It was 52 years after the U.S. had banned the international slave trade when Timothy Meaher, a wealthy slave-owning planter, boasted that he could smuggle in a ship full of slaves.
Historical documents indicate that Meaher hatched the plan with ship captain William Foster, and on July 7, 1860, the Clotilda entered Mobile Bay carrying 103 slaves. It would be the last known time slave owners sailed an African slave ship to the U.S.
To hide the evidence of their crime, the crew set the Clotilda on fire after the human cargo was removed.
For more than a century, the remains of the Clotilda have been a mystery. Thanks to reporting from Alabama news outlet AL.com and preliminary investigations by archaeologists, the ship was thought to have been found in January 2018—but subsequent research didn't bear that out.
Searching for Clotilda
When a "bomb cyclone" hit the U.S. East Coast earlier this winter, many were concerned with flooding and the record low temperatures.
In the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a few miles just north of Mobile, Alabama, the weather cyclone forced temperatures down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit—cold for the region—and the strong winds made the tides, typically low in January, even lower. Ben Raines, a reporter from AL.com, knew it would be the perfect time to search for the ship's remains.
An investigative reporter by profession and boat captain by hobby, Raines was intimately familiar with the delta, and during our phone conversation, he doesn't skip a beat in telling me how biodiverse the region is. Raines had been searching for the Clotilda since October, and a local man whose family has lived in the area since the late 1800s tipped him off to where the rumored ship was thought to be.
"I definitely was looking for it," he says.
And his effort paid off: Raines saw 19th-century remains jutting from the swamp's smooth mud on New Year's Day.
"It looked like a dinosaur backbone, and on one end was a big lump."
The starboard side of the ship was almost fully exposed by the low tide. The port side was almost entirely still concealed in mud. Immediately, the part-time ship captain knew he was looking at an old historic shipwreck, and he had a strong hunch it was the Clotilda.
After reporting the find to an archaeologist from the University of South Alabama, he was put in touch with two underwater archaeology experts from the University of West Florida—Gregory Cook and John Bratten.
Raines shared the photos and videos he took at the site, and by January 14, Cook and Bratten were in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
Clues From the Past
"We could clearly see it had the typical parts of a wooden sailing ship and the stub of a mast," says Cook.
By visually assessing the remains, they could see it was constructed in a style consistent with the Clotilda, a mid-19th century schooner. Part of the planks have burn marks, and it's in a location that matches a journal kept by Captain Foster.
"We can't say it definitely is the Clotilda, but it's certainly worth investigating," says Bratten.
Excavating the ship more carefully has taken some time. Authorities needed to determine the jurisdiction of the find and apply for permits.
"My sense is that they're on to something," James Delgado said in January. He's a senior VP at a research firm called SEARCH, former director of the Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program at NOAA, and National Geographic explorer. Delgado has been involved with shipwreck excavations off the West Coast, and he said more work is needed before the discovery can be confirmed.
That the ship was burned may be what helps archaeologists uncover its remains, says Delgado. Steam generated by a fire's heat has been known to extinguish flames in lower parts of burning ships, he says. He also suspects the mud may contain DNA evidence of human excrement, a frequent find with historic slave ships.
Other artifacts like chains or items from West Africa, where the slaves were taken from, could add clues to the mystery.
A Horrific Past
Finds like this can help people better grapple with the realities of the past, says Delgado.
"If this is Clotilda, that would bring back a sense of immediacy," he says. "It would give us a direct link."
Raines says finding the Clotilda would mean a lot to not only Mobile, but a local community called Africatown. That place was started by the slaves brought by the Clotilda, and today it's often referenced as a ghost town, despite being populated, because it's disparaged by poverty.
"It's blighted in every way," says Raines, but "I would love to see a museum built there. I would love to see the artifacts from the ship there."
"[Mobile] has a lot of history, a lot of it ugly. The last slave ship came here. The last battle of the Civil War was here," he says.
He hopes the find could be a powerful symbol of the region's past.