Represented on maps as early as 1507, the Gulf of Mexico inlet now known as Mobile Bay was navigated by European seafarers in 1519 when ships under the command of Spanish Admiral Alonso Alvaraz de Pineda sought a safe harbor in which to undertake repairs. The bay area was not really explored, however, until 1558. It was included in the vast region that was claimed for France's King Louis XIV and was named Louisiana by French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle in 1682. France authorized two brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, to explore territories in Louisiana, and they arrived at the gulf inlet that is now called Mobile Bay in 1699. The area was subsequently considered crucial to establishing French occupation of Louisiana and the brothers were ordered to colonize the region, which was inhabited by the Mobile, or Maubila, tribe. In 1702 Bienville established Fort Louis de la Mobile—named to honor France's king and to acknowledge the native tribe—at Twenty Seven Mile Bluff on the banks of the Mobile River, just north of present-day Mobile. It was the first French town in the gulf region.
The settlement, which consisted of the log fort, Creole houses, a church, a hospital, a marketplace with shops, and a well, served as the capital of the vast Louisiana Territory. Women joined the community in 1704. When river flooding forced the colony to abandon Fort Louis de la Mobile in 1711, the settlement's four hundred inhabitants moved downstream to a new site protected by a wooden fort at the river's mouth on Mobile Bay. During this era, pelts, furs, wax, and tallow were transported down river to where the bay meets the gulf for transfer to ocean-going vessels. This settlement retained the name Mobile and remained the capital of the Louisiana Territory until New Orleans assumed that title in 1720. That same year Mobile renamed its fort Fort Conde. A brick structure later replaced the original fort.
Mobile continued to serve as an important center for diplomatic dealings with the neighboring tribal inhabitants. France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi River to Britain in 1763, and that year, taking possession of Fort Conde, the British renamed it Fort Charlotte. Two years later Mobile was the site of the Great Choctaw-Chickasaw Congress held among tribal leaders and British officials.
When Spain, at war with Britain, captured Mobile in 1779, the area traded in cotton and indigo and supported sawmills and brickyards. After two decades of Spanish rule, the region was returned to France, who sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. It was not until after the War of 1812, however, that U.S. influence began to be felt in the region. The Bank of Mobile was established in 1818, Mobile was incorporated as a city shortly after Alabama attained statehood in 1819, and Fort Charlotte was dismantled in 1820.
Mobile's population by 1822 had reached nearly 3,000 people, a figure that subsequently quadrupled in less than two decades. As steamboats made upstream transportation possible, Mobile served as an important port for distributing goods brought in by ocean-going vessels as well as for exporting cotton and lumber. By the 1850s Mobile was the South's second largest cotton port, following New Orleans. Although tested by fires and yellow fever epidemics, Mobile's prosperity by mid-century was secure. In 1861, recognizing the nation's deep political and social division, Alabama seceded from the United States as the Republic of Alabama, and joined other southern states to form the Confederacy.
Mobile was particularly valuable to the South because of its location on the Gulf of Mexico. The city maintained trade with Europe and the West Indies while constructing the first submarine used in warfare. But in 1864 during the Battle of Mobile Bay, Union forces, urged on by Admiral David Farragut's famous rallying cry, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!," defeated Confederate troops and captured southern strongholds around Mobile. Still, Mobile was the only major southern port unoccupied by Yankee troops during the Civil War. At the war's end a tremendous ammunitions explosion in Mobile left massive destruction. The Battle of Mobile rendered the navies of the world obsolete as the era of the wooden ship had ended.
The city's post-Civil War recovery was aided by port-related activity; the shipping channel was deepened and shipbuilding increased. In the 1870s, Mobile began to serve as a major center for the importation of Brazilian coffee. Railroad expansion also contributed to Mobile's emergence as a major distribution center. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the city's port underwent further development and modernization, and in the 1920s the Alabama State Docks were conceived and realized as a means of providing and maintaining adequate port facilities. Mobile's shipbuilding contributed to the war efforts during World War I, and in the 1940s the city's shipyards were packed with shifts of workers welding hulls for World War II naval operations.
While Mobile found itself weathering the violent racial tensions that swept the nation in the 1960s, the city was and is often the site of damaging tropical storms. Mobile sustained heavy losses after hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast in 1969, destroying a total of $1.5 billion worth of property along the coast and claiming 250 lives in Mobile. Ten years later hurricane Frederic was especially brutal for the city, with property damage in Mobile mounting to $1 billion. In 2004, hurricane Ivan attacked the Gulf Coast, leaving Mobile another hefty bill.
An economically diverse community, Mobile now counts oil and gas reserves, discovered in the 1970s, among its economic resources. The city continues to benefit from port activities and is also a center for manufacturing. The area produces chemicals, steel, wood pulp and paper products, furniture, rayon fibers, and clothing, and is a growing center for medical care, research, and education. Tourists and conventioneers enjoy the city's Creole charm and nearby coastal beaches. Mobile's long-term French and Spanish heritage make it unique in Alabama and places the city among the elite urban centers of the South. In 2002, Mobile celebrated its 300th birthday with events around the city.
Historical Information: Historic Mobile Preservation Society, 300 Oakleigh Place, Mobile, AL 36606; telephone (251)432-6161. Bienville Historical Society, The Center for Gulf Studies Library, 606 Government Street, Mobile, AL 36602; telephone (205)457-5242