The earliest inhabitants of what is now called Alabama were Native American mound builders. The first Europeans to reach Alabama were Spanish explorers in the 16th century, who journeyed inland in 1539 under Hernando De Soto in search of gold. An initial settlement in 1559 by Spanish colonists from Mexico in the Mobile Bay area was abandoned, and Spain made little further effort to settle the area.
Native Americans had little immunity to new diseases brought by Europeans and their society suffered greatly – thousands became ill and died, and many villages were abandoned. Survivors merged into larger tribes/nations, so that by the 18th century few of the peoples De Soto met were still organized under the same names. Most Native Americans became members of four major Native American Nations (the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, and the Creek Confederacy). The French were the first successful colonizers in Alabama and in 1682 claimed Louisiana, which included Alabama and extended from the Gulf Coast to Canada. Early settlements were fortified trading posts along the Mobile River and included the initial French seat of government for the territory, but the French influence waned as the Native Americans began to favor British traders from the Carolinas and Georgia who provided better quality products at a lower price. Great Britain and France fought a series of wars climaxing with the French Indian War (1754-1763), which was a decisive British victory that removed the French from North America. While Mobile was incorporated into West Florida (a colony that Spain ceded to Britain at that time), all of Alabama north of the panhandle became Reservation Lands for the Indians. White settlement in this reservation without permission of the Native Americans was forbidden by king’s order, bringing resentment from British colonists. Following the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) West Florida was returned to Spain and Alabama was given to the United States, who formed the Mississippi Territory including present-day Alabama and Mississippi.
In the early 1800s the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, and the Creek War all had a profound impact on Alabama which became a separate Territory, and then on December 14, 1819, the 22nd state of the Union. The state capital moved from Huntsville, to Cahaba, to Tuscaloosa, and finally to Montgomery. With an influx of settlers the population more than doubled, and pressure intensified with the Native Americans. Under the administration of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) these Indian nations were forced to give up their lands and move west of the Mississippi. This was a radical departure from previous purchase and trade agreements, and this forced removal to designated Indian territories further west led to both the Creek removal and Trail of Tears.
Cotton became the cash crop of Alabama and the plantation system, organized around slave labor, was adopted from Virginia. Slavery was one of the most divisive political issues nationally during this half of the century and the Southern states were convinced slavery was essential for agriculture and the North was trying to dominate the economy. The platform of Southern Rights led the way to Alabama finally seceding from the Union following Lincoln’s election in 1860. Alabama invited the other seceding states to Montgomery in 1861 to consider forming a Southern nation. There they established a confederacy, the Confederate States of America, and elected as their president Jefferson Davis, who took the oath of office at the Alabama state capitol. Montgomery became the first capital of the Confederacy, which later moved to Virginia. In the reconstruction following the Civil War, Alabama refused to ratify the 14th Amendment extending rights to blacks, and in 1867 was put under military rule until finally readmitted to the union in 1868 when blacks and pro-Union southerners joined to form the Republican Party and gained control. Railroads were built and industry began to emerge afterward and Democrats regained control in 1874. A system of sharecropping soon emerged as an endless cycle of debt (until around WWII), and segregation of public facilities was the standard at the end of the century.
Railroads spawned further industrial growth in the early 1900s though economic expansion was quenched by the Depression. Alabama’s delegation in Congress provided leadership in the recovery programs of the New Deal to diversify the economy (which also included TVA) allowing recovery and expansion to continue. In the 1950s Civil Rights efforts began to focus on integration and with the flashpoint of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King led both the state and nation toward radical reform, persevering through violent opposition. Integration in Alabama came late, though the Supreme Court had ruled it mandatory. Resistance to this order required President Kennedy to send the National Guard to enforce the ruling, but it wasn’t until 1970 that blacks attending integrated schools reached 80% (from only 15% a year earlier).
From the early 19th century, Alabama’s economy was dominated by one crop—cotton. After 1915, however, the boll weevil, a beetle that infests cotton plants, so damaged the state’s cotton crop that farmers began to concentrate on raising livestock and crops other than cotton. Manufacturing began to be important to Alabama with the growth of the iron and steel industry during the early 20th century. Beginning in the 1930s low-cost power provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federal agency, encouraged industrial development. In the late 1990s manufacturing remained the dominant economic sector, with significant contributions to Alabama’s gross product also from the government and service sectors.