In the early nineteenth century, the town of Blakeley emerged as a serious rival to Mobile as the premiere port city in what was then the Alabama Territory. Blakeley grew rapidly immediately after its founding, but the town stagnated quickly and was abandoned by the late 1800s. The ruins of the once-thriving settlement are now preserved as Historic Blakeley State Park.
Blakeley was founded by Josiah Blakeley, an entrepreneur and adventurer from Connecticut who moved to Mobile in 1806, confident that the United States would soon take possession of the entire region under the Louisiana Purchase. Blakeley purchased three large, marshy islands—7,000 total acres —that lay between the city of Mobile and the northeastern margin of Mobile Bay, the western shore of present-day Baldwin County. This purchase included the majority of the land at the mouth of the Mobile River delta. On the westernmost island, which still bears the name Blakeley, he established a plantation, where he planned to raise cattle and grow cotton and rice.
Blakeley also planned to found a town on the eastern shore of the Tensaw River, the easternmost of the three rivers that empty into Mobile Bay. He purchased a large tract of land near Bayou Salome from physician Joseph Chastang.
Blakeley hired James Magoffin, a surveyor from St. Stephens, to plot out a town in May 1813 and by June had sold the first 10 lots for $1,000 to Warren Ross Dodge. Interested Mobilians and northerners invested in the enterprise, and the town of Blakeley was officially incorporated by the Alabama territorial government on January 6, 1814. Josiah Blakeley died in 1815 and did not live to see the town's rapid growth that followed Alabama's admission to statehood in 1819. By spring 1822, Blakeley had a population of 1,200; by winter of the same year the population had increased to 2,700. At its peak in the early 1820s, Blakeley had a population of 4,000. By contrast, Mobile's 1822 census shows only 2,800 people.
A contemporary account attributes investment in Blakeley to the town's deep natural port, which was reachable by ships that could not cross the Dog River bar, a sandbar that sometimes impeded shipping access to Mobile. This more accessible port allowed Blakeley to exploit the surge in river and bay trade that followed Gen. Andrew Jackson's victory in the Creek War of 1813-14.
In 1820, state legislation recognized the port and harbor of Blakeley and officially incorporated the town under state law. Also in 1820, Blakeley was named as the seat of Baldwin County. It boasted a post office, a bank, three hotels, and a weekly newspaper called The Blakeley Sun, the fourth newspaper to be established in Alabama. Weekly ferry service connected the town with Mobile. Boat-building was an important industry, and two prominent steamers, the 400-ton Mississippi and the 60-ton Tensas, were built there. The Tensas was one of the first steamships to ascend the Alabama River as far as Montgomery.
Blakely began its decline after yellow fever epidemics struck the region in 1822, 1826, and 1828, decimating the city's population. Casualties were so high that mass graves were needed to bury the dead. High land prices and widespread speculation during the 1820s also may have discouraged people from settling in Blakeley.
Blakeley survived into the 1860s, owing to its status as county seat, which brought an influx of people during quarterly court sessions. By the time of the Civil War, however, only approximately 100 people resided there. During the war, the Confederacy built Fort Blakely (the spelling of the name was frequently inconsistent) at the town with a garrison of 4,000 soldiers intended to protect Mobile from an eastern land assault. During April 2–9, 1865, 16,000 Union troops attacked and ultimately breached Fort Blakeley in the last battle of the Civil War. After the war, the county seat was relocated to Daphne, and Blakeley was essentially abandoned.
Today, very little of Blakeley remains because many of its buildings were dismantled and transported to former rival Mobile.
The cemetery, the ruins of the jailhouse, and the outlines of the town streets are the most striking remnants. In 1981, Historic
Blakeley State Park was created on the site. In addition to showcasing the remains of Blakeley, the park features nature trails
and, as part of the Civil War Discovery Trail, hosts annual reenactments of the battle of Fort Blakely in the spring.
Hamilton, Peter. Colonial Mobile. 1910. Reprint, Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
Harris, W. Stuart. Dead Towns of Alabama. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1977.
Nuzum, Kay. A History of Baldwin County. Fairhope, Ala.: Page & Palette, 1971.
Grant D. Hiatt
Published February 24, 2011
Last updated September 7, 2011