The last American slave ship may have been discovered

Wreckage of the last slave ship to bring slaves to the U.S., the Clotilda, may have been found near Mobile, AL. 

According to AL.com, reporter Ben Raines, who normally covers the environment and conservation for the website, found the wreckage in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, during unusually low tides. Experts have suggested the remains could be the Clotilda (sometimes spelled incorrectly as Clotilde), 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.

"I'm quaking with excitement. This would be a story of world historical significance, if this is the Clotilda," John Sledge, a senior historian with Mobile Historical Commission, told AL.com. "It's certainly in the right vicinity... We always knew it should be right around there."

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Greg Cook, a University of West Florida archaeologist who examined the wreck, agreed with Sledge's assessment. "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," Cook said. "So I'd say very compelling, for sure."

There isn't much left of the ship, which if proven to be the Clotilda, arrived in Mobile Bay for its last voyage, carrying approximately 110 slaves. The hull is tipped over to the port side and almost entirely encapsulated in mud, while the starboard side is nearly fully exposed.

A two-masted schooner built in 1855, the Clotilda was approximately 86 feet in length and possessed a beam of 23 feet. Its design was similar to other schooners of the day, which were used to carry lumber and heavy cargo. "These ships were the 18-wheelers of their day," Winthrop Turner, a shipwright specializing in wooden vessels told AL.com.

The ship was ultimately burned after arriving at Mobile Bay, with slavers having bragged of setting the vessel ablaze upon the conclusion of their voyage in July 1860.

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."

Aside from the location, which is where its captain William Foster wrote that he burned and sank the ship in 1860, the wreck also shows fire damage. And its contrsuction techniques appear to be similar to those from the mid-1800s.

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Turner added that the sides of the ship are almost two feet thick and there are no threaded bolts, iron drifts or butt jointed planking, which "confirm a ship built between 1850 and 1880."

Importing slaves had been illegal since 1807, when President Thomas Jefferson signed a law against it. It remained a linchpin of the Southern farm economy for several more decades until the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished the practice. 

Because of the law forbidding the import of slaves, the Clotilda was designed in secret. Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made an infamous bet that he could sneak slaves into the U.S., ultimately paying $35,000 for the ship, according to AL.com. Foster and Meaher were never charged for committing a crime, though Foster was forced to pay a $1,000 fine for failure to register in port following an international trip.

The ship delivered 110 captives to Mobile in 1860 in the last known instance of a slave ship landing in the United States. The slaves and their descendants lived after the Civil War in an area near Mobile known as Africatown, which was included in the national historic register in 2012.

Presently, the investigation is only of a visual nature and there have been no attempts to start digging. 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia