The Fascinating History of Mobile AL

Mobile has been around longer than any other Alabama city, so it naturally has a fascinating history that spans many decades. 

From its architecture to its food, this Port City is a small melting pot thanks to the influence of French, Spanish, British, Creole, Catholic, Greek, and African traditions.

In this post, we’re going to take a deep dive into Mobile’s rich history.

Read on to find out how this beautiful city came to be! 

History Of Mobile AL – Conquistadors 

1519 to 1559

1519 to 1559

Mobile Bay was first documented on early Spanish maps as Bahia del Espiritu Santo, indicating that Spanish explorers had been in the area as early as 1500. 

In 1516, Diego de Miruelo and Alonso lvarez de Pineda conducted more extensive explorations of the region. 

Native Americans in the area around Mobile Bay fled and torched their villages as Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition approached in 1528. 

For Hernando de Soto’s expeditions, which wouldn’t begin for another eleven years, these events served as a prologue.

When Hernando de Soto set out to explore Mobile Bay and the surrounding area in 1540, he discovered a Native American tribe called the Muscogee living there. 

His army conquered and destroyed the walled town of Mauvila (sometimes written as Maubila), from which the modern-day city of Mobile got its name. 

Somewhere north of the present location of Mobile is where Chief Tuscaloosa and his soldiers fought. 

In 1559-1561, Tristán de Luna y Arellano led another big voyage in an attempt to establish a permanent Spanish colony nearby at Pensacola.

Related Reading: Black History Of Mobile Al – Click Here To Read.

History Of Mobile AL – Colonial Mobile 

1702 to 1763 (French Louisiana) 

In 1702, French forces led by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville from Fort Maurepas settled along the Mobile River, despite the intermittent presence of the Spanish. 

Fort Louis de la Louisiane, the former name for the place, served as the center of the French colony of Louisiana and was established at Twenty-seven Mile Bluff. 

Since d’Iberville’s brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, had been appointed governor of French Louisiana in 1701, he was responsible for establishing the colony’s foundation under d’Iberville’s leadership. 

Catholicism 

The Roman Catholic Church in Mobile was founded on July 20, 1703, by Jean-Baptiste de la Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, the Bishop of Quebec.

Mobile’s Roman Catholic parish was the very first of its kind on the American Gulf Coast. 

Yellow Fever 

In 1704, 23 ladies, subsequently dubbed the “casquette girls,” traveled from Havana to the colony on the ship Pélican, where they brought with them a case of yellow fever. 

Most of the “casquette girls” did indeed get better, but many of the preexisting colonists and the Native Americans in the area perished. 

During this time, too, the first enslaved Africans arrived on a French supply ship from Saint-Domingue. 

Over the subsequent years, the colony’s population rose to 279 in 1708 before falling to 178 due to illness.

The Royal Charter 

the royal charter

Due to further disease outbreaks and a string of floods, Bienville evacuated the town in 1711 to its current location at the opening of the Mobile River and Mobile Bay. 

Charles Rochon, Gilbert Dardenne, Pierre LeBoeuf, and Claude Parent had first arrived here five years before. 

After moving, Fort Louis was rebuilt using soil and palisades.

Since the colony was losing money, in 1712, Antoine Crozat was given a royal charter to run it for 15 years. 

He was given this charter as a promise that he would give the King a cut of the earnings.

There were 400 people living in the colony. 

Crozat appointed Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, the future founder of Detroit, as governor in 1713. 

Allegations of poor leadership and the colony’s failure to prosper led to his repatriation to France in 1716. 

Once again, Bienville became governor, though he only held office for a year before being replaced by Jean-Michel de Lepinay, who had traveled all the way from France. 

Due to Crozat’s abdication of colonial authority in 1717, Lepinay did not fare any better (after just 5 of the 15 years). 

John Law and his Company of the Indies took over as rulers.

The position of governor of Louisiana fell back to Bienville. 

Bienville opted to relocate the capital from Mobile to Old Biloxi, further to the west, after France went to war with Spain in 1719 and Mobile became a frontline city.

Outpost City 

Mobile became a military and commerce outpost when Biloxi (now in Mississippi) was designated the capital of Louisiana in 1720. 

Fort Condé was christened after Louis Henri, Duc of Bourbon and prince of Condé, who commissioned its construction in 1723. 

Throughout the French period, Mobile continued to serve as a significant trading hub for Europeans and Native Americans. 

Mobilian Jargon would become the simplified trade language used by Europeans and Native Americans from modern-day Florida to Texas.

Related Reading: History Of Mardi Gras King Cake – Read More Here.

1763 to 1780 (British West Florida) 

In 1763, Mobile was annexed by Britain as part of West Florida, making it the “14th British colony.”

The French and Indian War officially ended when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763. 

The city spent the next 13 years under British authority before joining the American Revolutionary War in 1776. 

As a result of the pact, British authority brought prosperity to the West Florida province, which included the Mobile region. 

The British revived the harbor and renamed Fort Condé “Fort Charlotte” in honor of the English Queen. 

Naval supplies, hides, pecans, timber, indigo, and cattle were all major commodities shipped abroad.

1780 to 1812 (Spanish West Florida) 

1780 to 1812 history of mobile al

During the American Revolutionary War, the Spanish took Mobile in 1780 during the Battle of Fort Charlotte.

They kept it under the conditions of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the conflict. 

For more than 30 years, from 1605 to 1813, Mobile was a part of the Spanish West Florida province, governed from Pensacola.

The United States and Spain have negotiated for West Florida for a long time without coming to an agreement. 

Meanwhile, American settlers established themselves and fought Spanish rule.

On September 23, 1810, after planning beginning in June, rebels overpowered the Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge. 

They unfurled the flag of the new republic, the Bonnie Blue Flag.

This marked the beginning of the three-month so-called Republic of West Florida. 

West of the Perdido River, south of the 31st parallel, and east of the Mississippi River were all areas the Republic of West Florida claimed as its territory (excluding the land that had been acquired in the Louisiana Purchase).

The city of Mobile itself was still under Spain’s sovereignty.

History Of Mobile AL -Territorial Period 

1813 to 1817 (Mississippi Territory) 

American settlers had already established themselves in what is now the state of Alabama when the Spanish at Mobile knowingly permitted British merchants to sell weaponry and supplies to the Indians who plagued them. 

General James Wilkinson led a group of American soldiers from New Orleans to seize Mobile during the battle. 

After the Spanish surrendered in April 1813, the territory around Mobile was officially annexed to the Mississippi Territory, and the American flag was flown for the first time.

In September 1814, British soldiers led by Captain Henry Percy attempted to seize Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay, but they were unsuccessful.

1817 to 1819 (Alabama Territory) 

Only four years later, in March 1817, the US state of Mississippi was officially established. 

This divided the former Mississippi Territory in two and made Mobile a part of the new Alabama Territory for the subsequent two years. 

After only two years as a territory, the Alabama Territory became the United States of America’s 25th state in 1819.

History Of Mobile AL – Post-Statehood 

1820 to 1860 (Antebellum) 

1820 to 1860 history of mobile al

Previously a quiet frontier town, trade exploded during the 19th-century cotton boom.

For the next half-century, Mobile thrived as the Gulf Coast’s second-busiest international seaport after New Orleans. 

Cotton was harvested by enslaved people in plantation fields in Mississippi and Alabama and transported downriver via flatboat or steamboat.

This was the economic backbone of the South’s industrial revolution. 

In October 1827, a fire swept across the older part of Mobile, destroying buildings from the Mobile River to Saint Emanuel Street to Government Street. 

Some of the city was destroyed by fire again in 1839, this time between Conti and Government Streets, from Royal to Saint Emanuel Street and both sides of Dauphin to Franklin Street. 

Despite these difficulties, by the 1850s, Mobile had become one of the four busiest US ports.

A cultural zenith was reached as a result of the city’s increased affluence because of this trade.

The popularity of Mobile grew exponentially, both nationally and internationally.

Mobile was proclaimed a diocese of the Roman Catholic Church around the same time, further distinguishing the more cosmopolitan port from the mostly Protestant hinterlands of Alabama. 

During this period, what would later be known as McGill-Toolen Catholic High School was also founded. 

In 1830, Bishop Michael Portier created Spring Hill College, one of the earliest Catholic schools in the country.

In 1847, the Jesuits took over the administration of the university.

The Clotilde

It is believed that the captain of the Clotilde, the final slave ship to arrive in the Americas, deserted his ship near Mobile in 1860. 

After the American Civil War, many of these enslaved people established a settlement of their own along the banks of the Mobile River, which came to be known as Africatown. 

Residents of this settlement continued to practice and speak their traditional African languages and customs long into the twentieth century.

1861 to 1865 (Civil War) 

1861 to 1865 history of mobile al

Before the Civil War, when it was extensively defended by the Confederacy, Mobile experienced rapid expansion. 

Admiral David Farragut led the naval forces of the Union to set up a blockade.

The Confederacy responded by building blockade-runners, which were vessels capable of outrunning or evading the blockaders. 

This also kept a trickle of trade flowing in and out of Mobile.

In addition, Mobile was the site of construction and testing for the Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in warfare successfully.

In the legendary Battle of Mobile Bay, which took place in August 1864, Farragut’s ships battled their way through the forts guarding the entrance of Mobile Bay, Fort Morgan, and Fort Gaines.

They defeated a small force of wooden Confederate gunboats and the ironclad CSS Tennessee. 

After the USS Tecumseh sank after hitting a Confederate mine, this is where Farragut is said to have said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” 

Even today, the Tecumseh remains at rest in Mobile Bay.

Mobile ultimately capitulated to the Union troops to spare itself from annihilation. 

On May 25, 1865, just weeks after Jefferson Davis dissolved the Confederacy, a massive explosion at an ammunition depot, known as the great Mobile magazine explosion, killed around 300 people and devastated a large chunk of the city.

1866 to 1899 (After The War) 

The war’s aftermath instilled a sense of political and economic conservatism in Mobile that would hold it back for the better part of the following century. 

Mobile experienced significant upheaval in the final decades of the 19th century.

The administration was governed by Republicans when Reconstruction was initiated by Congress in May 1867. 

The measures enacted by several of these lawmakers had further infuriated the Democrats, who were excluded from the voting process. 

In the November election of 1874, Democrats across the state resorted to violence and other extreme means to prevent African American and other non-Democratic voters from casting ballots. 

On election day, groups surrounded polling stations in Mobile with guns in an attempt to intimidate voters who weren’t Democrats.

Massive Debt

When the Democrats took over, the city’s downfall only accelerated.

When 1875 rolled around, the city owed more than $5 million and had no way to cover the interest on its debts.

This financial burden had been growing since the 1830s. 

A game of political navigation continued to be played between different factions as the city edged toward bankruptcy. 

Alabama’s legislature voted to do away with the “City of Mobile” and replace it with three city commissioners nominated by the state’s governor in 1879, thereby repealing the city’s charter. 

The commissioners were responsible for regulating the new “Port of Mobile” and lowering the city’s debt.

The issue of debt would not be resolved until the final note was paid in 1906.

Related Reading: History Museum Of Mobile – Check Out The Museum Here.

History Of Mobile AL – Modern Era 

1900 to 1949 (Early 20th Century) 

About 40,000 people called Mobile home in 1900, but by 1920 that number had risen to 60,000 people. 

As a result of federal funding totaling $3 million, the harbor’s shipping channels were significantly deepened during this time. 

Shipbuilding and steel manufacturing were two of Mobile’s most prominent industries during and after World War I. 

Mobile’s first segregation ordinance, separating riders on the city’s streetcars based on race, was enacted by city officials in 1902. 

As a consequence, the African-American community of Mobile staged a boycott that lasted two months but finally failed. 

In the future, legal segregation would gradually replace Mobile’s de facto segregation.

War Effort Industries 

war effort industries

Mobile’s population soared during World War II as thousands of servicemen and civilians flocked to the city to work in the shipyards and at Brookley Army Air Field. 

More than 89,000 people came to Mobile between 1940 and 1943 to work in war-related enterprises. 

To help the war effort, the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company in Mobile was one of eighteen American companies to construct Liberty ships. 

After purchasing the city’s airfield (Bates Field), the United States Army established the Brookley Army Air Field, which eventually evolved into the present-day Brookley Air Force Base. 

Almost overnight, Brookley grew to become the city’s largest private employer.

The airport was moved back to the city when the Air Force Base was decommissioned in the mid-1960s as part of a Department of Defense “base realignment.” 

This area is currently known as the Brookley Aeroplex and is used for aviation.

Housing Shortage

A severe housing scarcity developed during the war as a result of the extraordinary influx of laborers. 

Citizens rented out their spare bedrooms, porches, garages, and even chicken coops.

Numerous federal housing developments were hurriedly constructed to accommodate the new wave of Navy and Air Force personnel. 

Birdville originally called “Thomas James Place,” was constructed outside of Brookley Air Force Base to address the severe housing shortage at the time. 

The neighborhood got its name because of all the bird-themed concrete streets that wound through it.

1950 to 1999 (Late 20th Century) 

Mobile’s land area had tripled by 1956 to support the city’s expanding population.

It took a long time for the local economy to recover from the effects of the Brookley Air Force Base closing in the mid-1960s. 

The conclusion of World War II led to the growth of the pulp and paper industries in Mobile.

With the merger of Scott Paper and International Paper, the company then had one of the largest local workforces.

Ending Racial Segregation 

ending racial segregation

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted by Congress to put an end to legal racial segregation.

Mobile was more accepting of people of different races than many other Southern cities. 

The police force and one local college had been integrated by the 1950s, and buses and lunch counters had been desegregated voluntarily by 1963. 

However, many other institutions, including schools, had remained segregated.

In 1963, three black students sued the Mobile County School Board for discrimination after being turned away from Murphy High School. 

The US Supreme Judge had already ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional ten years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

So, a federal district court ordered that they be admitted for the 1964 school year. 

The University of South Alabama first welcomed students in 1964 as an integrated institution, a goal that had been present since the school’s establishment in 1956.

Hurricane Frederic 

The city of Mobile was severely damaged by Hurricane Frederic, which took place on September 12, 1979. 

One person died, with weeks of widespread loss of electricity, water, telephone service, and other essentials. 

Mobile’s economy benefited greatly from the 1980s growth and the subsequent relief funds following Hurricane Frederic.

Mobile’s “String of Pearls Initiative,” launched in the late ’80s under the leadership of then-Mayor Mike Dow, aimed to improve Mobile’s economic health.

Hundreds of historic downtown buildings and dwellings have been restored.

Many new facilities and projects have been constructed all across the city.

Austal USA, a partnership between the Australian shipbuilder Austal and the American company Bender Shipbuilding, was established in 1999, signaling the beginning of a significant revival of Mobile’s shipbuilding industry.

Related Reading: Some Historic Neighbourhoods In Mobile – Click Here To Learn More.

2000 onwards (21st Century) 

2000 onwards history of mobile al

Hurricane Ivan hit Mobile on September 16, 2004, and caused considerable damage.

On August 29, 2005, Mobile was hit again by Hurricane Katrina. 

A storm swell of 11.45 feet (3.49 m) inundated downtown Mobile and caused widespread damage to the city’s eastern neighborhoods. 

Sam Jones was elected mayor of Mobile in September 2005.

He was the first African American mayor to be put in office.

In 2007, the RSA Battle House Tower, the highest building in Alabama, was completed and became a new landmark in Mobile’s skyline. 

The city commissioned EDSA, an urban design firm, in January 2008 to develop a new downtown and neighborhood-wide master plan. 

Mobile Alabama Today 

Because of its long history as various colonies, Mobile now boasts a rich cultural heritage that includes not just British and American but also French, Spanish, Creole, African, and Catholic traditions.

It’s unlike any other city in the state of Alabama. 

One of the most obvious distinctions is the annual Carnival event.

In the United States, Mardi Gras may be traced back to its original and oldest celebration in Mobile, which dates to the early 18th century during the French colonial period.

Over the span of 300 years, Mobile’s Carnival transformed from a subdued French Catholic institution into the widely celebrated, multicultural extravaganza that it is today. 

Azalea Trail Maids are Mobile’s unofficial cultural ambassadors, representing the best of Southern hospitality.

Mardi Gras 

mardi gras

Balls in the city can start as early as November, but parades don’t start until after the Twelfth Day of Christmas (also known as Epiphany, which falls on January 6). 

Mardi Gras is a transitional holiday between the fixed dates of Lent and Easter, and its festivities traditionally conclude at midnight. 

In Mobile, the phrase Mardi Gras is frequently used as a synonym for the entire Carnival celebration. 

Mystic societies have elaborate parades with brightly decorated floats during the Carnival season. 

During parades, members of the secret organization are known to throw little gifts, or “throws,” to onlookers. 

Mystic societies, which are essentially private, invitation-only groups, also host extravagant masquerade balls aimed squarely at adults.

Before the city was relocated in 1711, the colonial French Catholic residents of Mobile held their annual Carnival festival at the Old Mobile Site in 1703. 

The Boeuf Gras Society was the earliest Carnival group in Mobile, and it was founded in 1711. 

Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, celebrations were held on a smaller scale and were limited to local, private gatherings.

Archives 

archives history of mobile al

Authentic relics from the time of slavery are on display alongside photos and biographies of notable African Americans at the National African American Archives and Museum. 

Primary source materials related to the history of Mobile and southern Alabama, as well as the history of the university, can be found in the University of South Alabama Archives.

The archives can be found on the first floor of the USA Spring Hill Campus and are available to visitors.

From its incorporation as a city by the Mississippi Territory in 1814 until the present, the documents of city government have been preserved in the Mobile Municipal Archives. 

The primary sources for the colonial history of Mobile, which covers the years 1702-1813, are located in Paris, London, Seville, and Madrid. 

A part of the Holy Family Catholic Church and School, the Mobile Genealogical Society Library and Media Center is a great resource for historians.

It includes printed books and manuscripts that can be used for family tree research.

Mobile is served by the Mobile Public Library system, which includes eight locations across Mobile County. 

The Mobile Public Library’s extensive local history and genealogy collection are housed in a building adjacent to the beautifully renovated and enlarged Ben May Main Library on Government Street. 

Examining Mobile Through The Lens of History 

A trip to Mobile would be incomplete without exploring the city’s historic areas.

Mobile’s cultural history is well documented, allowing visitors to follow its evolution over time.

There are seven major historic sites in Mobile, and they are all well worth seeing.

I suggest checking out the revitalized De Toni Square Historic District.

The stunning buildings beg to be explored further.

Several excellent theaters, including the historic Crescent, are within easy walking distance. 

Gas lamps and sidewalks, two relics from bygone eras, have been meticulously preserved here.

Related Reading: Mardi Gras History- Learn More Here.

Final Thoughts 

Both first-time and repeat visitors will find something exciting in Mobile.

You can spend days exploring, and every time you return, there will be something new to see.

Why not plan a visit?

Alabama’s oldest city has plenty of surprises in store for you!

Disclosure:  this article might contain links to the resources discussed.
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