By the 1830's the port of Mobile emerged as a significant shipping destination in the national chain of commerce. The city grew quickly. It’s official population quadrupled in one decade. Yet it was a transient population composed mainly of young businessmen involved in trade, keeping temporary residences close to the port but traveling frequently between ports and remaining in the north during the summer months. It was difficult therefore for the city government to maintain a stable economy. Safety, sanitation and infrastructure lagged behind.
By the end of the decade Mobile was gaining note as a welcoming city due to a few architectural achievements, the beauty of its live oaks, and the unique lining of the streets with oyster shells which not only kept them dry but created a clean, sparkling white appearance on sunny days. Oysters were prevalent at the port and Mobile became synonymous with fresh oysters by the end of the century.
Travelers Describe Mobile
in the 1830s
We remember the time when the planters of the South scouted the idea of being classed with merchants as equals in society, or in the body politic. This was only a remnant of the old garment which clothed the ancient world…But, of this we are certain, the merchants of Mobile constitute the most influential portion of the community. It is true that the lawyers are a powerful body of men, but it may be said there… that it was “money against brains.” We don’t intend a sarcasm, but a contrast.
The merchant of Mobile, by the simple dash of the pen, frequently earns $10,000 or $20,000. But is this the case with the lawyer? Why he has to struggle for existence by the sweat of his brow, and is often puzzled how to keep the wolf from the door.
…[The merchant], by buying and selling cotton, gives employment to almost all the other portions of the community – to all the professions and trades of our city, and even to the sailors and merchants… and as the merchant is so important a member of our society, it is requisite that he should be educated for that line of business. This has not been the practice in Mobile, as it is in Europe. It is very common for a planter to quit his occupation as an agriculturalist; and to remove to our city for the purpose of becoming a cotton broker. What can such a person know about the laws of trade, about the influence of foreign markets on our domestic productions, and of the thousand intricacies of a business which requires acumen and astuteness of intellect?
Bernard Reynolds, Sketches of Mobile, 1831
My observations during this three days’ residence afforded little to record. Mobile is a place of trade, and of nothing else. It is the great port of the cotton-growing State of Alabama. The quays were crowded with shipping, and in amount of exports it is inferior only to New Orleans. The wealth of the Mobile merchants must accumulate rapidly, for they certainly do not dissipate it in expenditure. There are no smart houses or equipages nor indeed any demonstration of opulence, except huge warehouses and a crowded harbor. Of amusements of any kind I heard nothing.
I would not advise anyone who is in a steady way of business at home, however small, and who can make both ends meet by strict economy, to think of emigrating…the man that comes here, sir, only exchanges one set of evils for another; he is obliged to mingle with a most profane and godless set…I am not sure that poverty is not a slight evil when compared with this. He cannot hear the gospel preached… and the profanation of the Sabbath is most awful. I am not sure, sir, that poverty is not a slight evil when compared to this.
Then there is slavery, sir; men are treated in this country far worse than brute beasts in Scotland, and surely this is dreadful. There is no getting anything done here without slaves, for all white men think it is a disgrace to labour.
The ways of the people here, are not pleasant to one from the old country; they are not social and neighborly, and are so keen about money, that I believe they would skin a flea for lucre of the hide and tallow.
Our dinners on board the Isabella were scanty in quality. Plates, dishes, knives and forks, tablecloths, all were dirty and disgusting. But bating these disagreeables, our voyage was pleasant and prosperous.
Thomas Hamilton, Men and Manners in America, 1835
As we entered the mouth of the Bay of Mobile we saw between thirty and forty vessels riding at anchor…Many of these vessels were three-masted, and their number betokened great commercial activity at this point of export for the productive cotton-lands of the States of Mississippi and Alabama…What I had previously heard of Mobile was not very much in its favour, and what I had seen of other towns in this climate had not raised my expectations…
At every step I took I was more and more struck with the universal love of order, and the good taste which seemed to prevail. The excellent example which Mobile has set to the other towns in these latitudes deserves more praise than it appears to have received…
George Featherstonhaugh, Geologist of the United States, 1835
We perceive by the Mobile papers, that a very laudable rivalry is likely to spring up between that city and New Orleans. Little Mobile though young, knows, and feels the importance of her position and salubrious climate. She thinks New Orleans a little too grasping, and believes herself fully as much entitled, and more so by nature, to the great Western trade of the Tennessee and Mississippi valleys …
We should remember that Mobile is a colony, it may be said, of New Yorkers, and our capitalists might naturally feel inclined therefore, as well as from the advantages presented, to assist her in her present commendable efforts.
Cincinnati Daily Gazette Report, 1835
The population of Mobile at the time of his writing was, according to the United States Census, about 12,000, half of Buckingham’s estimate. The United States Census was taken in the summer, however, when the population in the city would have been much smaller than it was in March. Nonetheless, Buckingham’s population estimate is high.
The population of Mobile is estimated at 25,000, of whom about half are whites, and the remainder slaves and free-coloured people. They are chiefly engaged in commerce, though there are not wanting the full proportion of legal and medical men; but there are few persons disengaged from all active pursuits, and living a life of leisure.
In their manners and style of living the higher orders partake much of the hospitality and elegance of Charleston and Savannah; and in this rank of society great intelligence, morality, and honour are to be found. But there is a large class of inferior persons belonging to the community, some natives of the South, but many strangers and sojourners, who are among the most dissolute and unprincipled of men. Accordingly there are few weeks pass by without outrages which are shocking to persons of correct feeling.
James S. Buckingham, The Slave States of America, 1839
Slave manifest, Captain Benjamin Vincent bringing slaves into the port of Mobile from New Orleans, March 16, 1838.
Slaves provided the labor for Mobile's dramatic economic development in the 1830's.