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The Mississippi Territory
After a long period as a province claimed by various colonial powers, Alabama's road toward statehood began in 1798 with the formation of the Mississippi Territory. The future state would eventually be carved from the eastern half of the territory. Slow growth, a disunited government, sectional rivalry, and international intrigue plagued the region in its first decade of existence.
The land that became Alabama once lay at the heart of the original American Southwest. Literally south and west of the more established Atlantic seaboard states, the region existed throughout the revolutionary period until well into the nineteenth century as a frontier borderland on the periphery of the mainstream of American cultural, political, and economic life. Relatively remote and containing a small American population, most of the area lay in Native American hands until well into the territorial years despite the grand claims of ownership by various European powers and the nascent American government.
Although Spanish explorers had surveyed its coastline or trekked through what became Alabama as early as the first half of the sixteenth century, it had been the French who conducted the first sustained efforts at colonization beginning in 1702 with the founding of Mobile. That initial experiment in settlement launched a century of European involvement in what became Alabama. From their Gulf Coast administrative centers, the French claimed to oversee an enormous swath of the North American continent, but in truth they had little presence in Alabama beyond its coastal areas during their six decades as the preeminent colonial power in the region. In 1763 the British acquired all lands the French claimed in North America as a result of France's defeat in the French and Indian War. The British incorporated the southern half of the future state of Alabama into the colony of West Florida during their administration of the region, but they, like the French before them, likewise had little presence in the land north of Mobile outside of a few scattered and lightly manned military outposts.
During the Revolutionary War, Spain seized the opportunity to take the lightly defended area from the distracted British and claimed by conquest all of Florida after seizing forts at Pensacola, Mobile, and along the Mississippi River. Spain thus replaced the British as the colonial authority in nominal control of what would become Alabama beginning in 1783. Spain had little more presence in the region than its predecessors, though, and by 1795 had yielded to American pressure to pull back from its claims to territory above the 31st parallel — just north of Mobile — in the Treaty of San Lorenzo. Local authorities headquartered at Natchez along the Mississippi River refused to comply with the treaty at first, however, using a variety of delaying tactics in the hope the compact might be overturned. At length acquiescing, American forces finally took control of all Spanish territory north of the 31st parallel in March 1798.
On April 7, 1798, President John Adams approved the act of Congress creating the Mississippi Territory from this land. Congress officially placed its northern boundary at the point where the Yazoo River emptied into the Mississippi, or 32º28' latitude. At this time surveyor Andrew Ellicott had already begun his work marking the southern boundary, between the United States and Spanish Florida, which stretched along the 31st parallel from the Mississippi in the west to the Chattahoochee in the east. In 1804 Congress would add to this rectangular strip of land all the territory south of Tennessee and lying between the Mississippi and Georgia's western boundary once Georgia relinquished its long-standing claims to the region. Citing its colonial charter of 1732, Georgia had long claimed dubious title to land stretching all the way to the Mississippi. At least three times in the late 1700s, various officials attempted to sanction the disposal of some of these western lands for profit, with a particularly corrupt scheme known as the Yazoo Fraud hatched in 1795, which featured outright bribery of public officials to push the deal through. While the Georgia legislature rescinded the act a year later, the issue took years for Congress to sort out.
The Mississippi Territory's borders remained in this situation until the War of 1812, when the United States annexed portions of what had been Spanish West Florida. Residents of the territory had never been comfortable with foreign lands lying along their southern border and separating them from the gulf, into which most the region's major rivers emptied. Not only did colonial authorities hamper economic life in the territory by arbitrarily closing ports or imposing onerous export duties on shipping, residents also feared they worked to incite Indians to resistance of American settlement of the region. In a rather flimsy but convenient attempt to annex West Florida prior to the War of 1812, American officials and local residents claimed as early as 1804 that the Spanish colony belonged to the United States via the terms of the Louisiana Purchase signed in 1803. Rebellions and rumors of uprisings flared along the border for nearly a decade afterward. Following a successful insurgency in the westernmost portion of the colony in 1810 — what has become known in history as the West Florida Rebellion — American officials on paper proclaimed the annexation of the entirety of Spanish territory stretching between the Mississippi and the Perdido Rivers. The Spanish tacitly acknowledged the loss of land west of the Pearl River by making no effort to reclaim it but refused to remove troops from the administrative center of Mobile. Less than a year after the United States declared war on Spain's ally, Great Britain, in 1812, General James Wilkinson arrived at Mobile with a combined army and navy force and demanded the surrender of Fort Carlota, ostensibly to prevent the outpost from supplying aid to Britain. Outmanned and outgunned, the small Spanish garrison surrendered without firing a shot. The portion of West Florida lying between the Pearl and the Perdido was at last under American control and was immediately incorporated into the Mississippi Territory.
This enormous swath of the southwestern frontier, stretching fully from the Tennessee state line to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Chattahoochee to the Mississippi Rivers, included some of the choicest agricultural land on the continent. Little of it had been cleared for that purpose when it first came under American control, though, outside of scattered small Native American plots. Dense forests with ancient hardwoods and pines dominated most of the landscape, their "depths the last rays of the sun could scarcely penetrate," according to one traveler, and they offered the promise of ample building material at a time when wooden construction predominated. Thick vegetation of all sorts covered the land's surface; canebrakes so dense a man could not enter them, and flowers, shrubs, and vines innumerable proliferated throughout the region. Tall grasses grew in the meadows that opened between patches of forest. A wide variety of indigenous fruits, edible greens, and vegetables grew across the new territory. With its mild climate, abundant rainfall, and series of rivers capable of supporting trade between the fertile interior and the coastal outlets, the Mississippi Territory appeared rich with potential.
Almost all of the region's great promise as part of the expanding American union lay as unrealized potential until well into the territorial period, however. The "Americanization" of the future state of Alabama proceeded slowly, in truth not beginning in earnest until after the War of 1812. Alabama in 1811 therefore in some respects had more in common with its appearance in 1711 than the burgeoning new state that would enter the American union less than a decade later. As late as 1810, only a few isolated, widely separated pockets of non-Indian settlement existed on small tracts within the territory. These had been occupied with the official permission of Native Americans. In the western portion of the Mississippi Territory, along its namesake Mississippi River, a particularly desirable triangular tract known as the Natchez District had emerged as the primary of the two regions of the territory with any sizable American population. The district's European settlement dated to the colonial era, but during the Revolutionary War era, hundreds of loyalists and various other land seekers found their way there at the invitation of the Spanish, who hoped to build up the area's population as a buffer to encroachment on their other colonial landholdings. Its legal settlement by Americans was confirmed by the 1801 Treaty of Fort Adams with the Choctaws. Along with the city of Natchez, developing settlements at Walnut Hills (Vicksburg), Port Gibson, and Woodville sprang up in and adjacent to the district as some of the Mississippi Territory's earliest American cities worthy of the title. Natchez, originally laid out by the Spanish in the 1780s along a high bluff on the Mississippi but tracing its history back to a military outpost of French in the early 1700s, emerged as by far the largest commercial and population center in the area. In the first decade of the nineteenth century it ranked as the largest city between New Orleans and the Ohio Valley and had already established itself as the territory's one true metropolis. Natchez in truth could be described as two closely associated communities, one a sophisticated urban center on the bluff and the other a gritty river port known as Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Altogether Natchez featured a concentration of business activity, cultural endeavors, and political power unrivaled anywhere in the Southwest throughout most of the territorial period.
In the eastern section of the territory lay the lone other area of concentrated American settlement in the form of a series of farmsteads, plantations, and coalescing small communities along the Tensaw River and the lower reaches of the Alabama and Tombigbee north of Mobile. Similar to the Natchez District in that its non-Indian settlement dated to the colonial era with the permission of the Choctaw and the Creeks, it also had become the destination of loyalists and various other traders and opportunists with the blessing of the Spanish after the revolutionary era. Even though these settlements featured no true cities, they would compose virtually the entirety of American influence in what would become Alabama for nearly the first decade of the Mississippi Territory's existence. In fact, the first county in the future state, Washington, would have as its nucleus some of this area of settlement even though its original boundaries technically encompassed a wide expanse of land stretching all the way from the Pearl River in what is today Mississippi to the Chattahoochee. Around 1806, following the negotiation of treaties with the Cherokee and Chickasaw in the northern extremity of the territory, a section of the "Big Bend" of the Tennessee River would be opened for settlement and lead to the creation of a second area of American presence in the future state. Its settlement would be so rapid that within five years the area, including Madison County and its principal city, Huntsville, would be on the path to preeminence in the eastern section of the Mississippi Territory. In the remainder of the hinterland of the future state prior to 1810, though, the only other significant American presence lay in the form of the homesteads of a few Indian countrymen, independent traders who had chosen to establish themselves among the area's native communities and who often married Indian women. Perhaps the best-documented of this small group of a few dozen individuals living in what became Alabama at the time is Abraham Mordecai, a Jewish trader who had settled near the future site of Montgomery as early as 1785 and who is credited with the introduction of the first cotton gin into Alabama.
On its creation of the Mississippi Territory, Congress established a makeshift government at Natchez copied from that of the Northwest Territory (established in 1787). This government featured a limited number of appointed officials. As soon as the territory reached a population of five thousand free male inhabitants, it could transition to a second stage of territorial government featuring a bicameral legislature with members of the lower house popularly elected. It would also at that time be granted a congressional delegate. President John Adams appointed stern New Englander Winthrop Sargent as the territory's first governor. Perceived as haughty and out of touch with the needs of the region's settlers, Sargent proved unpopular from the start. The other officials appointed by federal authorities to assist him in establishing a government were late to arrive, which only made matters worse, as their tardiness literally forced Sargent to govern by himself at times. Discontent with the governor only grew in the wake of his attempt to codify the laws of the territory in 1799. Local detractors disparaged the laws as unconstitutional and derisively referred to them as "Sargent's Code." Bowing to mounting local complaints, in 1800 Congress authorized the territory to proceed to the second stage of government despite not having reached the population requirement that would legally allow it to do so. Later that year when Thomas Jefferson won election as president, he replaced Sargent with the ambitious twenty-six-year-old rising political star W. C. C. Claiborne.
Claiborne's administration would move the Mississippi Territory forward on a number of fronts but be plagued by variations of the pervasive factionalism and infighting that had doomed Sargent. The governor helped further organize the territory by the creation of new counties and organization of a militia and by initiating concerted efforts to resolve the tangle of conflicting land claims in portions of the region that cruelly vexed both territorial and federal officials. In some areas, French, Spanish, English, and American grants overlapped on the same piece of property and thus impeded settlement. Claiborne found developing consensus within his politically divided government to be difficult, despite his tact and diplomacy, as party politics and an ongoing Republican-Federalist feud shadowed the governor's every decision. The partisan rancor is best exemplified by the movement of the territorial capital. In one of the first acts of the new territorial legislature after Claiborne's appointment, the newly empowered local Republican Party affiliates had chosen to move the territorial capital from Natchez, perceived as a Federalist Party stronghold, to the tiny village of Washington — allegedly more suitable to Republican tastes — a mere six miles away. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson sent Governor Claiborne to New Orleans to accept the transfer of the recently purchased Louisiana Territory (the Louisiana Purchase). He would not return; the next year he would be appointed as first governor of the newly created Orleans Territory.
Native North Carolinian Robert Williams served as the Mississippi Territory's next appointed executive, being elevated from his post as land commissioner to the executive office by President Jefferson. Preceded by acting interim governor Cato West and followed by another temporary de facto executive, Cowles Mead, Williams presided over one of the most tumultuous interludes in territorial affairs before abruptly resigning in apparent frustration at a thankless task in dealing with the organized factions working against him. Dissension reigned during Williams's tenure on a number of fronts, especially in the developing eastern section of the territory. Remote, overlooked, and having little contact with the seat of government along the Mississippi, the "backwoods" — practically the entirety of the territory east of the Pearl River — chafed at its neglect and in at least two respects threatened to take matters into its own hands counter to the wishes of authorities. First, in a development that would fester in regional political life for the better part of two decades, easterners began to advocate for the territory's division. As early as 1803 residents of the area that became Alabama sent formal petitions to Congress requesting they be allowed to establish a government separate from that in distant Natchez. They claimed that the "settlements on the Mobile Tombecbee and Alabama rivers are composed of people different in their manners and customs, different in their interests, & nature appears never to have designed the two countries to be under the same Government." Second, filibusters and various other adventurers working with rebels along both sides of the border with West Florida began to scheme for ways to seize the colony from the Spanish, whom they deeply resented for their ability to control the gulf outlets of most of the region's navigable rivers. Efforts to monitor and prevent a full-blown international conflict along this largely unguarded and disaffected frontier thus occupied an increasing amount of time for territorial officials who had neither the means nor the manpower to exert their authority in the expansive region. In the hub of American settlement in the eastern section of the territory north of Mobile, for example, Judge Harry Toulmin served for many years as the lone representative of territorial government in many respects, fulfilling the roles of several offices simultaneously out of necessity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Early ALABAMA"
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