Alabama, which became the 22nd state to join the Union in 1819, is located in the southern United States and nicknamed the “Heart of Dixie.” Europeans reached the area in the 16th century.
During the first half of the 19th century, cotton and slave labor were central to Alabama’s economy. The state played a key role in the American Civil War; Montgomery was the Confederacy’s first capital. Following the war, segregation prevailed throughout much of the South. In the mid-20th century, Alabama was at the center of the American Civil Rights Movement.
In the early 21st century, jobs in aerospace, agriculture, auto production and the service sector helped drive the state’s economy.
Alabama Native American History
The region that became Alabama was first occupied by humans more than 10,000 years ago. When Europeans arrived in the 16th century, Native Americans had already formed into societies including the Choctaws, the Chickasaws and an association of Muskogean-speaking tribes known as the Creeks. Smaller groups included the Alabama-Coushattas and the Yuchis.
The Creeks traded deerskins and Native American slaves, whom they had captured from other tribes, with colonists from Florida and South Carolina. Up until the 1830s, the nation continued to grow to an estimated 22,000 people, in part because it welcomed refugees from other tribes, such as the Shawnee and Chickasaw. In addition, the Creeks adopted a stance of neutrality with Spanish, French and British colonists that helped the nation to flourish following the Yamasee War (1715-1717) against colonists in South Carolina.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Chickasaws frequently attacked the Choctaws, taking captives they then sold as slaves to British plantation owners. The Choctaws and Chickasaws entered into decades of war beginning in the early 1800s. Fighting was fueled by an alliance between the Choctaws and the French. The Chickasaws and Choctaws finally established peace during the French and Indian War, helped along by France’s loss in 1763 to the British.
During the Revolutionary War (1775-83), Native Americans in Alabama sided with the British. From 1813-1814, the Creek War broke out, as parts of the Creek nation became frustrated with the Americans’ intrusion on their territory and culture and began fighting back. Although the Chickasaws, Choctaws and Cherokees backed the Americans during the Creek War, these groups were forced to gradually cede their land to the United States over a series of treaties in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Protestant missionaries also attempted to Christianize and westernize these tribes.
After the U.S. government passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Indigenous people in Alabama and other southeastern states gave up their remaining land. Some moved on their own to “Indian Territory,” or modern-day Oklahoma. Many—especially the Creeks and Cherokees—refused to leave and were forcibly removed on what became known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands died along the way. Today, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians is the only federally-recognized tribe in Alabama.
Alabama Colonial History
The Spanish, British and French fought for control of the southeastern United States from the 1600s through the end of the 18th century. In 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s crew first arrived and began to explore the territory now known as Alabama, enslaving Native Americans on their search to find gold. On and off over the next century and a half, various Spanish explorers visited parts of the area and occupied Pensacola Bay.
In 1599, French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville began exploring the Alabama coast near Mobile Point and began construction in Biloxi Bay. His brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, established the first European settlement at Fort Louis de La Louisiane in 1702, which was replaced by Mobile in 1711.
After the end of the French and Indian War, in 1763, the French were forced to cede all of their territory in the United States. The British took possession of everything east of the Mississippi River, including Alabama, and the Spanish took the western lands. At the start of the Revolutionary War, Spain joined forces with the American colonists against the British, and Spanish Louisana governor Bernardo de Gálvez sieged Pensacola, Louisiana, retaking the territory for the Spanish. In 1783, southern Alabama was officially recognized by Spain as part of its colony of West Florida, along with parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.
Alabama Territory and Statehood
The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, gave former British lands to the Americans, including the northern parts of Alabama. The Mississippi Territory was established in 1798, bordered by West Florida on the south and encompassed much of modern-day Mississippi and Alabama. Alabama Territory was carved out of the western section of the Mississippi Territory in 1817.
Meanwhile, American settlers in West Florida rebelled against the Spanish occupation in 1810. In 1819, the U.S. acquired East and West Spanish Florida from Spain, paying $5 million for the damage done by the American rebels. Part of the territory was incorporated into the state of Alabama. After Alabama was granted statehood on December 14, 1819, the population exploded from 1,250 people in 1800 to 127,901 in 1820.
Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction
Plantation agriculture maintained by slaves played a central role in the economy of early Alabama so that by the time it became a state in 1819 about one-third of its population were slaves. Many of Alabama’s settlers at the time were slave-owning cotton farmers from Georgia and South Carolina. Large slave auction houses were located in Montgomery and Mobile. Slaves flowed into Alabama from the upper South, so there were more than 435,000 slaves—nearly half of the state’s population—in the early 1860s.
Although the international slave trade was banned in 1808, the high demand for slave labor led to illegal slave runs until the eve of the Civil War. In 2019, the wreckage of the last U.S. slave ship, the Clotilda, was found at the bottom of the Mobile River in Alabama. Some of the descendants of that 1860 voyage still live near Mobile today, in a settlement created by their ancestors known as Africatown.
Following President Abraham Lincoln’s election, Alabama and six other states who feared he would abolish slavery seceded from the Union in January 1861 to form the Confederate states. Most of northern Alabama—which relied much less on slavery than the southern part of the state—had opposed secession. It was captured in 1863 and remained a Union stronghold for the rest of the war.
Alabama was spared most of the serious damage that occurred in southern states during the Civil War, although the state supplied more than 82,000 soldiers along with food and munitions. The Union’s victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864 meant the state was squeezed by enemy forces from the north and the south. On April 12, 1865, Alabama surrendered.
At the end of the war, slavery was abolished in Alabama, and more than 440,000 Black slaves were freed and assimilated into society with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau. During Reconstruction, Alabama passed black codes limiting the freedom of former Black slaves. The federal government worked to influence the state’s constitution, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white supremacist groups responded with violence and even murder.
The Civil Rights Movement
In the 1870s, white Democrats gained power in the Alabama legislature. They passed Jim Crow laws that instituted racial segregation, rolling back suffrage and other laws protecting Black citizens’ rights. Lynching increased along with the resurgence of the KKK in 1915. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted the Tuskegee experiment on Black Alabamans—a horrific sequel to gynecologist James Marion Sims’ experiments on enslaved Black women in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late 19th century.
Black Alabamans became a driving force of the modern Civil Rights Movement, which arguably began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. Over the next year, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a 26-year-old local Black pastor, led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. African Americans, who made up the majority of paying passengers, refused to ride the bus in the city.
Activists across the state began pushing for equal rights for Black citizens. Following the Greensboro sit-in in North Carolina to protest segregation, Alabama university students soon began to organize and participate in sit-ins. In 1961, Freedom Riders protested segregated bus terminals throughout Alabama and other southern states by using “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters.
In 1963, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized a campaign of sit-ins, marches and boycotts of stores to desegregate Birmingham, which had gained a reputation as the most segregated city in America. A desegregation agreement was reached in May, and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa desegregated in June. White supremacists were infuriated and retaliated by killing four Black children in the Birmingham church bombing that September.
The battle for civil rights in Alabama continued, notably with the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. This series of protests culminated with “Bloody Sunday,” when unarmed protestors were beaten by police in Selma, Alabama. The event's media coverage elicited outrage that became a turning point in the civil rights movement with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the 1800s, African Americans made up most of the population growth in Alabama. From the Civil War to the 1960s, the state’s population remained largely static. During the Great Migration of the 1910s to the 1970s, around one-third of Black people born in Alabama moved to large Northern and Western cities. Around the same time, large numbers of white Alabamans also moved to surround southern states.
Immigration to Alabama picked up in the 1970s, as residents of nearby southern states began coming to the Alabama “Sun Belt” for manufacturing and other jobs. Starting in the early 21st century, a trickle of immigrants began moving to Alabama for the first time, mainly from Mexico, Central America, Germany, Korea and Vietnam.
Date of Statehood: December 14, 1819
Population: 5,024,279 (2020)
Size: 52,420 square miles
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Nickname(s): The Yellowhammer State; The Heart of Dixie; The Cotton State
Motto: Audemus jura nostra defendere (“We dare maintain our rights”)
Tree: Southern Longleaf Pine
Bird: Yellowhammer Woodpecker (Northern Flicker)
- In 1919, the city of Enterprise erected a monument to the boll weevil in recognition of the destructive insect’s role in saving the county’s economy by encouraging farmers to grow more lucrative crops such as peanuts instead of traditional cotton.
- The DeSoto Caverns near the city of Birmingham, which contain a 2,000-year-old Native American burial site, served as a clandestine speakeasy with dancing and gambling during Prohibition.
- The Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American flying unit in the U.S. military, were trained in Alabama. Their accomplished combat record, including the accumulation of more than 850 medals, was an important factor in President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.
- The Saturn V rocket that made it possible for humans to land on the moon was designed in Huntsville, Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, American Indians in Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Creeks in Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Creek War of 1813-14.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Chickasaws in Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Choctaws in Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Cherokees in Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Spanish West Florida.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Territorial Period and Early Statehood.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Slavery.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Civil War in Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Reconstruction in Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Reconstruction Constitutions.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Great Migration From Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Modern Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.
Encyclopedia of Alabama, Bloody Sunday.
Muscle Shoals Native Heritage Area, Native Heritage.
Poarch Creek Indians, History.
U.S. Department of State, Acquisition of Florida: Treaty of Adams-Onis (1819) and Transcontinental Treaty (1821).
Equal Justice Initiative, Slave Trade in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade.
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Africatown Alabama, U.S.A.
Library of Congress, Time Line of the Civil War: 1861.
University of Richmond, The Rebellion in Alabama.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Tuskegee Timeline.
University of Washington, Alabama Migration History 1850-2018.