A shipwreck uncovered by a Mobile reporter could be that of the Clotilda, the last known American ship to illegally bring African slaves into the United States.
The ship, built in 1855, sailed into Mobile Bay with more than 100 enslaved Africans in the summer of 1860, more than a half-century after the United States outlawed the importation of slaves. Afraid of being discovered, the captain of the Clotilda transferred the Africans to a riverboat before setting fire to the ship and scuttling it in the river delta.
Ben Raines, a reporter for the Mobile Press Register/al.com, discovered the wreck in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, just north of Mobile, during unusually low tide conditions. Experts who have since examined the wreck — including archaeologists from the University of West Florida — have confirmed that the ship’s size is consistent with the Clotilda and dates to the mid-1800s.
“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,” said Greg Cook, an assistant professor of anthropology at UWF. “So I’d say very compelling, for sure.”
Local lore hold that Mobile businessman Timothy Meaher bet a “Northern gentleman” that he could successfully bring a cargo of African slaves into Mobile in violation of the 1808 law banning the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Clotilda returned with at least 110 enslaved Africans, who were distributed to Meaher and others. Following the Civil War, many of those brought to Mobile by the Clotilda remained in the area and established the Africatown settlement, where some of their descendants still live today. In December, the PBS television program Finding Your Roots revealed that hip-hop musician Questlove is a descendant of one of the Clotilda survivors.
Thus far, experts have only examined the visible portions of the wreck, which may extend as deep as ten feet into the mud. For a conclusive determination to be made, further excavations are necessary.
For more information, including photos of the shipwreck, check out Ben Raines’ incredible reporting on the discovery at al.com.