Montgomery: History

Early Days in Montgomery

Many centuries before Montgomery was founded, the land on which it sits was the site of two Indian towns called Ikanatchati and Towasa. Numerous mounds and burials sites have been uncovered there, proving it to have been an area thickly settled by ancestors of the Creek people, the Alibamu Indians, from whom the state took its name.

The first Europeans to visit the region were Hernando De Soto and his fellow Spanish explorers, who passed through the region in 1540. The first white inhabitant of the area was James McQueen, a Scottish trader, who arrived in 1716. The area remained sparsely inhabited until 1814, when Arthur Moore and his companions built cabins on local riverbanks. Three years later, the land was put up for sale and purchased by two groups of speculators.

General John Scott led a group of Georgians who built the town of Alabama but abandoned it when a second group of poor New Englanders founded a nearby town they called Philadelphia. Scott and his companions then built a new town they called East Alabama. Both groups began their settlements to make riches on future growth of the area.

The rivalry between the two groups was finally settled in December 1819, when they merged the towns under the name Montgomery, Incorporated. The name was chosen to honor General Richard Montgomery, who had died in the Revolutionary War. Eleven days after Montgomery's founding, Alabama was admitted as a state. Three years earlier, Montgomery County had been named in honor of a local man, Major Lemuel P. Montgomery, who later lost his life when serving with U.S. President Andrew Jackson during a war with the Creek Indians.

Lafayette's Visit a Local Highlight

The year 1821 was an important one for Montgomery as the first steamboats reached the city, which was the northernmost point up the Missouri River to which large vessels from Mobile could travel. That same year a stage line began to carry passengers eastward, and the newspaper the Montgomery Republican was founded.

From Montgomery's earliest days, cotton production was its most important local industry, with the first commercial cotton gin having been installed in the area at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Montgomery soon became an important port for shipping cotton from the region. Although the town was still small, it had two general stores whose owners accepted payment in "either cotton or cash." The town also boasted a private school, a dancing school, a court whose docket showed more than one hundred cases, and a lively social calendar for the wealthier residents.

A grand ball held during the 1825 visit of distinguished Frenchman the Marquis de LaFayette was the highlight of the town's early history. About that time, the State Bank was founded, and real estate companies began to flourish as new settlers moved to the area.

Montgomery Becomes State Capital

In 1834, the state of Alabama voted to establish the Montgomery Railroad Company and build a rail route to West Point, Georgia. In time it became an important link in service between New York City and New Orleans. By 1840, Montgomery had a population of 2,179 residents.

On January 30, 1846, the Alabama legislature announced that it had voted to remove the capital city from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery. The first legislative session in the new capital met in December 1847. In time, a Capitol building was erected under the direction of a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania architect. The original structure burnt down in 1849 but was rebuilt in 1851 following the original plans.

Secession and Its Consequences

By the time of the Civil War, Alabamians were among the Southerners with the strongest anti-Northern sentiments. Their slave-based economy was made up of the triad of wealthy white planters, working class whites, and a large group of African American slaves who served at the whims of their masters. The wealthy planters were adamant about protecting the entrenched socio-economic structure and their accumulated wealth.

As the whites' fears of change accelerated, it did not take long for the movement for secession from the Union to strengthen, and a Secession Convention met in Montgomery on January 6, 1861. On February 4, representatives of six seceding states assembled in Montgomery, which they chose to serve as the provisional capital of the Confederate States of America. Five days later, Jefferson Davis was unanimously chosen to serve as President of the Confederacy. A torchlight parade held on March 4 culminated in his inauguration. At that time, the population of the city stood at more than 8,850 citizens.

Montgomery's stint as capital of the Confederacy was short lived, however, when it became apparent that Virginia was to be the site of much of the early fighting. It then became necessary to shorten the line of communication between military headquarters and the field officers. At the first Montgomery meeting of the Provisional Congress, the representatives decided that the capital should be moved to Richmond, Virginia, within two months.

Dedication to the Confederate cause remained strong, even when General James Wilson's federal raiders entered Montgomery in April 1865. Upon their arrival, local citizens burned more than 100,000 bales of cotton to prevent their falling into Union hands. In response, Union troops burned the local small arms factories, the railroad cars, and five steamboats.

Troubled Times Improve

The Reconstruction period following the end of the Civil War in 1865 was a time of hardships. Much of the wealth of local citizens had been wiped out, articles of common use were scarce, stores lay empty, and the means of traveling by steamer and railroad had been destroyed.

A slow and painful economic and social recovery took place. By 1880, the population had grown to 16,713 people and railroad expansion had helped local conditions to improve. Montgomery's geographic location and proximity to the most productive agricultural regions of the South, as well as the fact that it was the state capital, soon brought about the re-connection of the city with other areas of the state and nation via roads and railway routes. By 1885, an intra-city electric trolley car system had been constructed.

In 1890, industrialists and financiers began to visit Montgomery in search of business sites. The first large lumber mill had been opened and the local population stood at 21,883. In time, local textile and garment factories, cotton processing plants, and fertilizer plants were established.

First Half of Twentieth Century Brings Industrial Growth

The years between 1900 and 1940 saw steady industrial progress and a local population growth from more than 30,000 to about 78,000 residents. Montgomery remained a focal point for cotton farmers, and livestock and dairy production became vital industries. In 1910, flight pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright built an airfield in the city and opened a school of aviation. Later, during mid-century, Montgomery became a center for packing plants, furniture, construction, and chemical and food production.

During the 1940s, Southern African American citizens began to show their dissatisfaction with the restrictive "Jim Crow" laws allowing discrimination, including the restriction of their voting rights. By the mid-1950s, the call for African American voter registration had greatly increased.

Desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement

In 1955 Montgomery saw a simple but historical event that was to influence the history of the United States. That year, a Montgomery woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for not yielding her bus seat to a white man. For the 381 days that followed, Montgomery African Americans boycotted the city's buses, making way for the December 1956 U.S. Supreme Court order for the desegregation of Montgomery buses.

The 1960s were a period of great upheaval in the United States and in the city of Montgomery. Supporters of the civil rights movement from the North and other areas of the South began coming to the city to support efforts by African Americans to gain their civil rights, and Montgomery became the virtual headquarters of the civil rights movement. Groups of African American and white people, known as Freedom Riders, rode buses together throughout the south as a way to protest segregation. On May 20, 1961, when a number of Freedom Riders arrived at the Montgomery bus station, they were beaten by local Ku Klux Klansmen, who were later tried and sentenced for their crimes.

In 1962, George Corley Wallace won the governorship of Alabama after a campaign based on his support for segregation. Standing on the state's Capitol steps, he made a famous speech championing segregation. The next year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Montgomery and preached against segregation.

In 1965, King led 25,000 demonstrators on a four-day march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to seek voting rights for African Americans. When the 600 civil rights marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge shortly after the walk began, they were attacked by local lawmen carrying clubs and using tear gas. The march continued only after a federal judge granted the protestors a court order protecting their right to march from Selma to Montgomery. Nearly 3,200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. By the time they reached the capitol, their numbers had swelled to 25,000 people. Less than five months after the march, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which represented a major victory for civil rights advocates.

In 1971, attorney Morris Dees founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in the city of Montgomery. The center promoted tolerance and took up the cause of poor people and minorities. It also helped to sponsor the building of the local civil rights memorial. In 1991 a U.S. federal district judge furthered civil rights efforts when he ordered Alabama State University and other state institutions to hire more minority faculty and staff and to make changes in their financial and admission policies.

The last decades of the 1900s brought many changes to the city of Montgomery. A new spirit of cooperation grew between its African American and white citizens and new industries grew, especially in the area of high technology. In addition, the establishment of Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base further strengthened the local economy. By 1999, a wealth of new construction and the addition of Overlook Park where once a parking lot stood marked the beginning of an extensive downtown renaissance. The Montgomery of the new century is boosted by a burgeoning tourism industry based on the city's plethora of Civil War and Civil Rights historical sites.

Historical Information: Montgomery County Historical Society, PO Box 1829, Montgomery, AL 36102; telephone (334)264-1837. Alabama Department of Archives and History Museum, 624 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36130; telephone (334)242-4435; email