Moundville, located on the border of Tuscaloosa and Hale Counties, grew to be the single largest community north of Mexico during the 14th Century. 29 mounds with heights of 3-60 feet. 10 foot palisade wall enclosed the 185 acre village. This Indian culture controlled the area for 25 miles. Moundville is believed to have housed 3,000 people. (Keith)
The Black Warrior facilitated commerce and communication amongst many Indian tribes. The Mississippian Indians made canoes 40 feet in length. This culture was already gone by the time Desoto arrived. (Keith)
Like elsewhere in the state of Alabama, Desoto’s army were the first Europeans to travel through the Black Warrior basin in the 1540s. Desoto documented the name of the Black Warrior River used by the Indians as Pafallaya which translates as long hair which was also a name that other tribes used to refer to the Choctaws. This may indicate the Indians of the region were of Choctaw descent. (Wood)
Tristan de Luna traveled into Alabama in search of provisions for his expedition but was disappointed by the decline of Native American chiefdoms following the diseases left by Desoto.
For 139 years nothing is known from the basin. This period is known as the Century of Obscurity. However archaeological evidence suggests that populations withdrew from the region following contact with Desoto, leaving it virtually devoid of permanent settlements.
However the Black Warrior Basin was far from ignored by Native Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries. These lands became important hunting grounds that were shared by the Chickasaws to the north, the Creeks to the east, and the Choctaws to the south and west. (Wood) In fact, another name for the Black Warrior River in the eighteenth century was Apotaka hacha meaning Border River (apotaka side and hacha river) since it served as a boundary between Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek lands. (Keith and Read)
The area remained virtually uninhabited until the late 1700s when Creeks being pushed west by Georgian encroachment on their lands in the Coosa and Chattahoochee basins began establishing settlements. The Choctaws saw this as an intrusion on these shared lands and expelled the Creeks at the Battle of Tuscaloosa. Several years later in 1805 another small settlement of Creeks began near present day Tuscaloosa.
Another settlement, Black Warrior Town, was believed to be near the mouth of the Sipsey Fork. When one of Andrew Jackson’s generals, John Coffee, was sent to destroy Creek settlements in the basin, the famed Davy Crockett mentioned Black Warrior Town in his memoirs of these scuffles with the Creeks. His description seemed to place the town at present day Tuscaloosa (Tascaluza Black Warrior), and it is this error that gave the city its name today. (Wood)
Long standing Indian settlements within the Basin following contact with Desoto were extremely rare and short-lived.
Following the Creek Indian War the Indians were forced to cede all claims to the Upper Black Warrior. Two years later, in 1816, the Choctaws ceded the lower Black Warrior Basin. Immediately, settlers began moving into the area and in the 1830’s all southern tribes were forcibly removed west of the Mississippi.
The first significant settlement in the basin was begun on the bluff at Tuscaloosa Falls in 1816. Despite being little more than a rough and sparse clear spot in the woods, Tuscaloosa was incorporated as a town in 1820.
Settling occurred most rapidly along the lower Warrior River’s bottomlands. This pattern continued throughout the antebellum period with prosperous plantations located in the bottomlands and small subsistence plots on the less fertile uplands. (Woods)
The first coalmines in the 1830s removed coal from streambeds due to the relative ease of extraction. Such methods were used predominately in the dry months and loaded on flatboats to await winter rains. Many a flatboat trip failed to complete its journey through the river’s dangerous shoals. (Wood)
Tuscaloosa quickly became the port town of the Warrior and served as the head of navigation for downstream trade with Mobile. Goods from throughout the region, including Huntsville and Tennessee, were brought to Tuscaloosa to be sent to Mobile, originally by flatboat, and beginning in the 1820s, by steamboat. By late 1840 Mobile exceeded New Orleans as a port for coal, largely due to the coal barges coming from the Black Warrior Basin. And of course cotton was king as it was elsewhere in the south. (Wood)
The state capital was moved from Cahawba to Tuscaloosa in 1826. At the time, the city claimed only 1500 inhabitants. A few years later in 1831 the state university was built. The capital was moved to Montgomery 15 year later in 1846. Tuscaloosa was often referred to as Druid City because of the abundance of large oaks and the ancient druid’s worship of these majestic trees. (Wood and Rivers of AL)
Tannehill Ironworks was named for Ninion Tannehill who was one of a series of owners of this well known iron works furnace built in 1836. Iron furnaces would greatly contribute to the growth of the region for almost a century. The Tannehill Works were actually an iron plantation, utilizing as many as 600 slaves who not only forged the iron but also cut the timber and grew the food that was needed to support this large industry. (Wood)
Before the beginning of the civil war the age of the railroad began to take hold and its influence on commerce began to rival that of the steamboat. However, the Black Warrior Basin and Tuscaloosa were slow to experience rail expansion. Only 165 miles of rail line ran through Alabama in 1852 and railroad fever easily surpassed the reality of actual rail lines.
At the tail end of the Civil War in 1865 Wilson’s raiders left their mark on the basin by destroying the Tannehill furnaces and then went on to Tuscaloosa where they burned the bridge across the river, major businesses, and much of the University of Alabama. (Wood)
After the Civil War, so many rail beds had been destroyed that commerce via waterways received renewed vigor. In the 1870s there were 118 landings on the Black Warrior and in one year the river exported 9.1 million dollars worth of goods. (Rivers of Alabama) To say the river was vital to the economy of the region would be a gross understatement. A few years later new diesel-powered watercraft would bring about a new era of river commerce. (Wood)
It was not until 1871 that a rail line reached Tuscaloosa. The priority for rail lines had overlooked the mineral regions for the cotton regions up until this point. Most of the line was constructed by Chinese laborers (nearly 1,000 in number). These laborers suffered harsh and primitive conditions and when the railroad was complete all left the state. The 1880 US Census found not a single Chinese in Alabama.
The Black Warrior basin drains the largest coalfield in Alabama. As the demand for coal expanded beyond Alabama’s borders, the Warrior was increasingly viewed as the primary artery for its export (despite the slow advance of the railroad). It was this realization that brought about the permanent modification of the Black Warrior River Channel (See Hydrologic Modifications)
The construction of locks and improved river transport caused the later 1880s to become boom years for the mineral region. The proliferation of iron furnaces and coal and iron ore mining continued with the highest activity occurring closer to Birmingham. (Wood)
Coal washing became widespread in the 1890s with the construction of coal washers at many mining facilities. This process removed impurities from the coal, and it was then classified by the number of impurities remaining. Unfortunately, these impurities were discharged in large quantities into rivers and streams, causing undocumented consequences.
Strip or surface mining of coal was the first type of mining practiced in Alabama but was less common than underground mines by the late 19th century. However, today strip mining is again the primary type of mining in the basin. The environmental consequences of surface mining are more severe while the risk to human life is greatest from underground mines.
One remaining active underground mine at Brookwood is 2,000 feet deep and is the deepest coal mine in the world. (Wood)
The majority of strip mines have historically been located on the East side of the Black Warrior.
By 1890 Alabama was producing three times as much iron as the second leading southern iron producer, Virginia. By 1920 Alabama ranked 3rd in the nation in iron production and 4th in coke production.
After a brief economic downturn in 1890, World War I created a high demand for lumber, iron, steel and coal. The production of Bituminous coal production reached its all time height in 1923. But the boom was short-lived and after the war another economic slump swept the region.
Creation of the Alabama State Docks Commission and state owned docks in Mobile attracted commerce nationally and internationally.