The Black Belt divides Alabama north to south and the settlement, economics, politics, and culture of the area have been largely shaped by the thick, dark soil. The discovery of this area, coupled with a meteoric rise in the demand for cotton that began around 1800, set the stage for the growth of the new agricultural market leader. Though the Black Belt soil was viewed by early settlers as too poor for farming, they quickly discovered that the soil was extremely fertile and ideal for cotton planting, and "Alabama Fever" set in. Thousands migrated to the area from around the newly founded United States to purchase land and grow cotton. It was one of the first great American land booms, virtually unrivaled until the California Gold Rush during the middle of the nineteenth century. The soil was not quickly depleted, as was the case in many earlier cotton lands such as Virginia, and thus cotton agriculture became the mainstay of Black Belt life, impacting the land, culture and economy of the area into the twenty-first century. In a flash, cultivated Black Belt fields with row upon row of cotton replaced Tallgrass Prairie, and African American slaves worked the land formerly roamed by Creeks and Choctaws. It was nothing less than a prodigious, all-encompassing social, cultural, and environmental revolution.
It was the richness of the soil and the proximity of several navigable rivers that made the "Southwest" the place to settle between 1800 and 1860. Though cotton agriculture began its ascendancy as the major agricultural product of antebellum Alabama once the fertility of the Black Belt soil was recognized, cotton would not have been a major crop had it not been for the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, and the advent of the industrial revolution in England. These technological and industrial advances set the stage for the rise of cotton as the major export crop, replacing tobacco and indigo. The skyrocketing demand for cotton, along with the opening of former Creek lands in the Mississippi Territory, caused so many people to come to the area that the State of Alabama was created in 1819, with its first capital in the Black Belt region at Cahawba, in the heart of the cotton land boom.
As families from the east traveled west to take advantage of the virgin soil, long summers, and abundant rainfall, they displaced the Native Americans and brought African and African American slaves with them, altering the culture with their cotton money, as they altered the landscape. Although only one in four Southern males owned slaves in 1850, a large portion of those that did own slaves lived in the Black Belt. In the decades leading to the Civil War, the region attained its highest population density. Some of its cities became the wealthiest per capita in the nation. Cotton dominated the economy of the South, affected its social structure, and, during the Civil War, shaped the international relations of the Confederacy. Visitors to the South would comment that people rode in cotton buggies, pulled by cotton horses, to their cotton homes. The money in the South came from cotton. In a society where wealth was measured by the ownership of land and slaves, the only way and reason to attain both was through cotton production.
The following statistics emphasize the transformation and the impact of "Alabama Fever" and help to explain why cotton became king and ruled Alabama agriculture, society, and politics for decades. In 1834, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana grew half the nation's cotton; by 1859, along with Georgia, they grew 78%, whereas cotton growth in the Carolinas had fallen to just 10% of the national total. At the end of the War of 1812, there were less than 300,000 bales of cotton produced nationally. By 1820, this figure had increased to 600,000, and by 1850 it had reached 4,000,000. By the time of the Civil War, cotton accounted for almost 60% of American exports, representing a total value of nearly $300 million a year, which is the equivalent of $6.8 billion in today's currency. Southern plantations generated three fourths of the world's cotton supply to fuel England's textile industry, as well as the emerging textile industry in the northern United States.
"In early 1861, less than one month after the State of Alabama succeeded from the Union, the Alabama secession convention invited delegates of the other seceded states to meet in Montgomery to form the new Confederate nation. Delegates from six of the seven seceded states (the Texans arrived late) wrote a constitution for the Confederate States of America in only four days; the next day they elected Jefferson Davis the Confederacy's president. In late February, Davis took the oath of office while standing on the portico of the state capitol in Montgomery." For the next few months, Montgomery, Alabama, considered the richest city for its size in the nation at that time, and located in the heart of the Deep South's plantation economy, served as the first capital of the Confederate States of America. Cotton was King of the South, and the geographical jewel in the crown of King Cotton was the fertile soil of the Black Belt.