The very first European presence in the Alabama Watershed Basin was by the Spanish conquistador, Hernando De Soto, who traversed the state in 1540.

Fort Toulouse
Fort Toulouse was the first permanent settlement by Europeans in the interior of what would become the state of Alabama.

In 1717, French forces in Mobile, fearing the growing influence of British traders throughout the region, decided to build a fort at what they believed was the most strategic location for controlling and influencing trade and settlement in this portion of the New World.

Fort Toulouse would become the first European settlement in the Alabama Valley.

Fort Toulouse was located on a peninsula formed by the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in Elmore County near Montgomery. Registered as a National Historic Landmark, the site was settled by prehistoric Indians who at one time built five ceremonial mounds there on the left bank of the Coosa River.


The Creek Indian War and the Fort Mims Massacre
The Creek War between 1813-1814 could have easily been called the War for the Alabama, because what was at stake for both the Creek Indians and frontiersmen was the occupation of the lands drained by the Alabama and its tributaries. (Jackson)

It was during this conflict that frontiersmen built their own strategic forts, fearing Indian attack and being unable to rely on US troops to protect them. The most famous of these was Fort Mims. Fort Mims was considered the strongest fort in the territory and was located near the curve of the Alabama along the northwest edge of present-day Baldwin County. The Fort was actually the fortified home of Samuel Mims and sat on high ground on the east bank of Tensaw Lake, an oxbow lake formed from an old channel of the Alabama River and connected to the river by a navigable passage.

On August 30, 1813, Fort Mims was attacked by a band of Red Stick Creeks led by an Indian half-breed, William Weatherford, known as Chief Red Eagle. The ensuing battle is considered the bloodiest massacre by Indians in American History. Although the exact death toll is unknown it is believed that between 250 and 400 settlers and militiamen were slaughtered and burned, including women and children. Apparently most of the slaves within the fort were spared so that they might serve the Creek Nation.

The military captain of the Fort, Major Daniel Beasley demonstrated perhaps the saddest case of military incompetence in the history of the state. Ignoring repeated sightings of hostile Creeks approaching the Fort, Major Beasley was one of the first casualties, being clubbed to death as he attempted to close the open gates. (Web Site)

Though the Creeks might have won a few squirmishes here and there, the war would belong to the Americans who wanted their land. The most decisive defeat of the Creeks occurred at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River under the lead of Andrew Jackson (see Tallapoosa summary for full story). Shortly after this defeat at Horseshoe Bend, the Creek leader, Chief Red Eagle surrendered to Andrew Jackson at Fort Toulouse, rechristened Fort Jackson.

Cotton and River Commerce
As settlement of the Alabama Basin began in earnest, the fertile valleys of these river basins set the stage for Alabama’s economic boom. Cotton was the lifeblood of early Alabama and the Alabama River was its major artery. Originally goods primarily traveled in one direction, downstream. But with the arrival of the steamboat in 1821, commerce flourished upstream and down. Virtually all of Alabama’s major towns were located along rivers. A constant bustle of floating logs, and steamboats loaded with both cotton and passengers made the river a part of everyday life.

alabama history
Loading cotton bales on an Alabama River steamer University of Alabama Hoole Collection #00312 950009

At the height of the steamboat era, there were more than 200 landings along the Alabama River. The landings served as social centers and places to load cotton, fat pine fuel, and river travelers. Historians often refer to this period as the Golden Age of Alabama, and to recreational steamboats as “Floating Palaces.” This era ended with the proliferation of railroads a decade after the Civil War and life along the rivers has never returned to its former splendor.