Sweet Home: Alabama History in Maps

Sweet Home: Alabama's History in Maps
is an exhibit presented by the Birmingham Public Library in celebration of Alabama's bicentennial. The Library's Southern History Department has carefully selected over 50 maps from our world class collection to tell the story of Alabama. The maps in this exhibit represent 450 years of exploration, expansion, and development.

The Birmingham Public Library has been the grateful recipient of several large collections of rare, valuable, and exquisitely drawn maps. These donations were made by Birmingham natives Rucker Agee, John C. Henley III, Dr. Charles Ochs, and Joseph H. Woodward II. As a result of their generosity the BPL has an extraordinary map collection, the like of which is rarely seen outside of academia.

Map collectors and enthusiasts have long known that maps are much more than navigational tools. They tell a story, promote an agenda, and tantalize our imagination. Maps, like any historical document, are products of their time and their creators. In the hands of a gifted cartographer, they are works of art without compare. By studying historic maps of Alabama, we gain insight into not only the physical changes of our state over the course of its history, but also into the constantly changing perceptions of who we are and who we want to be. Enjoy this exhibit that tells our story which, while not always pretty, is still ongoing and being written by all of us.

The maps in this gallery show some of the earliest depictions of North America and chart the development of the United States and its growing territory. Extraordinarily beautiful maps by notable cartographers such as Sebastian Munster, Abraham Ortelius, Jocodus Hondius, and Willem Blaeu are shown here.

The area that would become Alabama is identified in very early maps as Florida or La Floride. As nations and states begin to emerge, Alabama is, initially, part of Georgia and later Mississippi before finally gaining status as a territory of the United States in 1817. Interestingly, the area around Mobile was captured by the Spanish during the American Revolution and remained part of Spanish West Florida until 1813.

While these maps depict an area that is undergoing continual change, the presence of Native Americans remains constant. Maps from the 1730's include the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw; names familiar to all Alabamians. A century before Alabama's statehood, their societies were thriving throughout the Southeast.
Alabama became the 22nd state of the United States on December 14, 1819. The state's early years were active ones. The maps shown here chart Alabama's growth and show the development of the state's cities and counties. Also shown is the abrupt removal of Native Americans. Using instruments such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Treaty of New Echota, the United States forcibly removed tens of thousands of people whose ancestors had lived in Alabama for hundreds of years. Many of them suffered and died as they marched across harsh terrain to Indian Territory in present day Oklahoma.

These maps demonstrate that Alabama, a primarily agricultural state, was slow to embrace the railroad and relied heavily on steamboats to transport farming equipment and produce over long distances. On the eve of the Civil War, Alabama was without an adequate rail system needed for the safe and efficient movement of troops and supplies.

As shown on the maps in this gallery, Alabama wasted no time developing a network of railroads after the Civil War. Later on, we see the first state highways and eventually the beginnings of the interstate system. Incorporated in 1871, Birmingham starts appearing on maps for the first time.

Thanks to the mineral deposits in the area Birmingham grew quickly, earning the nickname of "The Magic City." However, all of Alabama was ready and willing to embrace growth, industry, and new development.

No telling of Alabama's story would be complete without mentioning the importance of the state's natural resources. The great mineral wealth found in central Alabama allowed Birmingham to quickly become the state's largest city and an industrial powerhouse. As early as 1849, the importance and potential of the area's mineral deposits was being realized.

In addition to the coal and iron ore found in central Alabama, these maps depict resources such as Sylacauga marble, petroleum and natural gas, and even a few gold mines.

The Birmingham Public Library would like to thank The Alabama Humanities Foundation, the state affiliate of the The National Endowment for the Humanities, Jay Lamar and the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, Dr. Melinda Kashuba and Dr. Martin Olliff for their input and guidance throughout the development of this exhibition, Jim Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library's Archives Department, Melinda Shelton of the Birmngham Public Library for her work on the web site and digital collections, and John DeMotte. We are especially grateful to Rucker Agee, John C. Henley III, Dr. Charles Ochs, and Joseph H. Woodward II for their generous gifts to the Birmingham Public Library.

Sweet Home: Alabama's History in Maps was curated by Mary Beth Newbill, Mary Anne Ellis, and Laura Gentry of the Birmingham Public Library's Southern History Department. The exhibition is available for travel. For more information or to purchase prints, call 205-226-3665 or email askgenlocal@bham.lib.al.us.
 Alabama 200        Alabama Humanities Foundation

Page Last Modified: 7/22/2021 10:44 AM