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.
"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.
Here's an interesting video (a bit long, I agree) of Clothilda's (?) discovery. Click on the link:
4 minute video of discovery
That's it for now. Until next time,