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Gulf Coast wreck could be 'Clotilda,' the last U.S. slave ship

The remains of a wooden vessel recently found near Mobile, Alabama, may be the last slave-carrying ship to land in the United States. Experts say the wreckage could be the Clotilda, which was burned after delivering African captives to Mobile in 1860.
Image: A team of archaeologists
A team of archaeologists from the University of West Floridad measures the beam, or width, of the wreck. It matches the Clotilda perfectly.Ben Raines / via

MOBILE, Ala. — Researchers say remains of a wooden ship found embedded in mud in a river delta in southwestern Alabama may be the Clotilda, the last vessel to bring slaves to the United States nearly 160 years ago.

The wreck, which is normally covered by water in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, was recently exposed by unusually low tides and located by a reporter for who covers the environment and conservation on the coast, Ben Raines.

Experts told the ship remains could be the Clotilda, which was burned after delivering captives from what is now the west African nation of Benin to Mobile in 1860, based upon where Raines found it and the way it was built.

Image:This angle looks straight down on the bow
This angle looks straight down on the bow. You can see the huge timbers in the stem of the ship at the left side of the frame, then you can see the curve of the bow as you move back.Ben Raines / via

"You can definitely say maybe, and maybe even a little bit stronger, because the location is right, the construction seems to be right, from the proper time period, it appears to be burnt. So I'd say very compelling, for sure," said Greg Cook, a University of West Florida archaeologist who examined the wreck.

John Bratten, who works with Cook exploring shipwrecks, said there was "nothing here to say this isn't the Clotilda, and several things that say it might be."

One key element is the location of the wreck: It's essentially where the Clotilda's captain, William Foster, wrote that he burned and sank the ship in 1860, the year before the start of the Civil War. The wreck shows evidence of damage from fire, and the vessel was constructed using techniques of the mid-1800s, when the Clotilda was built.

President Thomas Jefferson signed a law in 1807 forbidding the importation of slaves, but slavery remained the linchpin of the Southern farm economy for decades more. Mobile was a prime port on the Gulf Coast with river access to the cotton-growing plantations upstream.

The Clotilda, a two-masted schooner, set out for Africa on a bet by an Alabama steamboat captain and plantation owner who wanted to show he could sneak slaves into the country despite federal troops stationed at forts that guarded the mouth of Mobile Bay.

The ship delivered 110 captives to Mobile in 1860 in the last known instance of a slave ship landing in the United States. The captain took the ship up the delta and burned it; the people became slaves, and they and their descendants lived after the Civil War in an area near Mobile known as Africatown.

Image: A row of giant timbers running down the starboard side of the boat, and the outerplanking next to it. The rope is a modern rope that washed up here.
A row of giant timbers running down the starboard side of the boat, and the outerplanking next to it. The rope is a modern rope that washed up here.Ben Raines / via

Most of the wreck lies in mud, and Cook said further study, including excavation, is needed to verify the ship is the Clotilda. Cook said the first step is to gather input from the Alabama Historical Commission, other state officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Ultimately, the goal would be to identify the wreck and perhaps put any artifacts on display.

"If it turns out to be the last slaver, it is going to be a very powerful site for many reasons. The structure of the vessel itself is not as important as its history, and the impact it is going to have on many, many people," he said.