History of Selma, Alabama
From the time of the cave dwelling Paleo-Indians—the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who roamed Alabama’s open countryside—through the eras of the Creek Confederacy, European settlements, slavery, Civil War battles, natural disasters, civil rights clashes, economic depressions and recessions, the people of Alabama have been hit hard by conflict and defeat—and repeatedly risen.
Throughout the state of Alabama, the discovery of artifacts scattered among hillside trails, rocky shoals, bluff shelters, and secluded natural sanctuaries in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains indicate the presence of native tribes having occupied this region of the United States as far back as 10,000 years ago.
By about 4,000 years ago, the native tribes inhabiting the state had begun to evolve from living in temporary dwelling to building permanent shelters, develop bows and arrows, cultivate maize and squash, and create distinctively ornate regional pottery.
European Exploration and Colonization
In 1519, Alonzo Alverez de Pineda of Spain was among the first Europeans to explore the area of Alabama that is now referred to as Mobile Bay. Hernando de Soto—also from Spain—engaged in a conflict with Chief Tsukaloosa in the 1540 Battle of Maubila, the largest Indian battle in North America, which destroyed the Indian village of 2,000 residents. Native American lore states that the city of Selma is built on the site where Chief Tuskaloosa met with the Spanish conquistador, Hernando de Soto.
The Creek Nation
And by the year 1600, the native people of the region where comprised of the historic Indian tribes of Alabama, including the Alibamu, Koasati, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee inhabitants that sprang up in and around the various creeks and earthen mounds in the area of Dallas County—where the Cahaba and Alabama rivers merge. By 1670, the various tribes combined to become the Creek Confederacy, consisting of many separate groups speaking several distinct languages within each “Mother town” maintaining political autonomy and distinct land holdings.
French Colonization and Spanish Control in Alabama
Jean Baptiste Le Monye de Bienville—one of two French brothers, authorized by France to explore territories in Louisiana—established the first French settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile in the gulf region, Fort Louis de la Mobile in 1702. Named to honor France’s king and to acknowledge the native Mobile Indian tribe, Fort Louis de la Mobile was located just north of Mobile, Alabama at Twenty Seven Mile Bluff on the banks of the Mobile River. Then in 1717, the French built another settlement, called Fort Toulouse, on the Coosa River to facilitate trade with the Indians and counter the British growing British influence in the area.
In 1721, the slave ship Africane arrived in Mobile with over 100 slaves. Slavery was introduced in the area under the French “Code Noir” (black law) brought from the French West Indies to the North American colonies.
Selma, Alabama was first recorded on a map of the area—under French control—in 1732 as Ecor Bienville, in honor of the then-French provincial governor Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Seiuer de Bienville, who had originally settled Fort Lousi de la Mobile in the gulf region.
The Spanish captured Mobile, Alabama and retained control of the area as part of the Paris treaties that ended the American Revolution in 1784. The majority of the area remained under Spanish control for several more years, and the U.S. flag was not raised on Alabama soil until 1799—when US troops under Lt. John McClary took possession of Fort St. Stephens from the Spanish.
The Creek War, Indian Cessions, and White Settlement
In 1802, Georgia formally gave up land south of the 31st parallel that was part of a massive land fraud perpetuated by several Georgia governors. In exchange for the ceded land, Georgia received 1.25 million dollars and the promise of the removal of the Cherokee Indians.
Then, as the number of white settlers increased, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee tribes were forced to cede their lands to white settlement between the years of 1805-1806.
The Creek Indians were divided in their reaction to the encroachment. Just before the War of 1812, Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader from the North, traveled south from the Great Lakes region in an effort to unite Native Americans against white settlers. The division between the two groups of Creeks led to the Creek War of 1813-14 (fought largely within the borders of present-day Alabama.) Moreover, as a part of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain, the Creeks under Tecumseh were supported by both Spain and England and fought against the Americans, while the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cherokee aligned with the Americans—who were led by General Andrew Jackson.
The Creek War ended in 1814 when the Creeks signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson, giving up over 40,000 square miles of land, opening up half of the present state of Alabama to white settlement. Most of the remaining native tribes of Alabama eventually relocated voluntarily or were forced to resettle to Indian Territory—present-day Oklahoma.
From 1802 to 1826, the town of Cahaba remained the capitol of Alabama, which became the 22nd state of the Union on December 14, 1819. However, because of the frequent flooding of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers, the state capital of Alabama was moved in 1826 from Cahaba to Tuscaloosa.
Selma (meaning “high seat” or “throne”) incorporated on December 4, 1820, as the steamboat era of transportation on the Alabama River began to play an important role in the economic development of Alabama. Further boosts to the states early economy included the chartering of the Selma and Tennessee Rivers Railroad in 1836. Selma’s first newspaper (The Selma Courier) was published in 1827, and in 1831, The Selma Free Press (weekly newspaper) had its debut.
With the rapid expansion of white settlement and the cotton industry, federal and state policies resulted in the removal of more than 20,000 Muscogee (Creeks) to Indian Territory in 1836-1837. Despite the fact that the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee were allied with US troops, they too were eventually forced from their land in April 1838, when Gen. Winfield Scott took command of Cherokee removal.
The St. James Hotel opened in 1837, and by 1840, the city of Selma had daily stage line runs to Mobile. However, with the growth of transportation came disease with an epidemic of Malaria striking Selma in 1841, followed by a yellow fever epidemic in 1853. By 1850, the population of Alabama included 426,000 whites and 343,000 slaves.By 1860, Dallas County had the third largest per capita income in the United States.
The American Civil War 1861 - 1865
In 1861, Alabama joined the Confederate States of America and became the fourth state to secede from the Union. With its central location and rail connections, Selma became a major military munitions and supply-manufacturing center during the Civil War, and consequently one of the main targets of Gen. James H. Wilson’s raid into Alabama late in the war.
In the Battle of Selma, on April 2, 1865, Wilson attacked the Confederate forces—under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest who were defending Selma—and captured the city along with 2,700 Confederate prisoners.
Although Alabama contributed nearly 120,000 soldiers to the Civil War, and there were 194 military land events and 8 navel engagements within Alabama’s boundaries, as Wilson’s troops left the state and moved on to Macon, Georgia, the war’s outcome was largely determined with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.
After the South’s political and social realignment after the Civil War, the economy of the state of Alabama slowly improved with continuing industrialization, but Selma was hit particularly hard by the defeat. In addition to the destruction of army arsenals, navel foundries and factories, many private businesses and residences were burned. It would take Selma many years to recover from the devastation, and it brought widespread displacement, poverty, and hunger to white and black Alabamians.
In 1865, following the end of the war The Freedmen's Bureau was established to aid ex-slaves throughout the South. In Alabama, General Wager Swayne led the Bureau, which also worked to help impoverished whites as well.
Regional milestones between the late 1800’s and mid 1900’s include . . .
- 1881 - Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute, where Dr. George Washington Carver carried out his famous agricultural research.
- 1868 - Alabama voters, including black men voting for the first time.
- 1866 - The Dallas county seat was moved from Cahawba to Selma, and Cahaba became a deserted village.
- 1868 - Alabama was readmitted to the Union.
- 1867 to 1874 – Several African Americans in Alabama emerged as political leaders. Benjamin Turner, Jeremiah Haralson, and James T. Rapier, are among the most notable, having served Alabama in the U.S. Congress.
- 1885 – A rotating toll bridge opened across the Alabama River in Selma.
- 1917 - The United States Declaration of war (World War I) disrupted trade throughout Alabama.
- 1940 The Edmond Pettus Bridge was opened.
- 1965 – The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March
The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March
Selma’s central position in the Black Belt became the focus of desegregation and black Selma’s central position in the Black Belt became the focus of desegregation and black voter registration drives—where more than half of the city’s residents were black, but few (less than one percent) were registered to vote.
On March 7, 1965, six-hundred demonstrators made the first of three attempts to March from Selma to Montgomery, the capitol of Alabama, to seek removal of voting restrictions on black Americans. As the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a hostile force of state and local law enforcement officers sent them fleeing back into the city. The event that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” was captured on camera and broadcasted across the United States, creating a surge of support for the marchers.
Two days later, on March 9, Martin Luther King Jr. organized a second march to be held on March 9, but a restraining order prevented the marchers from marching all the way to Montgomery. Gathering only for a “symbolic” march and prayer, King asked the crowd of nearly 2,500 marchers to remain in Selma until the injunction was lifted and another march could prevail.
The organization of a third march progressed when Federal District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Jr. decided in favor of the marchers, stating that the law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups...and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.
On March 21, in support of civil rights for black Americas, Martin Luther King led a group of 3,200 marchers from Selma to Montgomery. Four days later, outside the state capitol, he addressed a gathering of 25,000 demonstrators. "Confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course..."
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, 1965.in a federal effort to oversee the local voter registration process.
In 1996, Congress—under the National Trails System Act of 1968—created the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.
Today in Selma, Alabama
The longstanding will of Alabamans to rise above natural, civil, and economic adversity prevails into the twenty-first century, as the city of Selma and Alabama retain their vital roles as historical and economic arteries of the “Heart of Dixie.”