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This area, like the rest of Alabama, was occupied for a long time by Native Americans. Historically the Muscogee people dominated the area. Pickens County, named after General Andrew Pickens, a revolutionary war hero from South Carolina, was created at the Alabama-Alabama border on December 20, 1820. In 1830, the county seat was moved from Pickensville and Carrollton.
The cotton plantations were developed in less than one-third of the county. They were operated by enslaved African Americans brought down by northern businessmen looking for cheap cotton. These plantations were primarily located in the southernmost reaches, along the Tombigbee River's banks and covering a small area of prairie-like land. The rest of the county was settled primarily by yeomen farmers, who had few slaves. It was too topographically inhospitable for large-scale plantation farming.
The first Carrollton courthouse was set on fire by Union General John T. Croxton's troops during the American Civil War. The county had to recover from this and other damages as part of its postwar reconstruction.
Carrollton was home to a second courthouse. It was set on fire by a fire crew on November 16, 1876. This occurred during the Reconstruction period. Although arson was suspected, no arrests were made until January 1878 after the state legislature was retaken by white Democrats. Numerous lynches were caused by white racial hostility to African Americans in the county and their attempts to maintain dominance.