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Early European Conquests
and the Settlement of Mobile

From its founding in 1702 Mobile was basically a trading outpost for successive French, British, and Spanish colonial rulers. Commercial and security advantages had persuaded a French Canadian soldier named Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville to select Mobile Bay as the site for a French colony in southern Louisiana. Mobile Bay possessed an adequate harbor at Massacre Island, and its resources in timber and inland water connections appeared superior to those of Biloxi Bay or the lower Mississippi River, two sites which also had been considered. Mobile suited the security considerations of French officials, who wished to found a settlement to protect their interests in Louisiana against European colonial rivals and to make inroads into Britain's monopoly on trade with the Indians of the Southeast. Not only was Mobile Bay located close to the path of the British advance southward from Carolina, but it also provided a communication link with major Indian nations in the interior via the Alabama-Tombigbee River system that flowed into the Mobile River on its way to the bay.

The name "Mobile" came from the French rendering of "Movile," which was the Spanish version of the name that the natives gave to the bay—"Mobila." In French and English, the adjective "mobile" means "capable of moving or being moved."

This description suited the settlement that became the city of Mobile because it did move from its original site to a permanent one. In 1702 the French Canadians led by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville established Fort Louis de la Louisiane on a bluff twenty-seven miles north of the mouth of the Mobile River. Built in the French colonial style of a fort surrounded by a town, Fort Louis served as capital of the French colony on the Gulf. After seven years of problems caused by poor drainage at the upriver site, the French founded their permanent settlement in 1711 on a plain along the west bank of the Mobile River delta. Fort Condé served to protect settlers who lived on the streets surrounding it.

As a French settlement, Mobile claimed only a few hundred inhabitants, an indication of its relative insignificance in the ultimate colonization of Louisiana. In 1718 Biloxi replaced Mobile as capital of the colony, and in 1720 the newly founded City of New Orleans supplanted Biloxi. By the middle of the eighteenth century, New Orleans had superseded Mobile as the most important town in the Gulf region. Mobile served basically as the main center for trade with the Muscogee Indians. Colonists also exported animal skins and engaged in forestry and lumbering, but their trade did not seriously challenge the commercial primacy of New Orleans.

Mobile grew slowly under the colonial rule of the British, who claimed the town as part of the settlement of the French and Indian War arranged by the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Major Robert Farmar, the British commandant, gave French residents several months to choose allegiance to George III or emigration. According to Farmar, about forty of the one hundred French families remained in Mobile. Many of the remaining French people relocated from the town to sites along the river and bay where they could raise cattle. Other colonists continued to trade with the southeastern Indians and to export skins and furs.

Economic activities remained the same under the Spanish rulers, who occupied Mobile in 1780 during the American Revolution and gained formal title to British West Florida in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. Mobile's location in West Florida soon led to international disputes over its title.

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States claimed that its title to Louisiana included West Florida to the Perdido River, which flowed to the east of Mobile Bay. Mobile, located in disputed territory between the Perdido and Mississippi rivers, was placed in a United States Customs district in 1804. Spain protested this action and refused to surrender West Florida. In 1810, after planters in the western part of West Florida declared their independence from Spain, President James Madison issued a proclamation that annexed parts of the disputed territory that included Mobile. Spain continued to maintain its garrison there.

The Spanish era finally ended during the War of 1812. Since Spain allowed British naval vessels to use Mobile and other Gulf ports in its possession, the American government occupied Mobile to stop this indirect aid to the British. When American forces arrived in 1813, the Spanish forces, who were out of provisions, surrendered the fort without bloodshed. As Spanish troops and civilians departed, Americans moved into the town, situated in the only territory that the United States acquired as a result of the war.

Americans soon provided government for Mobile, which was included in the Mississippi Territory and, later, the Alabama Territory. Soon after Alabama achieved statehood in 1819, local developers bought the site of Fort Charlotte (formerly Fort Condé) and demolished the fort since the United States Congress agreed that the fort was no longer needed for defense. American Mobile developed residential and business streets through the site.

The original Fort Condé may be gone, but today an authentically reconstructed Fort Condé serves as the official visitor information center for the city of Mobile. Fort Condé reminds us of the rich French, British, and Spanish colonial history of Mobile.