Agriculture was practiced by groups such as the Creeks and Cherokee in the east, and the Choctaws and Chickasaws in the west when Spanish explorers arrived. Cabeza de Vaca (and possibly Pánfilo de Narvaez) visited Alabama in 1528, and Hernando De Soto spent some time in the region in 1540. European settlement was begun, however, not by the Spanish but by the French in the Mobile area in 1702. The French and British contended for the furs gathered by Native Americans. In 1763 the region passed to the British, who were victorious over France and Spain in the French and Indian Wars.
At the close of the American Revolution, Great Britain ceded (1783) to the United States all lands east of the Mississippi except the Floridas (see West Florida Controversy). The Territory of Mississippi, which included parts of present-day Alabama, was set up in 1798, but the land was still largely a wilderness with a considerable fur trade, centered at Saint Stephens, and with only the beginnings of cotton cultivation.
Both the fur trade and cotton production were interrupted during the War of 1812, when part of the Creek Confederacy began attacking under William Weatherford. Andrew Jackson defeated a group of Native Americans at Horseshoe Bend on Mar. 27, 1814. That victory, coupled with the British demand for cotton, ushered in a period of heavy settlement. New settlers poured into the Alabama region, especially from Georgia and Tennessee. The wealthy newcomers settled in the fertile bottomlands and established large plantations based on slave labor, which helped to produce cotton for the markets of Southern ports. Poorer newcomers took over less fertile uplands, where they eked out a living. The population grew to such an extent that the Territory of Alabama, taking Saint Stephens as its capital, was set up in 1817 with William W. Bibb as governor; two years later it became a state.
In Alabama the slave-owning planters were dominant because of the prosperous cotton crop, and as the Civil War loomed closer, the support of Southern rights and secession sentiment grew under the urging of "fire-eaters" such as William L. Yancey. Alabama broke away from the Union on Jan. 11, 1861, when its second constitutional convention passed the ordinance of secession. The government of the Confederacy was organized at Montgomery on Feb. 4, 1861. Union troops held the Tennessee valley after 1862. One of the principal naval battles of the war was won by Admiral D. G. Farragut in Mobile Bay in 1864, but most of the state was not occupied in force until 1865. Alabama ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, but in 1867 it refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and was placed under military rule. That rule ended the following year when a new state legislature operating under a new constitution approved the Fourteenth Amendment. However, federal troops did not leave Alabama until 1876, and African Americans continued to suffer enormous oppression for decades.
In the Reconstruction era Alabama's government was dominated by the so-called carpetbaggers and scalawags, and corruption was widespread. Few reforms emerged during the period; but the mining of coal and iron was expanded by Daniel Pratt and his successor, H. F. De Bardeleben, marking the rise of industry in Alabama.
The railroads built during Reconstruction were a major impetus to the industrialization of Alabama's economy. Birmingham was founded in 1870, and its first blast furnace began operations in 1880. The cotton textile industry developed in the 1880s. At that time farming was still dominant, and the fortunes of the state rose and fell with the market price of cotton. Constant use and erosion, however, began to exhaust the land.
Diversification of crops, much advocated in the 20th cent., was accelerated in 1915 when the boll weevil invaded the cotton fields and the demand during World War I brought high prices for food crops. The Great Depression and the agricultural program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal caused more farmers to produce subsistence crops and took more land away from the wasting cotton culture. Beginning in the 1920s, there was a large migration of African Americans out of the state to northern manufacturing centers.
Industrialization was greatly increased during World War II with the appearance of factories producing machines, munitions, powder, and other war supplies. Huntsville became a center for rocket research, and its population more than quadrupled between 1950 and 1960. Industrialization and commerce increased throughout the state. Adding impetus to that growth was an ambitious development program of Alabama's inland waterways to provide cheap water transportation, more hydroelectric power, and flood-control measures.
In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision ruling racial segregation in public elementary and secondary schools unconstitutional, and the decision was followed by an intensification of racial tension (see integration). Alabama has witnessed many civil-rights protests, including a year-long black boycott of public buses in Montgomery in 1955–56 to protest segregated seating and a Freedom March from Montgomery to Selma led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
George C. Wallace, a Democrat elected governor in 1962, fought the federally ordered integration of schools in Alabama. He was reelected three times: 1970, 1974, and 1982, the final time with substantial African-American support. In 1968 he entered the U.S. presidential race as the candidate of the American Independent party. He ran for the presidency twice more—in 1972 and 1976.
Since the late 1970s, public attention has largely shifted to economic issues, and major efforts have been made to achieve growth by encouraging further diversification of manufacturing industries. A notable success in this campaign was the building by Mercedes-Benz of auto assembly plant in Alabama. The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, connecting the port of Mobile with the industries that have developed in N Alabama and elsewhere along the Tennessee, opened in 1985. In 1995 Hurricane Opal caused extensive damage in Alabama as far north as Montgomery, and parts of the state suffered again in 2004 from Hurricane Ivan and in 2005 from Katrina.