In 1811, two ambitious publishers floated a printing press down Mobile River and established the region’s first newspaper.
They were young men who knew their profession and sensed an opportunity. John Bain Hood, 39, was a North Carolinian who had published newspapers in South Carolina and Tennessee. His partner Samuel Miller, 31, was a native Tennessean with print experience in that state. Eager to try their hands in a promising new place, they set their sights on the Gulf Coast, and in the spring of 1811, they loaded an ungainly printing press onto a flatboat and headed south for Mobile Bay.
Like most everyone else in the South, Hood and Miller expected Spanish Mobile to fall into American hands any day. But as they floated down the Alabama River, the Gulf Coast’s political situation remained tense and unresolved. Spain clung to the thin coastal strip anchored by small garrisons at Pensacola and Mobile. The United States border was a mere 25 miles north along the 31st parallel, where growing numbers of restive U.S. citizens congregated around Fort Stoddert (modern Mount Vernon). This small outpost, situated on a low bluff commanding Mobile River, was the terminus of the Federal Road and a strategic port for those attempting to ship their products into or out of the United States. Small sea-going sloops and schooners could easily navigate between Fort Stoddert and Mobile. The issue that frustrated the Americans was Spain’s 12% tariff on all goods passing upstream or down. Calls to eject the Spaniards and annex Mobile Bay grew more agitated and insistent. Former President Thomas Jefferson agreed that the area was part of the Louisiana Purchase and legally United States territory. Nonetheless, he counseled cautious, steady pressure in the firm belief that energetic American settlers and an exhausted Spanish crown would soon enough peacefully achieve the desired result.
Until the situation was resolved, Hood and Miller unloaded their press at Fort Stoddert. They ultimately printed 16 editions of The Mobile Centinel (no one appears to have corrected their quaintly misspelled moniker). Each issue consisted of four pages, four columns across. A year’s subscription cost $4 (a hefty $90 in 2023 dollars). Only the second number, dated May 30, 1811, survives today. But in those pages, the pair freely vented their frustration over the political situation: “The original intention of the Editors was to have issued their paper from the town of Mobile, but they cannot yet congratulate their fellow-citizens on the possession of that spot, to this country so important — other persons can, perhaps, give better reasons why we have it not in possession. Until they can announce this desirable intelligence, their paper will be printed at this place.”
Like most early 19th-century newspapers, The Mobile Centinel included a mix of national and international news reprinted from other sources. But special to the May 23 edition was a “circular” by one George Poindexter from “Washington City.” Poindexter was a native Virginian who had moved west, and in 1811, he served as a congressional representative for the Mississippi Territory, which included Fort Stoddert and much of what is now modern Alabama. Poindexter detailed the political maneuverings aimed at carving the Territory into two states. He explained that even the “warmest advocates” of this goal recognized the wisdom of waiting until the U.S. formally acquired the Coast. With that “difficulty … smoothed away,” the proposed new states would “command the mouths of the Mobile and Pearl Rivers, besides numerous other waters of less extent, tho highly important to the easy and convenient transportation of our surplus productions to a suitable and profitable market.”
On page two, the editors reprinted reports from the United States Gazette, a Philadelphia paper, about Napoleon’s Peninsular Campaign. Among these was an account by “an intelligent American in Cadiz” on fierce fighting near that city. He described how British soldiers, allied with the Spanish against the French, stormed a fortified position. “The moment they were formed they charged the French with the bayonet,” he relayed, “and in a very short time completely routed them; the French took a position on a hill, the English again charged them with the bayonet and routed them with dreadful slaughter.” French losses amounted to 700 killed and 300 captured.
Reprints from various other papers highlighted an insurgency in Mexico, then fighting for independence from Spain; a dispatch from the British House of Commons regarding relations with the United States (war was looming); and minor notices from other American cities like Charleston and Savannah. There was a short local advertisement by one Theops. Powell for “between 40 and 50 head of remarkably gentle stock cattle” at his farm near Saw Mill Creek, 18 miles above Mobile. “No pay will suit but CASH in hand.”
But the item that most likely arrested local readers was the “Important Intelligence” shared below the fold on page three. It regarded the subject uppermost in everyone’s mind — the Mobile River’s free navigation. “We stop the press to announce the arrival of a schooner at Mobile town from New Orleans bound to Fort Stoddert,” the editors wrote, “loaded principally with powder for the U.S. troops at this place. She is stopped and will not be permitted to proceed up the river without permission from the captain-general of Cuba.” Here was a pickle, indeed — vital military stores subject to the caprice of a foreign official.
It is difficult to say whether Hood and Miller’s enthusiastic advocacy helped break the diplomatic deadlock responsible for this state of affairs. But it certainly cannot have hurt. Congress finally annexed Mobile the following spring, but Spain refused to let it go. The United States did not seize the Port City until 1813 after it declared war against Britain and Spain. By that time, the editors had moved on to Georgia, where they started another paper. The Mobile Centinel was no more. But Hood and Miller paved the way. Other men followed and published newspapers in a Mobile where the stars and stripes fluttered freely overhead. mb
John Sledge’s “Mobile and Havana: Sisters Across the Gulf” with coauthors Alicia García Santana, Chip Cooper, and Julio Larramendi will be published March 2024.