Marine archaeologists have found the wreck of the Clotilda, an illegal slave ship that smuggled a human cargo from West Africa to Alabama in 1860, more than fifty years after the importation of slaves into the U.S. had been banned. That makes her the last known slave ship to arrive on American shores—later even than the Wanderer, which brought more than 400 captives to Georgia in 1858.
Clotilda’s story began when Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile landowner and shipbuilder, allegedly wagered several Northern businessmen a thousand dollars that he could smuggle a cargo of Africans into Mobile Bay under the nose of federal officials.
Importing slaves into the United States had been illegal since 1808, and southern plantation owners had seen prices in the domestic slave trade skyrocket. Many, including Meaher, were advocating for reopening the trade.
Meaher chartered a sleek, swift schooner named Clotilda and enlisted its builder, Captain William Foster, to sail it to the notorious slave port of Ouidah in present-day Benin to buy captives. Foster left West Africa with 110 young men, women, and children crowded into the schooner’s hold. One girl reportedly died during the brutal six-week voyage. Purchased for $9,000 in gold, the human cargo was worth more than 20 times that amount in 1860 Alabama.
After transferring the captives to a riverboat owned by Meaher’s brother, Foster burned the slaver to the waterline to hide their crime. Clotilda kept her secrets over the decades, even as some deniers contended that the shameful episode never occurred.