Finding the Clotilda, America’s Last Slave Ship

Led by a local reporter, archeologists think they may have found the wreck of the Clotilda, the last ship reasonably documented as transporting slaves to North America.

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.

The Clotilda, owned by transplanted Mainer Timothy Meaher, arrived at Mobile in June of 1860, fully fifty-two years after the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed. He did it as a bet. Meaher’s scheme was discovered, however, and he had the Clotilda towed to a remote bayou and burned to cover up the crime. The Africans on board, however, were hidden and eventually became slaves on Meaher’s plantation.

It’s a lengthy article but well worth reading. I found it interesting because my ancestors were peripherally involved. John Means Patten and his son Jason were Mainemen like Meaher. They were shipwrights and had apparently came south looking for work after a severe recession in the 1850s closed many of the Maine shipyards. Meaher was a steamboat captain, and with his brothers owned a sawmill and a shipyard near Eight Mile that built steamboats for the thriving trade on Alabama rivers. Since the Pattens were shipwrights and lived near Eight Mile, I’ve assumed that they worked for the Meahers. It’s very doubtful that they knew anything about the Clotilda scheme (Meaher bought the boat, it was not built in his yards), although everyone knew about it after the fact, since it was in all the newspapers.

When hostilities broke out John Patten returned to Maine, but his son Jason stayed, having married an Alabama girl. He signed up with a Confederate company that eventually became part of the 12th Alabama, and was killed in the Shenandoah in 1864. Two of his brothers served with the Union army, one of whom also lost his life.

As for Meaher’s slaves, they were freed after the war and founded their own settlement, Africatown, which still exists.

UPDATE: As it turns out, this is not the wreck of the Clotilda.



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