300 Years of French Culture in Alabama

Sixteen years before they founded New Orleans, the French established a settlement on the Gulf of Mexico, a town now called Mobile, Alabama. To celebrate the bicentennial of its annexation by the United States, Alabama is organizing a symposium on its French heritage this weekend. We asked Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, to tell us more about his state’s French connection.
A group of reenactors in period costumes at Fort Toulouse, north of Montgomery, Alabama. © Stephen Poff/Alabama Tourism Department

France-Amérique: French culture in the United Sates is usually associated with Louisiana rather than with Alabama. When did the French arrive in what is now Alabama?

Steve Murray: Mobile predates New Orleans! A military fort and a village nicknamed “La Mobile” were founded in 1702 by two French-Canadian brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne. The colony was the first permanent European settlement on the Gulf of Mexico and remained the capital of the French Louisiana territory until 1720. The first Mardi Gras ever recorded in American history was organized in Mobile. But in 1763, the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War – also known as the French and Indian War in North America – and France ceded to Great Britain its territories east of the Mississippi. The French left Alabama and retreated to New Orleans, which had become the capital of French Louisiana in 1722.

Did the French explore other regions of what is now Alabama?

In 1717, French explorers and settlers traveled up the Alabama River from Mobile and established Fort Toulouse near a Native Creek village at the confluence of two rivers near the present town of Wetumpka, twenty miles north of Montgomery, the present-day state capital. Staking a claim to the interior of what would become Alabama and beating British and Scottish traders who had begun to come overland from the Eastern colonies, the French won a decisive victory in a time of competition between European powers for land and resources in North America. Fort Toulouse became an important commercial hub where the French traded deerskins, which were in high demand in Europe at the time, with the Native tribes. The fort was abandoned when the French lost Alabama to the British, but French trade goods such as glass beads, porcelain, silver and firearms are now part of the collections at the Museum of Alabama. The fort’s palisade, barracks and officers’ quarters have been faithfully reconstructed and the site is now a National History Park.

Which other French items are kept at the Alabama Archives?

A small French canon was left behind when the French abandoned Fort Toulouse. It eventually made its way to Montgomery and has been part of our museum collection since 1901. It’s one of our most treasured artifacts. Our collections also hold the fortune of William Rufus King, a wealthy cotton planter from Alabama who served as a Minister [ambassador] to France from 1844 to 1846. While he was in Paris, he hosted lavish dinners for the court of King Louis Philippe and amassed an amazing collection of Chinese porcelain, silver, furniture and art. Another of our items is a 45-feet-long stretch of wallpaper depicting scenes from the Vine and Olive Colony in Marengo County.

A section of the Vine and Olive Colony wallpaper. © Alabama Department of Archives and History

Can you tell us more about these colonists?

After Napoleon’s defeat, some of his officers immigrated to the United States to escape the Bourbon Restoration. They were granted lands in Western Alabama by Congress in 1817 and set about growing grapes and olives. But Alabama does not have the right climate or soil to grow either of these crops! Some of the settlers remained in Philadelphia, but some 150 came to West Alabama. The colony had collapsed by 1825, but descendants of the French settlers still live in this part of the state. A few towns founded by the Bonapartists are still standing today, including Aigleville, Marengo and Arcola.

Is French culture still visible in present-day Alabama?

The French departed the region in the 1760s, but there was a considerable effort to bring back French colonial architecture in Alabama in the 19th and 20th centuries. Downtown Mobile now resembles the French Quarter of New Orleans. The city’s street names also pay homage to our French heritage, such as Dauphin Street, Beauregard Street, St. Louis Street, Royal Street and Bienville Square. Closer to our time, in 1917, the American entry into World War I marked a turning point in the conflict, but also in Alabama’s history. The state shifted its economy from cotton farming to heavy industry, high-tech sectors, and defense manufacturing. Some 20 French automobile and aviation companies now operate sites in Alabama. Most recently, Airbus opened an assembly plant in Mobile less than a mile away from the site of the 1702 French settlement.

Alabama’s French Connection: A Symposium on Shared History
Alabama Department of Archives & History
, Montgomery

June 9-10, 2017