Birmingham at 150—Part 1

A digital photo of the map of the City of Birmingham Alabama and suburbs drawn for the Elyton Land Company.
A map of Birmingham from the BPL Archives. Photo from the BPL Digital Collections.

American Humanity: Birmingham at 150

On December 19, 2021, the City of Birmingham turns 150 years old.

In that span of time, Birmingham saw the best and the worst of American humanity. Birmingham has been a leader in industry, in affirmative action, and in modernization. 

Yet, ignoring other parts of the city's history is a disservice to the bold men and women who overcame so much in their fight for equal rights (with much left to fight for). 

My father's family hails from Birmingham, but I did not spend significant time in this city as a child.

A simple twist of fate brought me back here on November 9, 2020, and I immediately began my second book. Shortly thereafter, I began working with and for the Birmingham Public Library (BPL), and I realized my book would lack context without a deep dive into Birmingham's history. 

This piece reflects the research of an outsider reaching for deeper inclusion into the society and culture of The Magic City. I hope you will take this journey through the beautiful, tragic, and occasionally reprehensible moments in our city's storied history. 

Birmingham before Birmingham 

When we think about the history of Birmingham, we often begin with men like Caleb Friley and John Jones. But the truth is that people in this area long before the first white men stumbled upon it. 

For thousands of years before colonizers came to what would be Alabama, at least six1different indigenous tribes populated the area now known as Jones Valley and prospered there. 

If all of this area's inhabited history was condensed into a single hour, white settlers only arrived within the last two minutes. 

In the early 1880s as "Alabama Fever" began, skirmishes between the indigenous peoples and the colonizers led to the complete alteration of the Native Americans' way of life at the time 

In 18142, Andrew Jackson, aided by renowned soldiers like Sam Houston, defeated the Muskogee people (also known as the Creek Indians) in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. They killed more than 800 Muskogee warriors who were defending their homeland. 

Within 14 years, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act as the seventh of the United States, paving the way for colonizers to expand their holdings in the area by forcing Native people to relocate to what would become Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. 

Colonizers were busy building quickly on the land they took. In 18213, William Ely gifted 120 acres for the formation of a city on a flat plain known as the "Frog Level Racing Grounds" due to its use for horse racing and propensity to flood. 

The area was named Elyton in his honor, and within four years, a jail and city hall were constructed there. 

The area would grow, but the City of Birmingham itself does not exist for another 50 years. When it was founded, the city was often referred to as "The New South" because it was created after the Emancipation Proclamation.

But this nickname is misleading. 

The truth is that—before being incorporated—slavery played a major role in this area's development. The earliest census of the area, conducted in 1816, shows early colonizers such as Caleb Fryly and John Jones listing enslaved people as residing on their properties. 

It is often pointed out that the Birmingham area did not harbor the same numbers of enslaved people as the larger plantation areas of the Black Belt; however, this is attributed to the size and style of farming rather than some moral code. 

in 1830, the cotton planter David Hubbard, an ardent supporter of slavery, created this Tuscumbia Railroad. It was built to avoid Muscle Shoals when loads of cotton went down the river. Originally the line was only six miles long, and mules pulled the trains.

Over the next 30 years, small railroads expanded to accommodate the industry growth and mineral mining of the area, eventually becoming the keystone for the grid system that Birmingham is built upon. 

Iron and War

As industrial interests in what would soon become Birmingham grew, an outsider force impacted the direction of future commerce in the area. By April of 1861, The War of the Rebellion was in full swing. 

Prior to secession, there were only five iron-producing furnaces in the state. But as the prospect of war became a reality, the Rebel Army recognized they needed to increase iron production to have an advantage in the war. 

Iron became one of the most important commodities in the South. 

Between 1862 and 1865, twelve additional furnaces were commissioned in and around Jones Valley. These sites processed larger amounts of ore in a timelier fashion, leading Alabama to be an integral supplier for the confederate army. 

Once The War of the Rebellion ended with Lee's unconditional surrender at Appomattox, this expansion of the iron industry played an important role in the foundation of Birmingham as a city. 

This story is continued in Part 2. Follow the BPL on Facebook (Meta), Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn for more updates on this story. 

By Caleb Calhoun | Library Assistant Ⅱ, Powderly Branch Library 

1 “American Indians in Alabama.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. EOA. Accessed December 1, 2021.
2 Atkins, Leah Rawls. 1996. The Valley And The Hills. Woodland Hills, Calif.: Windsor Publications.
3 Bennett, James R. 2008. Historic Birmingham & Jefferson County. San Antonio, Tex.: Historical Pub. Network. P39


Anonymous said…
Even just this first part of Birmingham's history shed light on things I've never known or thought about. I lived in Alabama for only five years of my life, but my husband was raised here. - I wondered why the Author referred to the Civil War or War Between the States as "The War of Rebellion."