Alabama’s rapid growth depended on cotton cultivation. Statehood coincided with improvement of the cotton gin and increased demand for cotton in British and northern factories. Within thirty years, Alabama was producing 23 percent of the nation’s cotton, helping make the U.S. the largest producer in the world. Most Alabama cotton was grown in the Black Belt and the Tennessee Valley.
The vibrant economy supported the creation of churches, colleges, militias, and markets, but very little manufacturing. Commerce relied on the state’s numerous waterways. Steamboats carried cotton downriver for export and returned bearing manufactured goods, passengers, and enslaved laborers.
“Cotton was the sole topic.... At every dock or wharf, we encountered it in huge piles or pyramids of bales, and our decks were soon choked up with it.” Basil Hall, 1828
At Claiborne, one of the towns visited by Hall, a steamboat unloaded its cargo, including a group of slaves purchased in Mobile and destined for a nearby plantation.
Slavery was central to Alabama’s development and had lasting effects on its economy, culture, and politics. The labor of enslaved blacks was responsible for much of the state’s early infrastructure, the construction of public and private buildings, and the cotton cultivation that sustained the economy.
Nearly one-third of enslaved people lived on large plantations with fifty or more slaves, but many worked on small farms with fewer than five slaves. State law prohibited slaves from owning property or learning to read and write. It also severely restricted the freeing of slaves and the activities of free blacks.
By the start of the Civil War, enslaved blacks accounted for 45 percent of Alabama’s population. Most whites believed the preservation of slavery to be essential to the state’s future.
“Any slave who…furnishes any other slave with any pass or free paper…must receive one hundred lashes on his bare back.” Code of Alabama, 1852
Related Content at Encyclopedia of Alabama
Mildred Westervelt Warner Transportation Museum in Tuscaloosa
Museum of Alabama in Montgomery