Alabama Family History Research
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This entry was originally written by Robert S. Davis and Mary Bess Paluzzi for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Alabama shares the rich cultural history of the Southeastern region. From 1519, when the first Spanish explorer, Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, navigated Mobile Bay, the state was claimed, explored, and then settled by the Spanish, French, and British.
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. By 1702, Fort Louis (on the present site of Mobile) had been settled as the capital of the French colony known as Louisiana.
With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French ceded most of Louisiana to Great Britain. When Spain declared war on Great Britain in 1779, the American Revolution came to Alabama. In 1780, Bernardo Galvez captured Mobile from the British. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 ceded to Spain the British holdings in the Mobile region.
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. The area below the 31st parallel was added to Mississippi Territory in 1812. Later counties were created as more white settlers moved into ceded native lands until Alabama Territory was created on 3 March 1817. Alabama became a state on 14 December 1819 and, in 1835, the last native lands were ceded. Massive waves of settlement from both Europeans and African Americans came with the opening of this territory as federal lands.
During the 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 1838. These developments are detailed in Mary Elizabeth Young, Redskins, Ruffleshirts and Rednecks: Indian Allotments in Alabama and Mississippi, 1830–1860 (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961). By 1840, all but a few scattered remnants of 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 that 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.
Economic rivalry between the industrial North and the agricultural South raised conflicts concerning states’ rights and slavery. The unresolved conflict deepened until, on 11 January 1861, Alabama seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America.
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. The state was readmitted to the Union on 25 June 1868, though the Reconstruction period led to deepening poverty and mass migration. 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 built across the state in the 1870s, expanding 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, creating the cities of Anniston, Birmingham, and Cullman.
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 the 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. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted from 1955 to 1956, the Birmingham demonstrations in 1963, and the Selma March in 1965 attracted much media attention. With the passage of the U.S. Voting Rights Act in August 1965, African Americans played an increasing role in local and state politics and commerce.