History of Alabama Cotton

June 14, 2011 Print Friendly and PDF

History of the Boll Weevil in Alabama, 1910-2007

Chronological Highlights in Alabama Cotton Production

Charles C. Mitchell, Extension Agronomist & Professor, Auburn University

5,000 BC. Wild cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) moved northward along trade routes in eastern Africa as packing or wadding to protect breakables such as pottery. It was also used as a dressing for wounds. Gossypium herbaceum race acerifolium, the race considered to be the most primitive cultivated form of cotton, became established in northeastern Africa and Arabia.

3,000 BC. G. hirsutum was used by Indians in central Mexico.

2,400 BC. New World, wild cotton (G. Barbadense) used by Indians in Peru.

2,300 BC. Primitive cotton textile industry established in Indus River valley in present-day Pakistan.

500 AD. Maya seafarers distributed G. hirsutum to West Indies. They believed that the fibers came from a sacred tree that held up the heavens.

1492. New World cotton (G. barbadense and G. hirsutum) discovered by Columbus in the West Indies.

1556. Spanish were the first Europeans to grow cotton in North America in the vacinity of St. Augustine, Florida, although native Indians had cultivated it.

1607. English colonists planted cotton near Jamestown, Virginia. It has been grown every year since 1621.

1721. England passed laws forbidding the use of and wearing of cotton in order to protect their wool industry.

1721. First slave ship arrived in Mobile with 120 surviving slaves; half died in transit from eastern Africa.

1730. 'Creole Black Seed' cotton was introduced by the French and 'Georgia Green Seed' cotton (both cultivars of G. hirsutum) was introduced by botanist Phillip Miller from the West Indies.

1750. Cotton growing and spinning was a home-craft industry in North American colonies; the only export was some from the West Indies.

1764. Eight sacks of lint (approximately 400 pounds) were shipped from Norfolk, Virginia, to Liverpool, England. An English clerk refused to validate the receipt, thereby identifying the cotton as contraband. At the time, cotton was so rare that the clerk did not believe that there could be that much cotton in all of America.

1776. Declaration of Independence

1786. Frank Levett introduced G. barbadense to Sapelo Island, Georgia. This superior quality cotton later became known as "sea island cotton." Production of sea island cotton spread along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

1787. First cotton mill in the U.S. was built in Beverly, Massachusetts.

1793. Eli Whitney received the first U.S. patent on a cotton "engine" that would rapidly remove seeds from the short-staple, upland cotton (G. hirsutum).

1795. Joseph Collins, surveyor for Spanish government, began raising cotton near Mobile.

1804. Abram Mordecai built the first cotton gin in the Alabama territory near the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers near present-day Wetumpka. Indians brought him raw cotton in their canoes. The gin was burned by Indians in 1806.

1805. Walter Burling from Mississippi smuggled seed of a very productive and excellent quality upland cotton (G. hirsutum) from the Spanish ruler of Mexico. Reportedly, he hid the seed in Mexican dolls. The resulting crosses of this cotton with Creole Black and Georgia Green Seed spread throughout the southeastern U.S.

1817. First cotton (7,000 bales) were shipped from the Port of Mobile (population 800).

1819. Alabama becomes the 22nd state, and 16,000 bales were shipped from Mobile. Two steamboats, the "Harriet" and the "Cotton Plant" brought the cotton down the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers to Mobile.

1821. Alabama exported $3,000,000 worth of cotton.

1822. First cotton shipped from Port of Appalachicola, Florida. This included Alabama cotton shipped down the Chattahoochee River from Eufaula.

1838. Daniel Pratt established a cotton gin manufacturing company in the town bearing his name, Prattville, AL.

1839. Half of all U.S. cotton exports were shipped out of the Port of Mobile (440,000 bales).

1840. Major Alabama cotton producing counties were: Montgomery (30,000 bales) Perry (25,000 bales) Franklin (22,000 bales)

1846. Peruvian guano was the first fertilizer on record used on U.S. cotton.

1850. Alabama's population was 771,623. Total cotton production was 564,429 bales on 4,435,614 acres (65 pounds lint/acre). There were 16,100 cotton plantations in Alabama. The leading cotton producing counties were: Tuscaloosa (73,561 bales) Dallas (35,275 bales) Marengo (32,295 bales)

1856. East Alabama Male College established which later became the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, Alabama Polytechnic Institute, and Auburn University.

1860. More cotton was shipped out of the Port of Mobile than any other city in the world except New Orleans. Estimates are that more than 5,000,000 acres were planted to cotton in Alabama.

1861-1865. Alabama cotton production plummets due to the Civil War; export market and economy devastated; no records were kept.

1862. President Abraham Lincoln signs the Morrill Act that establishes the Land Grant University system.

1866. Alabama cotton at 977,000 acres producing 264,000 bales (135 lb. lint/acre).

1872. Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama at Auburn became the first Land Grant college in the South to be established separately from the state university.

1877. Alabama cotton acreage rebounds to 2 million acres with an average yield of 151 pounds lint per acre.

1880. 58 cultivars of cotton were grown in the U.S.; sharecropping replaced slave labor during reconstruction.

1883. The Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station was established by the Alabama Legislature to conduct scientific research in agriculture. Alabama was the first southern state and the ninth state in the U.S. to fund agricultural research.

1888. The U.S. Hatch Act establishes federal funds for agricultural research.

1890. The U.S. cotton belt with Alabama at its center produced more cotton per square mile than any other region in the world. Nearly 3,000,000 bales were exported to Europe.

1891. Professor George Atkinson at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama reports that "cotton rust" the malady that plagued cotton production throughout the South, could be easily corrected with potash (potassium) fertilization.

1892. Mexican boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis Boheman) enters South Texas.

1896. Professor J.F. Duggar establishes an experiment at Auburn to demonstrate the importance of crop rotation and winter cover crops for sustainable cotton production. This later became known as the "Old Rotation".

1899. Agricultural and Mechanical College at Auburn become Alabama Polytechnic Institute.

1907. 600 cultivars of cotton were grown in the U.S.

1909. Mexican boll weevil enters Alabama in Mobile County.

1911. Alabama planted over 4 million acres of cotton, the most since before the Civil War; lint yield averaged 214 pounds per acre.

1911. The "Cullars Rotation" experiment began at Auburn as one of many on-farm, soil fertility experiments to help farmers produce better cotton.

1914. U.S. Smith-Lever Act establishes the Cooperative Extension Service to take research-based information from the Land Grant Universities to those who can use it.

1915. Mexican boll weevil spread throughout Alabama.

1920. Paris green (copper acetoarsenite) used unsuccessfully to control boll weevils in Alabama; calcium arsenate dust became the principal pesticide used on cotton by 1930.

1935. Kudzu introduced by USDA Soil Conservation Service to control gully erosion due to abusive cotton production practices.

1944. DDT, the first synthetic insecticide, was evaluated for boll worm control in cotton; it was widely used by 1947.

1951. Karmex® (diuron) developed by Dupont Co. for broadleaf weed control in cotton.

1953. Alabama Polytechnic Institute established a soil testing laboratory to help cotton and corn producers.

1960. *Trifuralin (Treflan®) introduced by Eli Lilly Co. and became the most widely used grass herbicide in cotton.

  • Alabama Polytechnic Institute becomes Auburn University

1962. Rachael Carson publishes Silent Spring, which brought public attention to the widespread and growing use of synthetic pesticides especially DDT in all crops.

1963. Cotoran® (Fluometuron) developed by Ciba Geigy for broadleaf weed control in cotton; this became the dominant preemergence weed control chemical in cotton and put an end, for all practical purposes, to hand weed control.

1970. From 1960 to 1970, Alabama cotton producers switched from 98% hand-picked cotton to 98% machine-picked cotton.

1971. DDT canceled by the new US-Environmental Protection Agency.

1977. Synthetic pyrethroid chemistry first available under emergency use; conditionally registered in 1979.

1983. Alabama cotton acreage drops to its lowest since the Civil War, 215,000 harvested acres; lint yield per harvested acre was 410 pounds. Leading cotton producing counties were all in the Tennessee Valley: Limestone (34,000 acres) Lawrence (24,500 acres) Colbert (20,200 acres) Madison (18, 300 acres) Lauderdale (14,900 acres)

1987. USDA boll weevil eradication efforts began in southeastern Alabama.

1994. Alabama average per acre cotton yield reaches a record high of 766 pounds lint on 500,000 acres.

1996. Alabama growers planted approximately 400,000 acres of the new, genetically engineered cotton for bollworm control (Bollgard® containing Bt). The boll weevil has been effectively eliminated as an economic pest in Alabama.

2002. Almost half of all Alabama cotton is produced with conservation/minimum tillage. Roundup Ready® technology allows greatly reduced herbicide use in cotton. However, the real, adjusted price farmers receive for their cotton reaches a 100-year low (see figures).

2003. The “Cullars Rotation” experiment (circa 1911) was placed on the National Register of Historical Places as the oldest soil fertility experiment in the South and the second oldest, continuous cotton experiment in the world (The nearby Old Rotation is older.)


Cox, Dwayne D., Archivist, Ralph Brown Draughn Library, Auburn University, AL (personal communications)

Davis, C.S. 1939. The cotton kingdom in Alabama. Alabama State Dept. Archives and History. P. 199. Montgomery, AL.

Duggar, J.R. 1925. Southern field crops. Revised Edition. pp. 270-278. The Macmillan Co., New York, NY.

Hawk, E.Q. 1934. Economic history of the South. Prentice-Hall, Inc., New York, NY.

Oliver, T.W. 1992. A narrataive history of cotton in Alabama. Landmarks Foundation of Montgomery, Inc. Montgomery, AL.

Smith, C.W. 1995. Crop production, evolution, history, and technology. pp. 287-349. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY.

Smith, Ronald H. Extension Entomologist and Professor, Auburn University, AL (personal communications).

Teem, David H., Assoc. Director, Ala. Agric. Exp. Stn, Auburn University, AL (personal communications).

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