Piping Plover Dauphin Island is a barrier island located in the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile County, south of Bayou La Batre. The island was under successive French, English, and Spanish control prior to becoming part of the Alabama Territory of the United States and ultimately the state of Alabama in 1819. Incorporated in 1988, the Town of Dauphin Island has a mayor/council form of government. It is a popular tourist destination for its beaches and recreational fishing and attracts bird watchers to its protected areas during migration seasons and throughout the year.
Dauphin Island has been inhabited at least since the Mississippian Period, as evidenced by a large shell mound on the island dating from between 1100 and 1550 AD. The mound, which includes charcoal and remains of clay pots, in addition to the discarded shells, was created over centuries by Native Americans dumping the refuse from meals of shellfish and fish near Little Dauphin Island Sound. In the historic period, members of the Choctaw and Creek tribes as well as Seminoles from what is now Florida used the site until their forced removal to the west in the 1830s.
President Obama in Mobile Bay The island was mapped by Spanish explorers as early as 1519 and became known as Isla de San Feliz. It then became part of the French colony of Louisiana after it was established in 1682. In 1699, French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his younger brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, named it Île du Massacre (Massacre Island) after finding some 60 human skeletons gathered in mounds and believing it to be the site of a massacre. The French soon began to settle the island and established a port on the protected southeast corner at present-day Pelican Bay. By 1711 or so (sources differ on the actual year), they had renamed the island Île Dauphine, for the princess and future queen of France, Marie-Adélaïde de Savoie; the final “e” in Dauphine was later dropped. Dauphin means “dolphin” in French, and Marie-Adélaïde’s coat of arms featured dolphins in its design and the town features a dolphin on some promotional materials. The island was described in the writings of Le Moyne associate and ship’s carpenter André Pénigaut.
Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island The island was important to the French in the early years of the colony because it provided an offloading site for cargo and passengers from large seagoing ships, which could not enter the shallow waters of Mobile Bay. Goods and passengers were then loaded onto smaller vessels, which took them to the mainland and the expanding French city of Mobile. Dauphin Island was also important as a transfer point when the French moved the seat of power from Fort Maurepas (present-day Biloxi, Mississippi) to Mobile, which would be the first capital of the French colony. Maritime traffic through the port spurred increases in the numbers of colonists and soldiers on the island and the construction of warehouses, a small settlement with huts and farms, a church, and barracks.
The island was a target of English pirates out of Jamaica in 1710 or 1711 and the Spanish in 1719 during the War of the Quadruple Alliance, when it was also used as a base of operations against the Spanish at present-day Pensacola, Florida. A storm in 1717 closed at least part of the harbor and port and cut a channel through the western third of the island, creating Petit Bois (“little wood”) Island, now part of Mississippi. Around this time, Dauphin was also the site of a large two-month diplomatic gathering between the French and the Native American tribes in the Southeast.
Dauphin Island Map In the 1720s, the harbor began to fill with sand, rendering it unusable, and the French gradually abandoned Dauphin Island, as they had moved the capital of Louisiana from Mobile to Biloxi before settling on New Orleans. The island briefly became Spanish territory in 1762 and then an English possession following the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War in North America). It was taken in 1781 by the Spanish, who were allies of the American colonies in the American Revolution. The island was then taken from the Spanish by U.S. forces under Gen. James Wilkinson in 1813 and later occupied for several months by British forces in early 1815. The island became part of the Alabama Territory in March 1817. In 1821, the U.S. government began construction of Fort Gaines on the island’s easternmost point to protect Mobile Bay, but efforts languished when funding ran short. It was still incomplete when Confederate and federal forces occupied it during the Civil War. Some improvements were made early in the twentieth century, such as new artillery batteries, but little else was done until World War II, when a radar installation was erected, operating until about 1971.
Dauphin Island Sea Lab A post office was established on the island in 1896. The Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo began as a fishing contest in 1929, and much of the island was bought in 1930 by a real estate firm that included future Alabama congressman Frank Boykin. He would later seek federal funds to construct a bridge to the mainland, which was completed by 1955, prompting a surge in economic growth centered on tourism, specifically the island’s beaches. The Town of Dauphin Island, which was then described in a local paper as a village, now features hotels, restaurants, water sports companies, and other recreational operations. The island also has become a center for aquatic research. In 1971, the Alabama State Legislature established the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium to augment the state’s marine science education programs. The Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory, a joint project of Auburn’s Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture and commercial fishing interests, opened in 2003.
Oil Containment Equipment on Dauphin Island In 1979, Hurricane Frederic destroyed the bridge and devastated much of the island. The bridge reopened in 1982. The island again suffered considerable damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, cutting off the uninhabited western half. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 left its beaches littered with tar balls, and Hurricane Isaac in 2012 washed over the island, once more changing the island’s shape. In 2014, the state completed repairs filling in the pass that was caused by Hurricane Katrina using funds it received from British Petroleum as compensation for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The population in Dauphin Island, according to 2020 Census estimates, was 1,610. Of that number, 97.5 percent reported itself as white, 2.1 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 1.5 percent as two or more races, and 0.4 percent as African American. The median household income was $65,481 and per capita income was $45,999.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the workforce in Dauphin Island was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Educational services, and health care and social assistance (16.6 percent)
- Retail trade (14.9 percent)
- Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (14.7 percent)
- Manufacturing (12.6 percent)
- Finance and insurance, and real estate and rental and leasing (8.0 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing, and utilities (6.7 percent)
- Wholesale trade (6.0 percent)
- Construction (5.7 percent)
- Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (5.0 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (4.0 percent)
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (3.0 percent)
- Public administration (2.2 percent)
- Information (0.5 percent)
Public education on Dauphin Island is administered by the Mobile County Public Schools, which oversees one elementary school. Children in higher grades attend schools in Bayou La Batre.
Dauphin Island is accessed by State Highway 193, which enters the eastern end of the island. In addition, a ferry service operates between Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan. The Dauphin Island Airport provides general aviation services.
Events and Places of Interest
Historic Fort Gaines often sponsors fort-related events, including the Battle of Mobile Bay Commemorative Day in August, a Colonial Isle Dauphine festival in October, and “Christmas at the Fort” in December. The fort also houses a museum containing Civil War-era historical documents and photographs and displays period artillery pieces. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dauphin Island Shipwreck Indian Shell Mound Park, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has trails through its 11 acres and is noted also for oak trees estimated at 800 years old and numerous non-native species of plants likely brought from the Yucatan Peninsula and the Appalachian Mountains by Native Americans. The Audubon Bird Sanctuary, a stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, occupies a tract of land near the eastern edge of the island and attracts large numbers of migratory birds and bird watchers. The city maintains a public beach with amenities, several parks, and camping facilities. The Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab is an aquarium that focuses on the Mobile-Tensaw estuary and is open to the public.
The annual Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo takes place over a three-day period in July. In addition, the city holds a Mardi Gras parade to mark the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, the Alabama Coastal Birdfest in October, Halloween Trick or Treat in Green Park, and its annual Christmas Pageant on November 30 followed by a Christmas Parade the following day.
- Holmes, Jack D.L. “Dauphin Island’s Critical Years: 1701-1722.” Alabama Historical Quarterly (Spring and Summer 1967): 39-63.
- Thomason, Michael V. R., ed. Mobile: The New History of Alabama’s First City. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
- Weddle, Robert S. The French Thorn: Rival Explorers in the Spanish Sea, 1682-1762. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991.