Unlocking the Secrets of the ‘Clotilda,’ the Last Known Slave Ship

Archaeological divers spent 10 days evaluating the sunken ship in the Mobile River, and took samples for possible traces of DNA

Timber from Clotilda
The Clotilda has been at the bottom of the Mobile River since 1860, when the captain burned and sank the vessel that was used illegally to bring enslaved individuals from West Africa to Alabama.  © 2022 Alabama Historical Commission and created by Daniel Fiore, Photographer

Researchers are one step closer to unraveling some of the mysteries of the Clotilda, the last known vessel to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States.

A team of archaeological divers led by the Alabama Historical Commission just wrapped up ten days of exploring the well-preserved sunken ship in Alabama’s Mobile River, reports AL.com’s Lawrence Specker. As part of their exploratory mission to better understand the Clotilda’s condition and determine how best to conserve it, scientists took a sample in hopes of finding traces of DNA from the 110 people forcibly transported to Mobile in 1860.

After transferring the enslaved passengers to a riverboat, the Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, burned and deliberately sank the vessel in July 1860. In doing so, Foster had hoped to destroy the evidence of a crime: Though Congress had banned the importation of enslaved people in 1808, Foster and enslaver Timothy Meaher illegally forced more than 100 men, women and children to make the 45-day journey from West Africa to Alabama.

Clotilda timber
Archaeological divers focused much of their work on analyzing timbers that became separated from the Clotilda during the wreck. © 2022 Alabama Historical Commission and created by Daniel Fiore, Photographer

The sunken Clotilda has remained in the same spot for the last 162 years. Though rumors swirled about the Clotilda’s existence for years, researchers officially confirmed the ship’s location in 2019.

Now, scientists are finally examining the underwater vessel. On May 2, divers began their first exploratory mission and site evaluation, which primarily involved inspecting timbers and other pieces of the ship that broke off during the wreck. Though the wood has deteriorated greatly over the last century, amazingly, researchers were still able to smell pine when they cut into it.

Researchers also studied the bacteria and marine organisms like worms and crabs living at the site and analyzed the sediment on and near the ship.

Unlocking the Secrets of the 'Clotilda,' the Last Known Slave Ship
Divers began their first exploratory mission and site evaluation of the ship in May. © 2022 Alabama Historical Commission and created by Daniel Fiore, Photographer

They believe they may have found evidence of Foster’s crime, including charred timbers and a mixture of charcoal and mud inside the hull.

“This is a slow methodical process from which a picture of the wreck is slowly emerging,” the researchers write in a daily log of the exploration.

As for finding DNA aboard the vessel, which could link its enslaved captives with modern-day descendents, researchers took a small core sample from a corner of the ship’s hold and sent it in for testing, per AL.com. The hold, located below the main deck, had previously been used for lumber; it was cramped and dark, measuring 23 feet long and less than seven feet high.

The findings from this dive will help inform what happens to the Clotilda next. Simply stabilizing pieces of the ship to be displayed at a museum could take years, so raising and preserving the entire hull would be a major undertaking. At a public forum sharing the team’s initial findings, state archaeologist Stacye Hathorn told the crowd that “nothing has been ruled out or in,” per AL.com.

Looking at photos
Researchers spent 10 days exploring the Clotilda to understand the sunken ship's condition. © 2022 Alabama Historical Commission and created by Daniel Fiore, Photographer

Still, descendents of the enslaved people aboard the Clotilda would like to do whatever it takes to preserve and display the ship as a reminder of the horrors of slavery.

“It takes a certain amount of evil to carry out something like that, to treat human beings like cargo,” Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, told the New York Times’ Michael Levenson in 2021. “We would like for that ship to be on display so the world never forgets.”

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