A visitor can truly come to know a new place only by understanding its history. Origins, customs and rituals, conquests and defeats, shifting ways of life over time: all aspects of a people's past, form the window through which the visitor may glimpse beneath the surface of the present. The history of Baldwin County yields an uncommon treasure of insights into its unique identity.
Baldwin County's story begins, of course, with the Native Americans who inhabited the region as far back as 10,000 years ago. Though distant from us in time, the Indians were drawn to the area for many of the same reasons: the abundance of its natural resources and the incredible range of its navigable waters, which entirely surround the county except for the 17-mile border it shares with Escambia County. Like today's inhabitants, the Indians were great seafood lovers. In fact, those of one era, the Shell mound people, consumed so many shellfish that their middens formed veritable hills, which probably reached a height of 25 feet on Fort Morgan Peninsula.
Spanish explorations of the region reflect the general desire of European nations to discover New World treasures. In 1519, Alonzo Alverez de Pineda became the first to sail into the bay which he named Espiritu Santo. Later, Guido de las Bazares renamed the bay Bahia Filipina in honor of King Philip of Spain, who ordered the famous navigator to establish a colony on the Gulf Coast. The Spanish remained in nominal control of this part of the Gulf Coast until 1670.
The French came into the region after the Spanish and made the greatest impact on Baldwin County and the Gulf Coast. Beginning with a colony in Mobile, they established settlements throughout the area. Bon Secour was founded by a Frenchman from Montreal, and French explorers left such place names as Bayou Volante (Flying Creek, now Fly Creek) in Fairhope and Bycora Swamp from Bayou Coeur (Heartshaped Swamp). The French brought with them the first azaleas and chinaberry trees, among other things.
Baldwin County was among the lands the British gained as a result of the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763). A famous British visitor to Baldwin County was William Bartram, a noted naturalist and forerunner of John James Audubon. He was commissioned to study the plant and bird life of this "fourteenth English colony," and the detailed descriptions of his Travels, published in 1791, inspired the great English Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
During the American Revolution, Spain reestablished its presence in the area. In 1780, a Spanish army captured Mobile, then proceeded to the Eastern Shore of the bay and built the "Old Spanish Fort" as a defense against counterattacks. The conquest of Mobile allowed Spain to regain control of the entire Gulf Coast. It was during the period of boundary disputes and an agreement following the American Revolution that Baldwin County itself was formed, on December 21, 1809, making it older than the state itself.
One of the most striking periods of Baldwin County history occurred during the War of 1812. The British incited a band of 1,000 Creek Indians, under the command of famous chieftain William "Red Eagle" Weatherford, to attack the American garrison at Fort Mims. The Red Sticks (so called because they voted for war by laying their tomahawks on the red side of the council fire) massacred nearly 500 men, women, and children in the fort. This remains the largest Indian-led massacre in American history. This event brought an army of outraged Tennesseans, under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson, into Alabama intent on avenging the massacre, which they ultimately accomplished in the battle at Horseshoe Bend, when only 200 of the 1,000 Indian warriors survived.
Andrew Jackson's role in the historical drama of the area went beyond his struggles with the Creek Indians. The decisive Battle of New Orleans, for which Jackson is most famous, was actually initiated when his intelligence system uncovered British plans to use New Orleans as a base to defeat the Americans during the War of 1812. After amassing an army in Nashville to march to Louisiana, Jackson quickly returned to Mobile with his Tennessee Calvary and garrisoned the abandoned Fort Bowyer (now Fort Morgan) just in time to drive off a British force, sinking its flagship, Hermes .
Moving next to Pensacola, Jackson camped in "the Village" (present-day Daphne), addressing his soldiers from a massive limb of a live oak tree, known today as Jackson's Oak. Victorious in Pensacola, he returned to Mobile, then went on to New Orleans, certain it would be attacked by the British. There, Jackson was again victorious, and the enemy slipped away quietly in the dark. The British returned to Mobile Bay after the defeat at New Orleans. Jackson, in the meantime realizing the demonstrated importance of Fort Bowyer, garrisoned the small wood enclosure with 370 officers and men of the 2nd US Infantry. After licking their wounds at Dauphin Island, the British launched another assault on Fort Bowyer and captured it on February 12, 1815. Unknown to the British victors, the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed ending the War of 1812. The British relinquished control of the region, the history of this engagement becoming lost by time and overshadowed by the Battle of New Orleans.
A notable part of the county's history revolves around the town of Blakeley, begun in 1814 by Josiah Blakeley, who came from Connecticut to Alabama in search of adventure. Blakeley became a prosperous town, with excellent port facilities and a population of 4,000. The town became a direct competitor with Mobile across the Bay for shipping and maritime commerce. Today it is merely a memory, killed by early attempts at land speculation and yellow fever. Yet Blakeley remained the county seat until 1868 and was resurrected during the Civil War as an army fort which housed 3,500 Confederate soldiers.
Baldwin County's role in the Civil War was extensive and significant. The most important engagement in the area occurred in 1864 when Union Admiral Farragut steamed past the Fort Morgan defenses and uttered his immortal (and probably apocryphal) words, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead" after the sinking of the ironclad USS Tecumseh by a floating mine. The remainders of these lethal devices were waterlogged and inoperable, thus Farragut's only obstacle turned out to be the gallant but futile attempt of the Confederate ironclad Tennessee, under the command of Admiral Franklin Buchanan, to stop the entire Union fleet. In 1865, Spanish Fort was the scene of the last desperate stand of the Confederacy. On April 8, after a two week siege, a dramatic bombardment and then a battle in which 5,000 Confederate troops were outnumbered four to one, the defenders slipped away at night to Blakeley, where the final battle of the Civil War was actually fought after Lee's surrender and the declaration of peace. Stalwart in defense of the Southern cause, Fort Morgan continued to serve the United States in three subsequent wars.
Around the turn of the century, immigrants from many regions of the United States and from other countries began populating Baldwin County: Italians settled in Daphne, Scandinavians in Silverhill, Germans in Elberta, Poles in Summerdale, Greeks in Malbis Plantation, and Bohemians in Robertsdale, Summerdale, and Silverhill. Adherents of the economic theories of Henry George founded a Single Tax Colony called Fairhope; Friends (Quakers) also settled there, while Hooker Mennonites (Amish) found their way to Bay Minette. More recent arrivals have made Baldwin County a virtual melting pot, with the Eastern Shore and Gulf beach areas especially attractive to "snowbirds" and retirees from the North.
Present-day Baldwin County is the result of this rich history. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay was accessible only by boat. Now, however, all that separates Baldwin County from Mobile is a ten minute drive across the I-10 Bayway - above the sparkling waters that first attracted the Indians, the Spanish, the French, the British, and now residents and visitors from all over the world.