A year before the Civil War, an Alabama businessman set out to win a bet with friends. The international slave trade had been outlawed for decades, but he wagered he could smuggle slaves from Africa to the United States without being caught.
To prove it could be done, the businessman, Timothy Meaher, bought an 86-foot-long sailboat, the Clotilda, and hired its builder to captain a trek to West Africa. Under the cover of night in July 1860, the Clotilda returned to the waters off Alabama with 110 slaves, carefully navigating the tributaries around Mobile to evade the authorities.
But a few miles north of Mobile, the captain and crew grew concerned that the authorities were on their trail. They unloaded the slaves and set the boat on fire on the muddy banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the evidence of their illicit voyage, and the last known American slave ship, never to be found.
A reporter in Alabama said in an article published on Tuesday that he may have found the wreckage on the shore of a swampy island in the delta, thanks to the same weather system that produced a winter “bomb cyclone” weeks ago.
The conditions caused extremely low tides in the area, allowing the boat to reveal itself: charred beams forming the shape of a vessel with almost the exact dimensions of the Clotilda.
“That’s why I went looking when I did. You would not have been able to see it on a normal low tide; it would have all been underwater,” said the reporter, Ben Raines of AL.com. Mr. Raines, an investigative reporter, is the son of Howell Raines, a former executive editor of The New York Times.
While the wreckage has not been officially identified as the Clotilda, Mr. Raines recently took a shipwright expert and a team of archaeologists to survey it. What’s left of the boat — blackened beams and timber, threadless bolts and iron drifts — dates its construction to the period of the Clotilda, they said.
“The location is right; the construction seems to be right, from the proper time period; it appears to be burnt,” Gregory D. Cook, one of the archaeologists who visited the site, told AL.com. “So I’d say very compelling, for sure.”
The story of the Clotilda has held a significant spot in the history of slavery in the United States, which abolished it in 1865. It was also influential in the history of Alabama, where the slaves brought over on the Clotilda settled, creating what became known as Africatown in Mobile, after emancipation.
The saga, well-known locally, was introduced to a wider audience after it was featured in a November episode of “Finding Your Roots,” a television series in which the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. investigates the ancestry of his celebrity guests.
In that episode, Questlove, the drummer of the hip-hop group the Roots, which is also the house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” found out more about his ancestors, who were smuggled to America aboard the Clotilda.
“All types of emotions are running through my head,” he said on the program. “I feel sad. I feel angered. I feel confused. I feel lucky.”
Since Mr. Meaher boasted in a newspaper article in 1890 about his wicked scheme and the fate of the Clotilda, people have searched the waters, islands and shores off Mobile for signs of its remains. Mr. Raines wrote that he believed previous explorers looked near the site he found but never exactly there.
The investigation was prompted in September when Mr. Raines asked a friend for thoughts on what he should pursue next. The friend suggested he try to find the Clotilda. And so he did.
“What a tale — and such a wholly American tale,” Mr. Raines said on Wednesday. “All the good, the bad, and the ugly that we could have produced, all wrapped up in one event.”
Mr. Raines said in the article that he based his subsequent search on the 1890 newspaper article, the apparent notes by the reporter who wrote it and the journal of Clotilda’s captain, William Foster. There were several major clues that guided Mr. Raines, who benefited from his experience as a nature guide in the area. The journal mentions that the slaves were transferred to another boat near 12 Mile Island, where Mr. Foster said the Clotilda was set on fire.
During high tide, water covers any sign of the wreckage. But Mr. Raines said he set out on a boat to find the wreckage during especially low tides brought on by a large weather system that swept the country this month and eventually produced large snowfall in some parts of the Northeast.
“I think finding the Clotilda would be a fitting capstone for both Mobile’s slaving history and the war that finally ended the practice,” Mr. Raines wrote in the article, adding, “It is easy, standing in the wintertime gloom of these Alabama swamps, to imagine that old ghosts haunt these bayous.”
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