In truth cotton animated many aspects of life in early Alabama. It encouraged the area’s settlement, provided the impetus for much of its infrastructural development, and underlay much of its economic activity. Cotton was Alabama’s cash crop from its inception. The ebbs and flows of its price on international markets served as the bellwether for the health of the territory’s overall financial status. Statistics on Mobile’s fiber exports show the steady consuming progress of its cultivation, which took root in its territorial years and soon dominated the state’s economy. In 1818 the port shipped fewer than 10,000 bales; by the 1840s Alabama had become the nation’s leader in cotton production, and that figure hovered around 500,000 bales. Observers in the Alabama Territory, such as the ever-insightful Anne Royall, would not have been surprised by the centrality of cotton to the future state’s life. In January 1818 on a Tennessee River Valley plantation, she beheld the first cotton field she had ever seen and wrote a friend, “It appears an endless business when we cast our eye over so vast a plain of white with a production, the gathering of which is to be effected by the application of the fingers to every individual pod; and these pods as thick as they can stand one by the side of the other. It is discouraging indeed.”
It didn’t take long for settlers to discover that Alabama soil was ideal for growing cotton. Planters from the Atlantic Coast states brought their slaves south and established huge cotton plantations, dominating Alabama’s economy for the next forty years.
Owing in no small part to cotton production’s profitability, the Alabama Territory featured exceedingly little industry outside of agricultural pursuits. Sawmills and gristmills became the core, if not the only, manufacturing enterprises in most early communities. Pursuits that would become mainstays in Alabama’s nineteenth-century industrial scene nonetheless trace their origins to the era. The state’s textile industry dates its establishment to the entrepreneurial activities of Madison County’s Charles Cabaniss (ca. 1815), forerunner of the noted Bell Factory, generally recognized as the state’s first successful textile manufacturing concern. To the west, in Franklin County, about the same time as Cabaniss began his operation, Pennsylvania native Joseph Heslip purchased a tract of land along Cedar Creek near the crossroads community of Russellville and built Alabama’s first blast iron furnace. Across the territory, pursuit of other visions for economic and community development were about to reach a fever pitch through the establishment of dozens of towns and cities.