Wreckage of Last Known Slave Ship in U.S. May Have Been Found Off Alabama Coast

The remains of a ship in a muddy bank north of Mobile, Ala., this month. Some experts think it could be the Clotilda, the last slave ship documented to have delivered captive Africans to the United States.
Ben Raines/AL.com, via Associated Press

A year before the Civil War, an Alabama businessman set out to win a bet with friends. The international slave trade had been outlawed for decades, but he wagered he could smuggle slaves from Africa to the United States without being caught.

To prove it could be done, the businessman, Timothy Meaher, bought an 86-foot-long sailboat, the Clotilda, and hired its builder to captain a trek to West Africa. Under the cover of night in July 1860, the Clotilda returned to the waters off Alabama with 110 slaves, carefully navigating the tributaries around Mobile to evade the authorities.

But a few miles north of Mobile, the captain and its crew grew concerned that the authorities were on their trail. They unloaded the slaves and set the boat on fire in the muddy banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the evidence of their illicit voyage, and the last known American slave ship, never to be found.

Until now.

A reporter in Alabama wrote in an article published on Tuesday that he may have found the wreckage on the shore of a swampy island in the delta. When the tide is low, the boat reveals itself — charred beams forming the shape of a vessel with almost the exact dimensions of the Clotilda.

While the wreckage has not been officially identified as the Clotilda, the reporter, Ben Raines of AL.com, recently took a shipwright expert and a team of archaeologists to survey it. What’s left of the boat — blackened beams and timber, threadless bolts and iron drifts — dates its construction to same period of the Clotilda, they said.

“The location is right, the construction seems to be right, from the proper time period, it appears to be burnt,” Gregory D. Cook, one of the archaeologists who visited the site, told AL.com. “So I’d say very compelling, for sure.”

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SOURCE: New York Times, Matthew Haag