A ﬂood of ambitious migrants swarmed over the ﬁelds and valleys of the Alabama Territory even before it could put in place the infrastructure necessary for the orderly disposal of its acreage. Settlers arrived so suddenly and in such astonishing numbers that historians term the phenomenon the “Great Migration.” This movement is associated with a larger, generally western expansion of the United States, which resulted in the Americanization of the trans-Appalachian frontier with dizzying rapidity. If the Mississippi Territory stood at the movement’s center, Alabama ranked as its epicenter. Just before the War of 1812, the area that became the state of Mississippi claimed over three times the American population of the future state of Alabama; some 31,000 residents compared to barely 9,000. (These numbers include both white and black individuals, but they did not reﬂect Native American inhabitants.) By the end of the ensuing decade, Alabama boasted nearly 150,000 free and enslaved residents—an astounding sixteen-fold increase—while Mississippi claimed a respectable 75,000. Anecdotal evidence oﬀers even more clarity; in the course of about a week on the eve of the formation of the Alabama Territory, one traveler along the Federal Road in Georgia reported seeing an incredible 141 wagons, 102 carts, 10 stagecoaches, 14 gigs, 29 droves of cattle, 27 droves of hogs, 2 droves of sheep, and some 3,840 people—all bound for Alabama.
Most new arrivals were farmers, planters, speculators or slaves, but there was also a smattering of tradesmen and professionals, especially lawyers. An arduous journey, more often than not conducted in the fall over wilderness trails, characterized their passage. Some rode carriages or traveled on horseback, but a signiﬁcant number walked. They spanned the country’s numerous watercourses on its few ferries whenever possible, but most of the time had to resort to their own ingenuity and daring. A handful of rude inns stood along some of the major routes, but an exceedingly small number were willing or able to avail themselves of such basic amenities as a purchased meal or resting place. Most camped roadside, serenaded by owls, wolves, and cougars as they gathered around their ﬁres and watched for the robbers and thieves who were greatly feared but in truth rarely seen. Over the weeks-long treks, they occasionally got lost, stuck, and even discouraged, but there could be no turning back. The Alabama Territory’s immigrants had more often than not uprooted themselves from the only home they had ever known and taken a one-way journey in pursuit of elusive, glimmering, opportunity.
Surveying land to facilitate clear boundaries and legal sales stood as the most urgent step toward state-making. Most of the Territory open for settlement would be sold as part of the largely undocumented federal do-main only recently acquired via cession from native groups. Other sections languished in a tangle of overlapping patents issued by French, English, and Spanish authorities. Throughout, squatters already gathered in hopes of being granted preemption or at least being in favorable position to buy their claim. Surveyors such as the capable Thomas Freeman, a friend of George Washington who had helped design the nation’s capital, divided the Territory into sections, ranges, and townships.
The free-for-all of land buying began in earnest in 1817 at oﬃces in such places as Milledgeville, Georgia; St. Stephens; and Huntsville; and the exchange of notes and money—the former being much more common—soon reached a fever pitch. In the Tennessee Valley alone by the end of 1818, ofﬁcers had processed sales of over one million acres purchased for over $7 million. Purchases of large tracts of thousands of acres were not unusual, especially in the rich river bottom lands prized by the ﬁrst wave of Alabama planters, but most plots were much smaller, purchased in fractional sections for about $2 per acre with a nominal amount of cash down and the remainder due in up to three years.
But staking one’s claim was just the ﬁrst step in the process by which thousands of people would soon form a new part of the American union. As the year of the Alabama Territory’s frenzied birth segued into the year of its measured internal establishment, the immediate concern of forming a government to manage and direct its growth rose to the fore.