The Black Belt's economics, political, and culture have been shaped by its thick, dark soil. The discovery of this area occurred in tandem with a meteoric rise in the demand for cotton that began around 1800. Settlers quickly found that the soil was extremely fertile and ideal for cotton planting, and "Alabama Fever" set in. It was one of the first great American land booms, virtually unrivaled until the California Gold Rush more than a century later.
The soild was not depleted as quickly as in many earlier cotton-going areas such as Virginia, and thus cotton agriculture became the mainstay of Black Belt life, impacting the land, culture, and economy of the area into the twenty-first century. Quickly, cotton fields replaced Tallgrass Prairie across the Black Belt, and African American slaves worked the land fomerly roamed by Creek and Choctaws. It was nothing less than an all-out social, cultural, and environmental revolution.
The richness of the soil and the proximity of navigable rivers made the Black Belt the epicenter of southern cotton production between 1800 and 1860. Technological inventions--particularly the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s and the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain--set the stage for the rise of cotton as the major export crop, replacing tobacco and indigo. When the State of Alabama was created in 1819, its first capital was in the Black Belt region at Cahawba, in the heart of the cotton land boom.
As settlers came to the Black Belt to take advantage of the soil, long summers, and abundant rainfall, they displaced Native American inhabitants and brought African and African American slaves with them. Although only one in four Southern males owned slaves in 1850, a large portion of those that did own slaves lived in the Black Belt. In the decades leading to the Civil War, the region attained its highest population density. Some of its cities become the wealthiest per capita in the nation.
Cotton dominated the economy of the South, affected its social structure, and during the Civil War, shaped the international relations of the Confederacy. Visitors of the South would comment that people rode in cotton buggies, pulled by cotton horses, to their cotton homes. In the South, money came from cotton.
At the end of the War of 1812, the U.S. produced less than 300,000 bales of cotton. By 1820, this figure had increased to 600,000 and by 1850 it had reached 4,000,000. By the time of the Civil War, cotton accounted for almost for almost 60% of American exports, representing a total value of nearly $300 million a year, which is the equivalent of $6.8 billion in today's currency. Southern plantations generated three-fourths of the world's cotton supply to fuel England's textile industry, as well as the emerging textile industry in the northern United States.
In early 1860, seven southern states formed the Confederate States of America. For the next few months, Montgomery, Alabama, considered the richest city for its size in the nation at that time, and located in the heart of the Deep South's plantation economy, served as the capital of this Confederacy. Cotton was King of the South, and the geographical jewel in the crown of King Cotton was the fertile soil of the Black Belt.