MOBILE, Ala. – AL.com reports that crews may have found the long-lost wreck of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to bring human cargo to the United States.
The remains of the ship are partially buried in mud alongside an island in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a few miles north 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.
AL.com 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 is accessible only by boat. A shipwright expert in construction techniques used on old wooden vessels and a team of archaeologists from the University of West Florida were taken to the site.
They 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.
“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 After examining the aerials, images and historical documents Raines had assembled, the archaeologists visited the wreck.
“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. So I’d say very compelling, for sure,” said Greg Cook, who led the team of archaeologists from UWF with John Bratten.
“There is nothing here to say this isn’t the Clotilda, and several things that say it might be,” said Bratten.
Right now, the investigation is only visual. There have been 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.