Mobile is the third most populous city in the U.S. state of Alabama, the county seat of Mobile County, and Alabama's only salt water port. It is located at the head of Mobile Bay and the north-central Gulf Coast of the United States. The population within the city limits was 195,111 during the 2010 census. It is the largest municipality on the Gulf Coast between New Orleans, Louisiana, and St. Petersburg, Florida. Mobile is the principal municipality of the Mobile Metropolitan Statistical Area, a region of 412,992 residents which is composed solely of Mobile County and is the third largest metropolitan statistical area in the state. Mobile is largest city in the Mobile-Daphne–Fairhope CSA, with a total population of 591,599, the second largest in the state. As of 2011, the population within a 60 mile radius of Mobile is 1,262,907.
Mobile began as the first capital of colonial French Louisiana in 1702. The city gained its name from the Native American Mobilian tribe that the French colonists found in the area of Mobile Bay. During its first 100 years, Mobile was a colony for France, then Britain, and lastly Spain. Mobile first became a part of the United States of America in 1810, with the annexation of West Florida under President James Madison. It then left that union in 1861 when Alabama joined the Confederate States of America, which collapsed in 1865.
Located at the junction of the Mobile River and Mobile Bay on the northern Gulf of Mexico, the city is the only seaport in Alabama. The Port of Mobile has always played a key role in the economic health of the city beginning with the city as a key trading center between the French and Native Americans down to its current role as the 12th-largest port in the United States.
As one of the Gulf Coast's cultural centers, Mobile has several art museums, a symphony orchestra, a professional opera, a professional ballet company, and a large concentration of historic architecture. Mobile is known for having the oldest organized carnival celebrations in the United States, dating to the 18th century of its early colonial period. It was also host to the first formally organized Carnival mystic society, known elsewhere as a krewe, in the United States, dating back to 1830.
The European settlement of Mobile, then known as Fort Louis de la Louisiane, started in 1702, at Twenty-seven Mile Bluff on the Mobile River, as the first capital of the French colony of Louisiana. It was founded by French Canadian brothers Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, to establish control over France's Louisiana claims. Bienville was made governor of French Louisiana in 1701. Mobile's Roman Catholic parish was established on July 20, 1703, by Jean-Baptiste de la Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, Bishop of Quebec. The parish was the first established on the Gulf Coast of the United States. In 1704 the ship Pélican delivered 23 French women to the colony, along with yellow fever which passengers had contracted at a stop in Havana. Though most of the "Pélican girls" recovered, numerous colonists and neighboring Native Americans died from the illness. This early period was also the occasion of the arrival of the first African slaves, transported aboard a French supply ship from Saint-Domingue. The population of the colony fluctuated over the next few years, growing to 279 persons by 1708, yet descending to 178 persons two years later due to disease.
In 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the French and Indian War. The treaty ceded Mobile and the surrounding territory to Great Britain, and it was made a part of the expanded British West Florida colony. The British changed the name of Fort Condé to Fort Charlotte, after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, King George III's queen.
While the British were dealing with their rebellious colonists along the Atlantic coast, the Spanish entered the war as an ally of France in 1779. They took the opportunity to order Bernardo de Galvez, Governor of Louisiana, on an expedition east to retake Florida. He captured Mobile during the Battle of Fort Charlotte in 1780, as part of this campaign. The Spanish wished to eliminate any British threat to their Louisiana colony, which they had received from France in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Their actions were condoned by the revolting American colonies, partially evidenced by the presence of Oliver Pollack, representative of the American Continental Congress, and due to the fact that Mobile and West Florida, for the most part, remained loyal to the British Crown. The fort was renamed Fortaleza Carlota, with the Spanish holding Mobile as a part of Spanish West Florida until 1813, when it was seized by United States General James Wilkinson during the War of 1812.
By the time Mobile was included in the Mississippi Territory in 1813, the population had dwindled to roughly 300 people. The city was included in the Alabama Territory in 1817, after Mississippi gained statehood. Alabama was granted statehood in 1819; Mobile's population had increased to 809 by that time. As the river frontage areas of Alabama and Mississippi were settled by farmers and the plantation economy became established, Mobile's population exploded. It came to be settled by merchants, attorneys, mechanics, doctors and others seeking to capitalize on trade with these upriver areas. Mobile was well situated for trade, as its location tied it to a river system that served as the principal navigational access for most of Alabama and a large part of Mississippi. By 1822 the city's population was 2800.
With the economy so focused on one crop, Mobile's fortunes were always tied to those of cotton, and the city weathered many financial crises. Though Mobile had a relatively small slave-owning population compared to the inland plantation areas, it was the slave-trading center of the state until surpassed by Montgomery in the 1850s.
During the American Civil War, Mobile was a Confederate city. The first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship, the H. L. Hunley, was built in Mobile. One of the most famous naval engagements of the war was the Battle of Mobile Bay, resulting in the Union taking possession of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864. On April 12, 1865, three days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, the city surrendered to the Union army to avoid destruction after Union victories at nearby Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely.
Federal Reconstruction in Mobile began after the Civil War and effectively ended in 1874 when the local Democrats gained control of the city government. The last quarter of the 19th century was a time of economic depression and municipal insolvency for Mobile. One example can be provided by the value of Mobile's exports during this period of depression. The value of exports leaving the city fell from $9 million in 1878 to $3 million in 1882.
The turn of the 20th century brought the Progressive Era to Mobile and saw Mobile's economic structure evolve, along with a significant increase in population. The population increased from around 40,000 in 1900 to 60,000 by 1920. During this time the city received $3 million in federal grants for harbor improvements to deepen the shipping channels in the harbor. During and after World War I, manufacturing became increasingly vital to Mobile's economic health, with shipbuilding and steel production being two of the most important.
During this time, social justice and race relations in Mobile worsened, however. In 1902 the city government passed Mobile's first segregation ordinance, one that segregated the city streetcars. It legislated what had been informal practice, enforced by convention. Mobile's African-American population responded to this with a two-month boycott, but the law was not repealed. After this, Mobile's de facto segregation was increasingly replaced with legislated segregation as whites imposed Jim Crow laws to maintain dominance.
The red imported fire ant was first introduced into the United States via the Port of Mobile. Sometime in the late 1930s they came ashore off of South American cargo ships, where they lived in the soil used as ballast on those ships.
World War II led to a massive military effort causing a considerable increase in Mobile's population, largely due to the massive influx of workers coming to Mobile to work in the shipyards and at the Brookley Army Air Field. Between 1940 and 1943, more than 89,000 people moved into Mobile to work for war effort industries. Mobile was one of eighteen United States cities producing Liberty ships. Its Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company (ADDSCO) supported the war effort by producing ships faster than the Axis powers could sink them. ADDSCO also churned out a copious number of T2 tankers for the War Department. Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation, a subsidiary of Waterman Steamship Corporation, focused on building freighters, Fletcher class destroyers, and minesweepers.
The years after World War II brought about changes in Mobile's social structure and economy. Replacing shipbuilding as a primary economic force, the paper and chemical industries began to expand, and most of the old military bases were converted to civilian uses. Following the war, African Americans stepped up their efforts to achieve equal rights and social justice. The police force and Spring Hill College were integrated during the 1950s. Unlike the rest of the state, buses and lunch counters had been voluntarily desegregated by the early 1960s.
In 1963 three African-American students brought a case against the Mobile County School Board for being denied admission to Murphy High School. The court ordered that the three students be admitted to Murphy for the 1964 school year, leading to the desegregation of Mobile County's school system. The Civil Rights Movement led to the end of legal racial segregation with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mobile's economy was dealt a severe blow in 1969 with the closing of Brookley Air Force Base. The closing left 10% of the workforce without employment. This and other factors ushered in a period of economic depression that lasted through the 1970s.
Beginning in the late 1980s, newly elected mayor Mike Dow and the city council began an effort termed the "String of Pearls Initiative" to make Mobile into a competitive city. The city initiated construction of numerous new facilities and projects, and the restoration of hundreds of historic downtown buildings and homes. City and county leaders also made efforts to attract new business ventures to the area.