declared war on Great Britain in 1779, the American Revolution came to Alabama. In 1780, Bernardo Galvez captured Mobile from the British. At the close of the American Revolution, Great Britain ceded (1783) to the United States all lands east of the Mississippi except the Floridas (see West Florida Controversy). The Territory of Mississippi, which included parts of present-day Alabama, was set up in 1798, but the land was still largely a wilderness with a considerable fur trade, centered at Saint Stephens, and with only the beginnings of cotton cultivation.
In 1795, the Treaty of San Lorenzo more specifically stated that all Alabama lands below the 31st parallel belonged to Spain, and lands above the 31st parallel belonged to the United States and in turn to the Native Americans living there. At the same time the Ellicott Line was being surveyed, “squatters” (those having no legal claim to the lands they settled) began to move into Alabama forcing the various tribes off their lands. Washington, the first Alabama county, was created in 1800 from Mississippi Territory. The area below the 31st parallel was added to Mississippi Territory in 1812.
Both the fur trade and cotton production were interrupted during the War of 1812, when part of the Creek Confederacy began attacking under William Weatherford. Andrew Jackson defeated a group of Native Americans at Horseshoe Bend on Mar. 27, 1814. That victory, coupled with the British demand for cotton, ushered in a period of heavy settlement. New settlers poured into the Alabama region, especially from Georgia and Tennessee. The wealthy newcomers settled in the fertile bottomlands and established large plantations based on slave labor, which helped to produce cotton for the markets of Southern ports. Poorer newcomers took over less fertile uplands, where they eked out a living. The population grew to such an extent that the Territory of Alabama, taking Saint Stephens as its capital, was set up in 1817 with William W. Bibb as governor; two years later it became a state, and, in 1835, the last native lands were ceded.
During those early years of statehood the most significant genealogical event was the opening of lands formerly held by Native Americans to white settlers between 1802 and 1835. Mary Elizabeth Young, Redskins, Ruffleshirts and Rednecks: Indian Allotments in Alabama and Mississippi, 1830–1860 (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), details these developments. By 1840 all but a few scattered tribes had been moved west beyond the Mississippi River.
Alabama suffered economic and agricultural problems in the 1840s and 1850s. The financial panic and depression which swept across the United States in 1837 resulted in banking problems that caused many Alabamians to lose their savings. Crops were ruined by drought, and several epidemics of yellow fever brought added suffering.
In Alabama the slave-owning planters were dominant because of the prosperous cotton crop, and as the Civil War loomed closer, the support of Southern rights and secession sentiment grew under the urging of “fire-eaters” such as William L. Yancey. And it was there in Montgomery, which was named the as the permanent state capital in 1846, that on 11 January 1861, that the Ordinance of Secession was passed, forming the Confederate States of America.
The government of the Confederacy was organized at Montgomery on Feb. 4, 1861. Montgomery was named as the capital of the fledgling nation and Jefferson Davis became the first president of the Confederacy.
One of the principal naval battles of the war was won by Admiral D. G. Farragut in Mobile Bay in August of 1864, coupled with Sherman's march to the sea in Georgia cut off the two major seaports of the Confederacy and harkened the end of the bloodiest conflict in American history.
However, most of the state was not occupied in force until 1865. When compared with other Confederate states, Alabama, with the exception of the Mobile area, experienced relatively little military action. However, the conflict devastated the economic, political, and social life of the state. Though the state was readmitted to the Union on 25 June 1868, the devastation continued through the Reconstruction period. The deepening poverty experienced resulted in mass migration. Alabama ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, but in 1867 it refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and was placed under military rule. That rule ended the following year when a new state legislature operating under a new constitution approved the Fourteenth Amendment. However, federal troops did not leave Alabama until 1876, and African Americans continued to suffer enormous oppression for decades.
In the Reconstruction era Alabama's government was dominated by the so-called carpetbaggers and scalawags, and corruption was widespread. Few reforms emerged during the period; but the mining of coal and iron was expanded by Daniel Pratt and his successor, H. F. De Bardeleben, marking the rise of industry in Alabama.
In the 1860s and 1870s, 10 to 15 percent of the entire white population of Alabama migrated, with a third of these migrants going to Texas. Railroads were completed across the state in the 1870s, leading to the industry of mining of Alabama's rich mineral deposits of coal, iron ore, and limestone. By 1880, steel, iron, lumber, and textile industries were rapidly expanding.
In 1915 the boll weevil devastated the state's one crop cotton economy, forcing a diversification in agriculture. FDR's New Deal touched the northern part of the state as the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) brought work to the northern part of the state during the deepest darkest hours of the Depression. The construction of locks and dams along the Tennessee River brought commercial barge navigation, as well as electricity, to the rural areas along the river.
Alabama's industry and commerce grew with the United States' entry into World War I. Agricultural production increased, and a significant growth in Mobile's shipbuilding industry led to increased foreign trade. During the Great Depression, Alabamians suffered new financial hardships. The Tennessee Valley Authority, established in 1933 by the federal government, developed dams and power plants on the Tennessee River for inexpensive electricity, boosting Alabama's industrial growth.
World War II led to expansion of the state's agricultural and industrial production, and installation of several military training sites, including Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville —which launched the United States into the space age.
During the 1950s and 1960s, agriculture and industry became more diversified, requiring fewer agricultural workers who were forced to seek employment in urban areas outside the state. Alabama faced serious racial questions during the time period. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, the 381-day bus boycott brought the Civil Rights movement to the front page of newspapers across the country.
In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision ruling racial segregation in public elementary and secondary schools unconstitutional, and the decision was followed by an intensification of racial tension (see integration). Alabama has witnessed many civil-rights protests, including a year-long black boycott of public buses in Montgomery in 1955–56 to protest segregated seating and a Freedom March from Montgomery to Selma led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
George C. Wallace, a Democrat elected governor in 1962, fought the federally ordered integration of schools in Alabama. He was reelected three times: 1970, 1974, and 1982, the final time with substantial African-American support. In 1968 he entered the U.S. presidential race as the candidate of the American Independent party. He ran for the presidency twice more—in 1972 and 1976.
Since the late 1970s, public attention has largely shifted to economic issues, and major efforts have been made to achieve growth by encouraging further diversification of manufacturing industries. A notable success in this campaign was the building by Mercedes-Benz of auto assembly plant in Alabama. The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a 254-mile (682-km) canal connecting the port of Mobile with the industries that have developed in N Alabama and elsewhere along the Tennessee, opened in 1985. In 1995 Hurricane Opal caused extensive damage in Alabama as far north as Montgomery.