Relying on historical records and accounts from old timers, AL.com may have located the long-lost wreck of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to bring human cargo to the United States.
What’s left of the ship lies partially buried in mud alongside an island in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a few miles north of the city of Mobile. The hull is tipped to the port side, which appears almost completely buried in mud. The entire length of the starboard side, however, is almost fully exposed. The wreck, which is normally underwater, was exposed during extreme low tides brought on by the same weather system that brought the “Bomb Cyclone” to the Eastern Seaboard. Low tide around Mobile was about two and a half feet below normal thanks to north winds that blew for days.
“I’m quaking with excitement. This would be a story of world historical significance, if this is the Clotilda,” said John Sledge, a senior historian with Mobile Historical Commission, and author of The Mobile River, an exhaustive history of the river. “It’s certainly in the right vicinity… We always knew it should be right around there.”
This reporter, Ben Raines, used the abnormally low tides to search for the ship after researching possible locations. The remote spot where the ship was found, deep in the swampy Mobile-Tensaw Delta, is accessible only by boat. During my first trips after discovering the wreck, I documented it with photographs and aerials shot with a drone. Over the next week, I ferried a shipwright expert in the construction techniques used on old wooden vessels and a team of archaeologists from the University of West Florida to the site.
All concluded that the wreck dated to the mid 1800s (the Clotilda was built in 1855), and featured construction techniques typical of Gulf Coast schooners used to haul lumber and other heavy cargo, as the Clotilda was designed to do. The vessel also bore telltale signs of being burned, as the Clotilda reportedly was. In later years, the slavers bragged of burning the ship at the conclusion of their voyage in July of 1860 in an effort to hide proof of their human trafficking. Evidence of a fire on the wreck included a distinctive patina on wrought iron chain plates used to hold the masts and bowsprit in place, and charred beams and timbers in the ship’s interior.
“These ships were the 18-wheelers of their day. They were designed to haul a huge amount of cargo in relatively shallow water,” said Winthrop Turner, a shipwright specializing in wooden vessels. “That’s why you see the exceptional number of big iron drifts used to hold the planking together. That’s also why the sides of the ship are so stout. They are almost two feet thick. The construction techniques here, no threaded bolts, iron drifts, butt jointed planking, these all confirm a ship built between 1850 and 1880.”
The team of University of West Florida archaeologists, led by Greg Cook and John Bratten, agreed. The men have made a career of exploring shipwrecks, including Spanish galleons sunk in Pensacola Bay in 1559 and slave ships sunk off the coast of Africa. They were contacted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration several years ago about searching for the Clotilda, but nothing ever came of the plan. After examining the aerials, images and historical documents I had assembled, the archaeologists visited the wreck on a chilly morning, temperatures just above freezing.
“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 Cook.
“There is nothing here to say this isn’t the Clotilda, and several things that say it might be,” Bratten concurred, adding that several bits of evidence assembled by AL.com make a strong case for further exploration.
So far, the investigation is only visual, with no attempts made to dig up the hull or remove artifacts. Alabama laws governing ship wrecks carry stiff penalties, including the confiscation of boats and other equipment, for disturbing shipwrecks or military battlefields without permits.
One of the key elements that suggests this may be the Clotilda comes from the location where it was found. The ship lies essentially where its captain, William Foster, said he burned and sank it in 1860.
Even so, the archaeologists stressed, a conclusive determination can only be made by documenting any artifacts that remain in the hold, if such a determination can even be made. So far, the scientists have only examined the parts of the ship that can be seen above the mud that encases most of the hull. Turner, the shipwright, estimated that the bottom of the ship may be as deep as ten feet down in the mud, based on certain parts of the ship that are visible above the mud. Digging into the past will require both federal and state permits, and a lot of money.
A crime and a mystery
The Clotilda is the last ship known to have brought slaves into the country. The hunt for the ship has inspired numerous searchers over the years, but the Clotilda has long escaped discovery, until perhaps now. A small clarification for those familiar with the tale, the ship’s name is the Clotilda, not the Clotilde. Newspaper accounts beginning in 1860 misspelled the name, and over the years it stuck. But the ship’s license and the captain’s journal make clear that Clotilda is correct.
A couple of details in the historical record may have helped keep the ship hidden for so long, mainly by sending would-be explorers looking in the wrong place, or leading them to disregard this wreck as a possible candidate. Those items will be discussed in greater detail below.
From the start, the fate of the Clotilda was designed to remain a mystery, with the slavers attempting to destroy the ship after delivering 110 captives from “the Kingdom of Dahomey,” which is modern day Benin, Africa, in 1860. Though slavery was still legal in the U.S. at the time, it had been illegal to import slaves into the country for 52 years, since Thomas Jefferson signed an 1808 law forbidding the practice.
With the nation edging closer to civil war over the slavery issue, Alabama steamboat captain and plantation owner Timothy Meaher made an infamous bet that he could sneak slaves into the country, right under the noses of federal troops at the twin forts that guarded the mouth of Mobile Bay. Historian Sylvianne Diouf traced the evolution of the wicked scheme and the resulting journey in her excellent book, Dreams of Africa in Alabama, published in 2007. Attempts to contact Diouf were unsuccessful.
The book primarily focuses on the story of the captives, who were freed just five years after they were enslaved, thanks to the end of the Civil War. The group, 110 strong, originally asked their captor, Meaher, to pay for passage back to Africa. After he refused, they appealed to the U.S. government, again to no avail. Ultimately, some members of the group bought a small piece of land north of Mobile from Meaher and created a community called Africatown, where some of the descendants of the original slaves still live. They spoke their native tongue, farmed using traditional African methods, and ran their own school.
Descendants of those brought to this country aboard the Clotilda are believed to be the only group of slave descendants who know precisely where their ancestors came from, when they arrived, and what vessel brought them here.
Africatown was added to the national historic register in 2012. The last of those brought from Africa, Cudjo Lewis, died in 1935, but not before experiencing a small bit of celebrity. Diouf’s book relies in part on interviews with Cudjo made before his death.
Several — but not all — of the clues needed to find the ship were in the book.
In the end, this ship was found where the Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, stated that he set it on fire in his journal. Neither Foster or Meaher were ever convicted of the crime of slaving, though Meaher was arrested at one point for his role, and Foster was forced to pay a $1,000 fine for failing to register in port after an international trip. The disruption of the Civil War meant that the case against the men was abandoned.
Thirty years later, Meaher was quoted extensively in a newspaper article in 1890 bragging about how they had smuggled their captives into the country. A state park on the edge of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, about eight miles from where the ship was found, is named for Meaher’s family, which donated the land and remains prominent in Mobile. In fact, I left from a boat ramp in Meaher State Park on my trips to find and explore the wreck of the ship the park’s namesake may have sent to win his wretched bet.
Meaher, the mastermind behind the scheme, was already a rich man, with a plantation and a steamboat that he captained up and down the Alabama River. He set out to bring slaves in for no reason other than to prove that he could do it.
He purchased the Clotilda, a two-masted schooner, for $35,000 and hired Captain William Foster to sail to Africa, purchase 100 slaves with about $9,000 in gold, and bring them back to Alabama. The ship’s true mission was disguised by stops in Caribbean ports. The supplies needed to feed the captives on the return journey were carefully hidden beneath piles of lumber, to avoid discovery should the Clotilda be boarded by British, Dutch, or Portugese military vessels during the crossing. That lumber would later be used to build pens to house the captives.
Foster’s journal and insurance documents from the 1800s, maintained in the Mobile Public Library, provide a detailed account of the voyage beginning with a list of how many casks of rice, rum, molasses, beef, water, and other supplies were laid on to feed 110 captives on a return voyage. Written in the flowery language of the Victorian era, Foster’s account has him “sallying forth” to meet with African slave traders. During the four-month journey, the Clotilda survived a collision with a Portuguese Man-O-War ship that had given chase, mutiny by the crew, and a storm that ripped a mast from the ship. The tale ends with the arrival back in Alabama waters, the tricks used to smuggle the prisoners past port officials in Mobile, and finally the burning of the ship after the captives were hidden in a swamp.
Even as the men plotted the sinister voyage, they understood that the chances of discovery were high, and the price of being caught violating the federal slaving law could be death. They arranged to bring the ship to shore far from Mobile, at Point Aux Pins, a desolate stretch of shoreline along the Mississippi Sound. Upon successful completion of the voyage, Foster was to send word to Meaher, who would dispatch a steam tug from Mobile to tow the large sailing ship upriver to offload the slaves at Meaher’s plantation.
But by the time the ship returned to Alabama, Meaher knew the scheme had been found out and worried federal officials might be lying in wait. The original plan had been for Foster to unload the slaves and then sail to Mexico, where the ship would be cleaned, and then disguised with new rigging, license papers and a new name. Instead, with the crew threatening another mutiny, Foster and Meaher agreed to burn the ship. It was, they decided, the only way to hide the telltale signs of human trafficking visible in the hold.
Diouf, relying on historical accounts, imagines the scene this way, “He knew – and Meaher did too – that they might have been spotted, so they had decided to destroy the evidence, the telling signs of a slaving voyage: the partitions, the platforms, the empty casks of food and water, the big pots, the tubs, the blood, the vomit, the spit, the mucus, the urine, and the feces that soiled the planks, the awful smell that always floated around slave ships.”
Location, Location, Location
One of the most definitive pieces of evidence that this wreck might be the Clotilda is its location, adjacent to the island where the captives were reportedly transferred to another boat. The details I used to pinpoint the wreck come from three men — their lives separated by more than 100 years — one of whom I interviewed.
Russell Ladd has been travelling the Delta rivers since he was a boy. His family is one of Mobile’s oldest, specializing in insurance for shippers. A large stadium in Mobile is named after Ladd’s ancestors. Ladd still maintains the family’s remote camp on Chuckfee Bay, accessible only by boat. His grandfather, born in 1881, bought the land. The camp is located in the interior of the Delta, less than a mile from where the ship was found. I called Ladd in October to tell him I was hunting for the Clotilda and asked if he might have an idea where the wreck might be.
“I think I do,” Ladd said, before describing a fairly precise location to me. He described a spot I’ve been by many times, in an area where I often fish but have never noticed a wreck. When I asked why he thought it was there, he said, “Well, when I was a boy, we used to go up the Mobile River to fish various places. On low tide, we’d see this burned out ship and my father and his friends would say, ‘There’s the Clotilda.'”
Ladd said the boat house where the family’s boat was kept was on Bayou Sara, which flows into the Mobile River alongside 12 Mile Island, “so we traversed 12 Mile Island quite a bit. The whole delta was full of old gravel barges, wooden barges, that were in various states of deterioration. They used to just abandon those everywhere. But those were rectangular. I don’t know of any other ships like this one, where it comes to a point. I always questioned Daddy about it.”
Ladd’s father, born in 1907, and his grandfather, born in 1881, both fished and duck hunted in the Delta. While Ladd offered the location where the ship was found in our initial interview, he later said he was never sure if his father really knew or was just telling an inquisitive kid what he wanted to hear.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the location of the wreck appeared to be an open secret locally, although records I’ve reviewed from others who hunted the ship reveal there were more than a half dozen wrecks people insisted were the Clotilda. Photos of some of those wrecks from the early 1900s make clear they could not be the Clotilda for various reasons. And none of the wrecks in those records were located where this ship was found. (Similarly, none of the other wrecks are located where the captain said he burned the ship, as this wreck is.)
In her book, Diouf writes “A man was posted near the burning vessel to make sure pieces of the wreckage did not float down the river, a definite sign that something shady had been going on. But it was a futile exercise because her hull remained visible at low tide for three quarters of a century.”
The survival of a significant portion of the hull is not unusual, as ships will only burn down to the waterline. Over time, the portion of the ship that had been visible on a normal low tide, particularly the ribs, surely rotted away, due to exposure to the elements. However, sections that remain continually underwater, or better still, buried beneath a layer of mud, could be expected to survive centuries, especially with the old growth longleaf pine used to construct the Clotilda and other ships built in Mobile in the 1800s.
Ladd said it had been many years since he had been able to see the wreck. But Diouf’s 75-year span where the burned husk was regularly visible dovetails nicely with Ladd’s recollection of seeing the ship when he was a boy.
The second part of the location evidence comes from the accounts of Capt. Foster and Timothy Meaher. In his journal, hand-written in a tight and slanted cursive, Foster describes towing the Clotilda into the Delta under cover of night by way of the Spanish River, so as to avoid detection in the port of Mobile. The Delta is a vast wetland, about 13 miles wide, and divided by dozens of rivers, creeks, bayous and islands. Using Spanish River meant the Clotilda traveled up the east side of two islands, Pinto and Blakeley, and allowed Foster to bypass the downtown waterfront, which was already heavily populated in the 1850s.
“I towed the Clotilda into Mobile Bay and up to 12 Mile Island and transferred the (captives) to a river steamboat the Czar and then I burned her and sunk her in 20 feet of water,” reads Foster’s testimony, suggesting he burned the ship next to 12 Mile Island, which is precisely where I found it.
For his part, Meaher, in a newspaper interview 30 years later, added the detail that the ship was towed into “Bayou Connor” and burned. For several reasons, I don’t think this was true, though I think Meaher might have believed it was. It’s also possible this was another effort by Meaher to hide the location of the ship.
The reference confused me at first because I didn’t recognize the bayou’s name. I earn part of my living as a nature guide, taking sightseers and fishermen into the Mobile-Tensaw Delta aboard my boat. I know the rivers and bayous well, but had never encountered a “Bayou Connor.” It was only when I began searching through old maps that it made sense. There, on a map made in 1889, is Bayou Connor, branching off from Bayou Canot, just across from the tip of 12-Mile Island. Today, the whole area is known as Bayou Canot. The confluence of Bayou Canot and the Mobile River occurs directly above the northern tip of 12 Mile Island. The geography of the rivers coming together makes a big X on the map, with the apparent continuation of Bayou Canot wrapping around the east side of 12 Mile Island while the main channel of the Mobile River wraps around the west side.
It is possible that Meaher meant this lower section around 12 Mile Island, though technically, both sides of 12 Mile Island are considered to be the Mobile River, and Bayou Canot (then called Bayou Connor) meets its end at the confluence with the river just above the island, all things a steamboat captain such as Meaher would have known.
I think a more likely scenario is that Meaher told Foster to move the ship off the main river into Bayou Canot and burn it, but then left aboard his brother’s steamboat with all of the Clotilda’s crew before the fire was lit. I suspect Foster, left behind with all the evidence of their crime, might have decided to burn the ship right then and there, in what was already a pretty secluded spot, rather than spend another hour taking the ship deeper into the swamp.
The three primary documents for investigating this affair are Foster’s 13-page description of the entire journey, the newspaper article about Meaher written 30 years later, and a handwritten document that may be the reporter’s notes for the Meaher article. Those sources differ on the critical detail of where the ship was burned, though they agree that it was Foster who did the burning.
We also know Meaher most likely wasn’t around when the ship was burned thanks to his braggadocio in the 1890 newspaper article. There, he spins the story of how he crafted an alibi for his whereabouts during the days long affair of retrieving the Clotilda and transferring the slaves to his brother’s steamboat.
The breathless newspaper article begins by crediting Meaher’s “desperate but successful undertaking” with creating the “only full-blood African colony in America,” referring to Africatown, which had been established decades prior. The tale comes from “the venerable captain, from whose lips was learned the story of the importation of the last cargo of slaves in the South.”
It describes Meaher’s alibi plot this way: “His brother, the late Capt. Burns Meaher, who at that time commanded the steamboat the Czar, was instructed to fire up and proceed to the mouth of the Spanish River, which debouches into Mobile Bay about four or five miles east of this city, and there await the Clotilda’s arrival. Capt. Meaher also issued orders that supper must not be served on the packet Roger B. Taney on her trip to Montgomery the following Tuesday night, until he boarded the boat at some point up the Alabama River.”
Meaher was the captain of the Roger B. Taney. He ordered the ship to leave Mobile without him for its weekly run upriver, planning to sneak aboard after the slave transfer had taken place, which he did. Getting back to the Taney quickly was key to making his alibi work.
The newspaper article continues: “Under cover of night, Capt. Meaher and the Clotilda’s crew were transferred to the Taney. The crew of the slaver were stowed away in an upper portion of the boat, locked in, and supplied with cards and whisky. It was 9:30 before supper was announced on the Taney that night, and when the captain took his seat at the head of the table his face wore a most nonchalant appearance, and gave forth not the slightest intimation that he had been engaged in other than the legitimate performance of his duties.”
Based apparently on the newspaper article and the handwritten notes mentioned above, a Mobile area man named Jack Friend spent thousands of dollars searching for the Clotilda in Bayou Canot in the late 1990s. Though Friend is now dead, I spent a day reviewing his extensive collection of papers related to the Clotilda and other shipwrecks in the History Museum of Mobile with historian John Sledge. Employing a salvage company, side scan sonar, magnetometers, and divers, the team searched the length of Bayou Canot and came up empty. They did not, however, search the area where I found this wreck, though it was just a mile downstream from the area they did search. This same area was left off of an extensive study of Mobile Bay ship wrecks conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1983. That study included the lower Delta, but stopped about four miles south of the area where the wreck I found lies.
Combining it all together, we have Ladd’s reminiscence, which led me to the wreck of a large burned ship from the mid-1800s. That wreck, in turn, is located next to the island where Foster recounts unloading the slaves and scuttling the ship, and across the river from the bayou where Meaher says the ship was torched.
“Even if the ship was actually burned in Bayou Canot, it wouldn’t surprise me that her rope had parted during the fire and she drifted out into the main channel and washed up where you found it,” said Sledge, the Mobile historian. “It is not very far, and it is downstream.”
While there are no pictures of the Clotilda, we do have measurements for its length and width. The ship was listed as 86 feet long, with a beam (or width) of 23 feet. With the keel line visible in the mud around the wreck, we were able to get a good measurement of the beam of the ship. It fit perfectly, at 23 feet and identical to the beam of the Clotilda.
But the length was dramatically different. In fact, in my initial visit, I measured the wreck at 124 feet, including a section of the stern visible in the water. I suspect this measurement may have encouraged other people hunting for the Clotilda to disregard this wreck as a possible suspect if they encountered it. Initially, it dissuaded me, as it appeared far too long to be the Clotilda.
But as I sat on the bow of the ship staring toward the stern, I couldn’t imagine how a vessel any smaller could have carried 110 captives and a crew of 14, plus supplies, on a four-month journey across the Atlantic Ocean. A schooner-style vessel that was 40 feet shorter than the wreck I was looking at simply would have been too small.
So, I began researching how ships were measured in the 1800s. As it turns out, there were three critical measurements for sailing ships. There is the overall length, which is the first thing most people think of today when talking about the size of a boat. But the overall length is actually irrelevant when calculating how much cargo a given ship could hold, as only the portion of the ship sitting in the water supports the weight of the cargo.
For old sailing ships, there were often two other measurements given: The length along the waterline, and something called “the Length Between Perpendiculars.” These latter two measurements are designed to account for the fact that old sailing ships often had raked bows and sterns, meaning the ends of the vessel were slanted, with a portion of the front and back of the ship hanging over the water. These numbers were the most important to shippers in the 1800s, not the overall length.
The Length Between Perpendiculars, was a measurement from the front edge of the rudder forward to the base of the ship’s stem in the bow. This measurement, as opposed to the overall length, gave people in the shipping industry a good estimate of how much cargo a given vessel could carry.
Armed with that knowledge, I began looking up the “Length Between Perpendiculars” for various two-masted schooners from the mid 1800’s. I found numerous examples of vessels with a Length Between Perpendiculars – or sometimes a waterline measurement – of 80 to 90 feet, and an overall length of 120 to 140 feet. Perhaps the most famous example would be the reconstruction of the slave ship Amistad, subject of a movie about slaves taking over a ship starring Morgan Freeman.
The Amistad was 23 feet wide, exactly the beam of the Clotilda. The Amistad’s overall length was 129 feet, while it’s waterline measurement was 78 feet. These numbers match quite closely with the Clotilda, if we assume the 86-foot length was actually a waterline or Length Between Perpendiculars measurement. I found records for about a dozen schooners with measurements closely matching the Amistad and the Clotilda.
“With the evidence in the stem, we can get an idea of preservation. With those chain plates, we can get some indication of mast placement. It appears to be a schooner,” said Cook, the archaeologist. “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.”
Cook said the first step is to gather input from the Alabama Historical Commission, state officials, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Then, he said, preliminary excavations and other tests by archaeological teams would be appropriate. Ultimately, the goal would be to identify the wreck, and then perhaps put the contents on display.
My friend, outdoors writer Jeff Dute, first suggested we look for the ship, knowing many others had tried. He visited the wreck with me the day Turner, the shipwright, explored it. Dute said that once he had seen the ship, his overall feeling was a profound sadness.
“Just imagine what this trip meant for those people. Ripped from their homes, their country, then months in the hold of this ship, right here,” Dute said. “That last voyage of the Clotilda is a horrible thing to contemplate. I just keep imagining, crossing the ocean, then getting dumped out here in this swamp while the ship that brought you here went up in a giant conflagration. How terrified they must have been.”
For my part, I think finding the Clotilda would be a fitting capstone for both Mobile’s slaving history and the war that finally ended the practice. Mobile was a big port, even in the 1800s, with a big slave trade. A historical marker on a downtown street marks the site of the old slave market. And just a few miles away, on the east side of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, lies the site of the Battle of Blakeley, the last battle of the Civil War, fought five years after the Clotilda was burned. It is easy, standing in the wintertime gloom of these Alabama swamps, to imagine that old ghosts haunt these bayous. Maybe this could help put some of them to rest.
“I can’t help but think this would be a stunning find. Mauvila and the Clotilda are the crown jewels of Alabama archaeology. In maritime history, this is major. This is an internationally significant discovery, if it is the Clotilda,” said Sledge, the Mobile historian. “My main concerns are protecting the wreck from people picking over it. The fact that it is already exposed like that clearly shows it is getting a lot of wear and tear. And, of course, proving that it is actually the right ship. If it is, it will be a beautiful thing to behold. This whole thing is pretty, pretty amazing.”
Source: By Ben Raines email@example.com