DNA recovery attempt begins on last American slave ship

Archaeologists hope to unearth valuable information about the enslaved Africans from Clotilda’s last passage—and have already found evidence of its criminal sinking.

Timbers from the stern of Clotilda are quickly inspected, measured, and recorded before being resubmerged in water to prevent them from drying out.
Photograph by Daniel Fiore
Alabama Historical Commission

One July night in 1860, on a remote river bend just north of Mobile, Alabama, the last-known American slave ship went up in flames.

At the behest of a wealthy Mobile businessman and slaveholder named Timothy Meaher, who had wagered a bet that he could smuggle enslaved people into the United States undetected, Captain William Foster had just sailed the 86-foot wooden vessel Clotilda from the port of Ouidah, in present-day Benin, back to the United States. Aboard were 110 captive Africans—even though the international slave trade had already been outlawed in the U.S. for more than 50 years.

Once the enslaved Africans were hastily unloaded under the cover of darkness, Foster set fire to the shipsinking Clotilda in an attempt to destroy all that remained of the horrific crime that the captain and the businessman had just committed.

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