- The Founding of Alabama: Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County by Frances Cabaniss Roberts
The extended celebration of the bicentennial of Alabama statehood has yielded a variety of excellent projects celebrating its rich heritage, none dearer to those of us interested in the interpretation of the state's colorful history than the many great books which have made their appearance during this extravaganza. Especially remarkable in this special effort has been the veritable flood of scholarship which has been published on the state's early years. This critical formative period had for too long been neglected in Alabama's historiography, and the rediscovery of its significance sparked by the bicentennial is perhaps one of the celebration's most substantial impacts. Few bicentennial-inspired books are more deserving of consideration by Alabama historians than one that was actually written over sixty years ago but finally made easily available to the public: the late Frances Cabaniss Roberts's The Founding of Alabama: Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County.
Roberts was a highly respected historian, author, teacher, and community servant who enjoyed an accomplished career at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) for over two decades and remained active in local cultural heritage organizations throughout her retirement years. Today the humanities building on the UAH campus, Frances C. Roberts Hall, bears her name. Roberts was the first woman to earn a doctorate in history at the University of Alabama [End Page 80] in 1956, with her dissertation, "Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County." Despite never having been published, the manuscript has nonetheless been extraordinarily influential. It has been consulted by generations of historians delving into Alabama's territorial and early statehood years, and long been recognized as among the definitive sources on the history of the region which is its focus.
As published by the University of Alabama Press in 2019 in attractive hardback form, the book contains an insightful introduction by Thomas Reidy, former lecturer at UAH. Reidy provides some information on the life, accomplishments, and point of view of Dr. Roberts, as well as some contextual background on how the practice of history has changed since the time she penned the dissertation. As he points out candidly, the book can rightfully be characterized as a product of its times, focusing as it does on the progress of white men in developing a "civilized" society which became a dynamic and influential part of the young state of Alabama. There is little discussion of slavery, and the cession of land which made possible the region's transformation from Native American domain to American frontier is elaborated upon merely in its processes. But this is not an overtly racist book to be disregarded as anachronistic by contemporary researchers. Its focused narrative still stands as the most detailed account of the process of Americanization in the Great Bend of the Tennessee River region, and its dissection of that progression offsets what it might lack in coverage of broader shared experiences.
Readers of The Founding of Alabama will be struck by the depth of familiarity with the subject displayed by the author. The book evidences a thorough canvassing of resources on the history of the Madison County area, bringing to light information on the contours of its early development which stand up to scrutiny and remain authoritative in their particulars despite the intervening six decades of scholarship which have added to the story Roberts tells. Some may also be surprised that Roberts's prose does not read as dated, either. It is straightforward narrative history, chock full of information but admittedly more utilitarian than florid. [End Page 81]
Yet this prosaic style and tight focus is exactly what allows the book to remain a valuable contribution to Alabama historiography today. The Founding of Alabama details the development of "The Triangle," the roughly 345,000...