Today, it is the state capital of Alabama. However, Montgomery has a much more storied history behind its journey to the top city in that lovely southern state. If you’ve ever been curious about how state capitals got their starts, you are about to find out all you’ve ever wanted to know, starting here, with Alabama. Here is the history of the city of Montgomery.
Before Europeans came to North America, the area that is now Montgomery, located east of the Alabama River, was home to the Alibamu and Coushatta Native American tribes. The Alibamu lived on the east side of the river, and the Coushatta lived on the west. Both tribes were descendants of the huge and elaborate Mississippian Native American culture, which was the largest grouping of native cultures east of the Mississippi River for thousands of years.
The Mississippians had many individual chiefdoms in the North American Midwest and south, and are well known for the huge earthwork mounds they built between 950 and 1250 A.D. The largest city of that culture was located at Cahokia, in what is modern-day Illinois, just east of St. Louis. Montgomery is built on the site of two towns that belonged to the Alibamu — Ikanatchati (which means “red earth”) and Towassa.
The Alibamu and Coushatta spoke Muskogean languages. These languages were spoken by many tribes in the area, and were all closely related and understandable by other tribes, essentially being dialects of the same language. So, these two tribes were established in the Montgomery area for thousands of years before the first known European came walking through. That European was Hernando de Soto, who camped in the area for a week in 1540.
However, it would be more than a century before another European is known to have entered the area now known as Montgomery. That European visitor came in 1697 when an English exploration expedition from the Carolina colonies sailed down the Alabama River.
The first European to permanently settle in the Montgomery area was James McQueen in 1716. McQueen was a Scotsman who came to North America to ply his trade as a trader. He married a Coushatta woman of high status and stayed in the Montgomery area to be with her. They had children together, who were considered part of the mother’s tribe. This is because the Coushatta had a matrilineal society, where property and social status were handed down through the mother’s side of the family.
McQueen was on his own as a European in Montgomery for a long time. The next European did not come to live in Montgomery until 1785. That was when Abraham Mordecai, a Sephardic Jew from Philadelphia, who was a French and Indian War veteran, moved there. By this time, the Alibamu and Coushatta had mostly moved to the south and west of the Mississippi tidal plain. The move was prompted by the French defeat during the French and Indian War, in which the French ceded control of their lands, which included Alabama, to the British. Neighboring Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas were under Spanish control, and many Native tribes believed they would fare better under Spanish rule than English.
When Mordecai came to Montgomery, the Native Creek tribe had moved into the lands formerly held by the Alibamu and Coushatta, as they were looking to move away from conflicts they were having with the Cherokee and Iroquois farther east. Like McQueen before him, Mordecai married a Native woman, this time from the Creek tribe. However, her people had to give up most of their lands after the Creek war of 1813-14 and move to Oklahoma, which was being designated as “Indian Territory” by the US government, and she chose to join them. Mordecai is credited with bringing the first cotton gin to Alabama.
The Creek did a good job of discouraging almost all European settlement in Alabama until after their defeat in the Creek War. After that, they were forced to give up twenty-three million acres of their land to the US government. This land included some land in Georgia that had not yet been claimed by the United States, as well as most of what is modern Alabama. This opened the area up to European settlement, and Montgomery County was organized in what was then called Mississippi Territory in 1816. Former Creek lands in the area were sold off to European settlers the next year as homesteads. Alabama was admitted to the union as a state in 1819.
Soon after becoming a state, Andrew Dexter, Jr. founded New Philadelphia in what is now the eastern part of the city of Montgomery. He envisioned the city as being a prosperous one and even set aside a hilltop, called “Goat Hill,” for what he believed would one day be the state capital building. The town prospered, as he envisioned, and then he and some friends founded an adjacent town called East Alabama Town. East Alabama Town and New Philadelphia merged soon after that, and together, were incorporated as the city of Montgomery. The city was named after Richard Montgomery, a general in the American Revolution.
Because the nearby Alabama River was used to deliver goods to various places in the state with ease, the city was able to prosper quickly. Its easy prominence led to it being named the county seat of Montgomery County in 1822. Eventually, the state capital was moved there from Tuscaloosa, in 1846.
Being the state capital, Montgomery was the leading influence in state politics. It hosted representatives from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi in 1861 for what was called the Southern Convention. That convention formed the Confederate States of America, and Montgomery was named the first capital city of that new nation (before being moved to Richmond, Virginia later). Confederate President Jefferson Davis was inaugurated on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery.
After the Civil War, Alabama re-joined the Union, along with the other Confederate states, and picked up where it left off in terms of development and influence pretty quickly. It became the first city in the United States in 1886 to have citywide electric street cars. People from the surrounding rural communities followed the rail cars, called the Lightning Route, to Montgomery and settled along it, forming the state’s first suburban locations. Montgomery remains the most prominent and influential city in Alabama in modern times.