A Genealogist’s Historical Timeline of Alabama, 1519-1820

Alabama Name Lists by Dollarhide-FR0209-Front Cover
The following article was written by William Dollarhide, and is excerpted from his new book, Alabama Name Lists, 1702 – 2006, with a selection of National Name Lists, 1600s – Present, an annotated bibliography of published and online name lists. It just happens that the book itself is currently on sale for 15% off, with the addition of a FREE pdf eBook available by download immediately upon purchase.

For any research in Alabama, the following timeline of events should help any genealogist understand the area with an historical and genealogical point of view.

1519. The Spanish believed there must be a sea lane from the Gulf of Mexico to China. From the Florida keys, Alvarez de Pineda followed the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico from present Florida to Texas to find that sea lane. At one point he entered a large bay with a sizable native settlement on one shore. He sailed upriver for eighteen miles and observed as many as forty villages on the bank. It has long been assumed that Alvarez de Pineda had discovered the Mississippi River, but based on his recorded observations, many historians now believe he was describing Mobile Bay and the Alabama River.

1682. French explorer René-Robert Cavelier (Sieur de la Salle) erected a cross near the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, after floating down rivers from the Great Lakes area. He claimed the entire Mississippi Basin for Louis XIV of France, for whom Louisiana was named. All of the rivers and streams flowing into the Mississippi were part of the Mississippi Basin and included in the Louisiana claim.

1698. Pensacola was founded by the Spanish as the Presidio Santa Maria de Galve. They claimed the entire Florida Panhandle, including the area in present Alabama, which they did not recognize as part of French Louisiana.

1699. The French established the first settlement on Biloxi Bay, now Ocean Springs. (New Biloxi, founded in 1719, was the capital of French Louisiana until 1722, replaced by New Orleans).

1702. Mobile was founded by the French as Fort Louis de la Louisianne. They were in an area also claimed by the Spanish.

1719. The French captured Pensacola and Mobile, and now occupied all gulf ports plus New Orleans. But, as a result of an alliance with Spain against England, the French soon returned all of the gulf ports back to Spain.

1755. Resulting from the war between France and England, France ceded to Britain its claim to a portion of Lower Louisiana east of the Mississippi.

1763. Until this year, many cross-claims to territory in North America existed between the French, English and Spanish, and it took a war to settle the issue of land ownership. In Europe and Canada it was called the Seven Years War, but in colonial America it was called the French and Indian War. France was the big loser, and at the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the war, the British retained or gained undisputed title to Nova Scotia, Quebec, Newfoundland, Labrador, the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay regions, their thirteen Atlantic colonies, and all other lands east of the Mississippi River. Before the 1763 treaty, the British had grandiose western claims based on Royal Charters of its Atlantic colonies using the words “sea to sea.” In the 1763 treaty, the British modified their western claims to end at the Mississippi River. In 1762, the French had secretly transferred Louisiana west of the Mississippi to Spain, and in 1763, they transferred all of remaining Louisiana east of the Mississippi to Britain. Also in 1763, by separate treaty, the Spanish ransomed Florida to the British in exchange for Cuba. The British immediately divided the territory into East Florida and West Florida with the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee River as the dividing line. West Florida included the portion of present-day Alabama south of Latitude 31 degrees.

1780-1783. During the Revolutionary War, the British hold on East and West Florida came to an end. With the Spanish as allies of the French, the British lost West Florida to Spanish forces, who had captured Mobile in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781. The British then returned East Florida to Spain in 1783, causing many American loyalists who had fled the Revolutionary War to St. Augustine to flee again, this time heading for the Bahamas or West Indies. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 first recognized the United States as an independent nation. Its borders were described generally from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, and from Maine to Georgia. However, the northern third of Maine was not included; nor was East Florida or West Florida south of Latitude 31 degrees. Spain continued its claim to East and West Florida after the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Spain also claimed the area south of Latitude 32o 30’ of present-day Mississippi and Alabama.

1790. The present-day area of Alabama and Mississippi was part of Georgia, part of the disputed area, and part of Spanish West Florida at the time of the 1790 federal census. Although there were American settlements near Natchez and Mobile, no federal census was taken there.

1796. The U.S. resolved the Spanish-U.S. disputed area by purchasing the area from Spain. The lands above West Florida (Latitude 31o up to 32o30’), became U.S. territory. The purchase did not include East Florida or West Florida.

1798. Congress created Mississippi Territory within the purchased lands. This area is now in both Alabama and Mississippi, from Latitude 31o to Latitude 32o30’. West Florida, including Mobile, was still under control of the Spanish.

1800. Georgia’s 1800 federal census jurisdiction included its western Indian lands to the Mississippi, but no whites were enumerated there. The entire Georgia 1800 census was lost. Washington County, Mississippi Territory was enumerated in the 1800 census, including areas of present-day Alabama, but that census was also lost.

1802. In this year, the portion of present-day Alabama and Mississippi above Latitude 32o 30’ was ceded by Georgia to the U.S. federal government’s “public domain.” In 1803 Congress added the ceded lands to Mississippi Territory, tripling its size.

1802. France acquired title to Louisiana again, resulting from Napoleon’s defeat of the Spanish in battle, and an exchange of lands in Europe.

1803. The Louisiana Purchase. The U.S. purchased the huge tract from France, doubling the size of the United States. The purchase of Louisiana immediately created a dispute with Spain about the ownership of land east of the Mississippi River. The legal description of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was the “drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.” Spain disagreed that it included lands east of the Mississippi.

1804. Congress divided the Louisiana Purchase area into two new legal jurisdictions: Louisiana District and Orleans Territory. The latter had north and south bounds the same as the present state of Louisiana, but did not include land east of the Mississippi River, and its northwestern corner extended west into Spanish Texas. For a year, Louisiana District was attached to Indiana Territory for judicial administration, but in 1805, Louisiana District became Louisiana Territory, with its own governor.

1806. The Federal Horse Path. The time it took for mail via express riders between Philadelphia and New Orleans was cut in half, from six weeks to three weeks, after the opening of the Federal Horse Path. A treaty with the Creek Nation, which encompassed a large area of present-day Georgia and Alabama was necessary to clear the pathway, beginning at the Creek Indian Agency (now Macon) and through Mississippi Territory and Spanish West Florida to New Orleans. With federal funds, the same route was continually improved and became known as the Federal Road, the primary route for thousands of Scots-Irish families migrating into the Old South.

Roads from Philadelphia to New Orleans by 1806
Roads from Philadelphia to New Orleans by 1806

1810 (September). Americans overcame the Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge, and unfurled the new flag of the Republic of West Florida.

1810 (October). In a proclamation by President James Madison, the U.S. arbitrarily annexed Spain’s West Florida from the Mississippi River to the Perdido River. The area included Baton Rouge, Biloxi, and Mobile, but was not organized, and was not included in the 1810 census. Spain did not recognize the annexation, and continued their claim to West Florida in dispute with the U.S.

1810 West Florida Annexation Map
1810 West Florida Annexation Map

1812. Congress added to Mississippi Territory the portion of the West Florida annexation from the Perdido River to the Pearl River, an area which included Mobile and Biloxi; and the portion from the Pearl River to the Mississippi River was added to Orleans Territory, an area that included Baton Rouge. Soon after, Orleans Territory became the State of Louisiana.

1817. Alabama Territory was created on March 3rd, taken from Mississippi Territory, with nearly the same boundaries as the current state bounds.

1819 Adams-Onis Treaty. After years of refusing to negotiate with the U.S. over the ownership of Florida, Spain finally relented with the 1819 Adams-Onis treaty, also called the Purchase of Florida. Spain’s problems with colonial rebellions in Central and South America saw a change in their attitudes. By 1818, Spain had effectively abandoned Florida and was unwilling to support any more colonists or garrisons. The treaty involved Spain’s cession of Florida to the U.S. in exchange for the U.S. paying any legal claims of American citizens against Spain, up to 5 million dollars. But, the treaty also set the boundary between the U.S. and New Spain (now Mexico), from Louisiana to the Oregon Country. The treaty finally confirmed the Sabine River border with Spanish Texas; and recognized (for the first time), the American claim to the Oregon Country. The treaty was named after John Quincy Adams, U.S. Secretary of State, and Luis de Onis, the Spanish Foreign Minister, the parties who signed the treaty at Washington on February 22, 1819. John Quincy Adams was given credit for a brilliant piece of diplomacy by adding the western boundary settlements with Spain to the Florida Purchase. It was considered his crowning achievement, before, during, or after his presidency. Although Baton Rouge, Biloxi, and Mobile were annexed to the U.S. in 1810, then organized in 1812; they did not become U.S. territory free of dispute until the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819.

1819. Alabama became the 22nd state on December 14th, with nearly the same boundaries as today.

1820. The federal census for Alabama was lost, but the State of Alabama took its own census in 1820 and several counties survive. In July 1820, the Alabama-Mississippi boundary line was resurveyed and it was discovered that a tract of land lying along the east side of the Tombigbee River which had been attached to Alabama was really in Mississippi.

Source: Alabama Name Lists, 1702 – 2006, with a selection of National Name Lists, 1600s – Present, an annotated bibliography of published and online name lists, by William Dollarhide, published by Family Roots Publishing Co. For ordering information as a paperback book or as a PDF eBook, click here.

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