It’s hard to imagine Alabama was ever the frontier. But as Colonial America itched to expand, this was the “Old Southwest”: a rough country of pioneers, Indians and cheap land for those willing to pull up stakes from more-civilized places such as Virginia and the Carolinas. From 1810 to 1820, “Alabama fever” took the population from 9,000 to 144,000. “There is no question that this fever is contagious,” warned a North Carolina congressman in 1817, “for as soon as one neighbor visits another who has just returned from Alabama he immediately discovers the same symptoms which are exhibited by the one who has seen alluring Alabama.”
Others had previously discovered “alluring Alabama,” of course. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek tribes were already there when the French established the first permanent white settlement in 1702, near today’s Mobile. Colonial censuses of these French settlements taken in 1706, 1721 and 1725 were published in the Deep South Genealogical Quarterly (volume 1, issues 1, 2 and 3), available at the Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org> and other large genealogical libraries. Over the next century, Alabama would be variously claimed by France, England, Spain (which also took several Mobile censuses you can get from the FHL) and neighboring Georgia.
In 1798, Congress created Mississippi Territory, which included the future states of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. The FHL has various censuses from this territorial period: 1801 and 1808 (Washington County), 1809 (Madison County), 1810 and 1816.
What really triggered “Alabama fever” was the establishment of the first of 13 federal land offices in 1804. You can trace how your ancestors gobbled up Alabama land at the Bureau of Land Management’s Web site <www.glorecords.blm.gov>, whose records begin in 1820. The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) <archives.state.al.us> has 550 ledger books of federal land transactions, and the FHL has microfilmed tract boob from 1785 to 1935. For a helpful guide to getting started with Alabama land records, see <rootsweb.com/~algenweb/landrec.html>.
Many of Alabama’s early arrivals were Revolutionary War veterans. To learn whether your ancestor was among them, try ADAH’s free online soldier database <archives.state.al.us/al_sldrs/-start.html>.
Alabama’s rapid growth led to its territory status in 1817 and then to statehood in 1819. Its first seven counties, all originally part of Mississippi Territory, were Washington, Madison, Baldwin, Clarke, Mobile, Monroe and Montgomery. Another 17 counties were established in 1818; 11 more came from Creek Indian land in 1832. This began a long and confusing habit of redrawing boundary lines and renaming counties, which complicates figuring out which county your ancestor’s records were created in. See <rootsweb.com/~algenweb/county.html> for county formation information.
Another challenge of Alabama’s counties is the tendency of their courthouses to catch fire. Between 1828 and 1965, 52 fires damaged courthouses in 32 counties. To see whether your ancestor’s records may have gone up in smoke, check the map at <archives, state.al.us/referenc/firemap.gif>. ADAH also has a database for finding local government records on microfilm <archives.state.al.us/localrecords/search.cfm>.
The first federal census to enumerate the new state of Alabama was 1820, but it’s been entirely lost. An 1820 state census survives for Baldwin, Conecuh, Dallas, Franklin, Limestone, St. Clair, Shelby and Wilcox counties. Subsequent state censuses were taken in 1850, 1855 and 1866. The FHL has 16 counties’ enumerations from 1855, and ADAH has 12 counties plus the complete 1850 and 1866 head counts.
And don’t overlook all the special schedules that cover the state. The FHL has the 1840 Revolutionary War veterans’ schedules, mortality schedules from 1850 to 1880, slave schedules for 1850 and 1860, and Confederate veterans censuses for 1907, 1921 and 1927. ADAH also has special enumerations for agriculture (1850 to 1880), social statistics (1850 to 1870), industry (1850), manufacturing (1880) and “defective, dependent and delinquent classes” (1880). Find the population schedules on microfilm at large libraries, or online at HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com> (free via member libraries) and Ancestry.com <ancestry, com< (subscription required).
As Alabama’s population grew, its native peoples got pushed out. After a succession of treaties and land grabs, most Alabama Indians were forced to go to what’s now Oklahoma in the 1830s. If you have American Indian ancestors, the FHL has microfilm of several censuses of these tribes, including 1831 Choctaw, 1832 Creeks, and 1835 and 1851 Cherokee.
The “recent unpleasantness”
The Civil War remained a vivid memory for Alabamians long after it had faded in the minds of “Yankees”: My mother, born in Opelika, Ala., insisted on referring to the conflict as “the War Between the States.” Fortunately for you, the conflict produced as many records as it did memories. You can search for Alabama Confederates in ADAH’s database of service cards <archives.state.al.us/civilwar/index.cfm> (currently completed for surnames A-R). ADAH also has microfilm of Confederate pension files, plus 1907, 1921 and 1927 (incomplete) censuses of Confederate veterans in Alabama. Confederate pension applications are also on FHL microfilm. For histories of Alabama units, Ken Jones’ Web site <www.tarleton.edu/~kjones/Alabama.html> is an invaluable starting point, as is Carolyn Golowka’s Alabama Civil War Roots <rootsweb.com/~alcwroot>.
For many researchers of African-American roots, the end of the Civil War represents a beginning of new records about their family. Alabama had two branches of the Freedman’s Bank to assist freed slaves, in Huntsville and Mobile. Their records are on FHL microfilm and online at HeritageQuest Online and Ancestry, com. ADAH has a guide to its African-American records at <archives.state.al.us/afro/afro.htrnl>.
The first statewide government documents recording African-American males in Alabama were voter registration rolls in 1867. ADAH is compiling these 131 volumes in an online database <archives.state.al.us/voterreg/search.cfm>, which is also useful for locating white Alabama ancestors between the war’s end and the 1870 census.
Vital records, y’all
Like many Southern states, Alabama adopted statewide registration of vital records relatively late. Counties were required to record births and deaths beginning in 1881; the FHL has microfilm of most of those surviving records. State-level registration began in 1908, though full compliance wasn’t reached until 1925 for deaths and 1927 for births. The Center for Health Statistics keeps these records, but they’re subject to a privacy period of 125 years for births and 25 years for deaths. Only immediate family can order birth certificates; grandchildren are added to those who can order death certificates. Both types cost $12 each. Death records and indexes covering 1908 to 1972 are on FHL microfilm, and the Center for Health Statistics sells microfilmed death (1908 to 1959), marriage (1936 to 1969) and divorce (1950 to 1959) indexes for $40 a roll.
Most counties began keeping marriage records within 10 years of their creation — look for the records on FHL microfilm. Early marriage records have been compiled in Early Alabama Marriages, 1810-1850 (Family Adventures) and Alabama Marriages Early to 1825 (Precision Indexing), both searchable on Ancestry.com. State-level marriage records didn’t begin until 1936. These aren’t restricted; you can order them from the Center for Health Statistics for $12.
If y’all are still coming up empty on your search for Alabama ancestors, newspapers are a useful source. ADAH has two tools you can use to locate periodicals in its collection: <archives.state.al.us/newshard/search.cfm> and <archives.state.al.us/newsmicro/search.cfm>. Many Alabama tombstones have been transcribed from the early 1800s, and you’ll find them in a 44-microfilm collection of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) <dar.org> records and in the Gandrud and Jones Alabama Records Collection, both at the FHL. The latter also contains vital records, Bible records and more. Most volumes have been microfilmed, and about 100 have been published by the Southern Historical Press <www.southernhistoricalpress.com>. The DAR also collected in Index to Alabama Wills, 1808-1870 (Edwards Bros.). You’ll find many other Alabama local histories and genealogies on Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest Online.
Despite its burned courthouses and other genealogical glitches, Alabama rewards the persistent researcher with a wealth of lively history. Before long, you may find yourself catching “Alabama fever,” too.
From the January 2008 Family Tree Magazine.