Local Reporter May Have Found the Burned Remains of the Last American Slave Ship
An Alabama-based environmental reporter may have just solved a 158-year-old historical mystery. Ben Raines, a writer for Al.com, has been exploring what lies beneath the waters around Mobile, Alabama for years, helping scientists locate significant finds like an Ice Age forest at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Now, he seems to have found another huge piece of lost history. Using historical records and interviews, he thinks he has located the long-lost wreck of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to enter the U.S.
The Clotilda was not your average slave ship. The schooner sailed to the U.S. in 1859 as part of an illegal scheme, and was sunk by its captain to cover the evidence. While slavery was still legal in 1859, importing slaves was not. The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves passed Congress in 1807. But on the eve of the Civil War, many in Alabama—the birthplace of the Confederacy—were set on reopening the transatlantic slave trade. One Mobile businessman made a bet out of reviving it under the noses of the federal authorities. Timothy Meaher hired William Foster to captain the Clotilda in a transatlantic voyage to Africa and back in an attempt to illegally import newly captured slaves.
The authorities were onto Meaher and Foster’s plan by the time the Clotilda arrived in Mobile’s harbor on a dark summer night in 1860. To slip past them, Foster offloaded his human cargo to a riverboat, burning the Clotilda to hide the evidence of the venture. The ship disappeared under the waters.
Now, unusually low tides may have uncovered it once again. Raines used historical documents and interviews with longtime Mobile residents familiar with the delta's waterways to track down where the remains of the ship might be. According to local historians, ship experts, and archaeologists, the sunken hull he discovered lies right around where Foster wrote in his journals that he burned the Clotilda.
While most of the historic ship is buried in mud, one entire side is exposed and recently became visible during an extra-low tide. The wooden ship is around the right size and shows signs of being burned, adding to the evidence that it is the Clotilda. However, that fact has yet to be proven, since researchers need to examine the ship more closely by digging it up and removing artifacts for analysis. This could take quite a while because both federal and state permits are involved, and, by Raines’s account, “a lot of money” is too. We’ll have to wait just a little bit longer to find out the truth about the Clotilda.