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The schooner Clotilda (often misspelled Clotilde) was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, arriving at Mobile Bay in autumn 1859[1] or July 9, 1860,[2][3] with 110–160 slaves.[1] The ship was a two-masted schooner, 86 feet (26 m) long with a beam of 23 ft (7.0 m).

Wreck of the Slave Ship Clotilda.jpg
Wreck of the slave ship, Clotilda, photograph from Historic Sketches of the South by Emma Langdon Roche, 1914
United States
Name: Clotilda
Fate: scuttled
General characteristics
Class and type: lumber trade
Length: 86 ft (26 m)
Beam: 23 ft (7.0 m)
Sail plan: Schooner

The importation of slaves into the United States had been banned by Congress through an act enacted on March 2, 1807 (effective January 1, 1808), but the practice continued illegally until this vessel was burned and scuttled soon after arrival at Mobile Bay in an attempt to destroy the evidence. The sponsors had arranged to buy slaves in Whydah, Dahomey, on May 15, 1859.[1][2]

Cudjo Kazoola Lewis[1][2] was said to be a chief and the oldest slave on the ship. After the Civil War, he was among the founders of Africatown, a community founded by some 32 former slaves on the north side of Mobile, Alabama. They were joined by other continental Africans and formed a community that continued to practice many of their West African traditions and Yoruba language for decades.

A spokesman for the community, Kazoola Lewis lived until 1935 and is considered the second to last survivor of Clotilda. Redoshi, another captive on the Clotilda, was sold to a planter in Dallas County, Alabama, where she became known also as Sally Smith. She married, had a daughter, and lived to 1937 in Bogue Chitto. She is thought to have been the last survivor of the Clotilda.[4] Some 100 descendants of the Clotilda slaves still live in Africatown, and others are around the country. After World War II, the neighborhood was absorbed by the city of Mobile. A memorial bust of Lewis was placed in front of the historic Union Missionary Baptist Church.[2] The Africatown historic district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.



Built in 1855, the schooner Clotilda,[5] under the command of Captain William Foster and carrying a cargo of 110 African slaves, arrived in Mobile Bay in July 1860.[6]

Captain Foster was working for Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipyard owner and steamboat captain, who had built Clotilda in 1856 for the lumber trade.[7] Meaher was said to have wagered some "Northern gentlemen" from New England, who likely provided the financing for the illegal venture,[citation needed] that he could successfully smuggle slaves into the US despite the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.

Clotilda was a two-masted schooner, 86 feet (26 m) long with a beam of 23 feet (7.0 m), and a copper-sheathed hull. Meaher had learned that West African tribes were fighting and that the King of Dahomey (now Benin) was willing to sell prisoners taken in warfare as slaves. The King of Dahomey's forces had been raiding communities in the interior, bringing captives to the large slave market at the port of Whydah.[7][8]

Departing on March 4, 1860, Foster sailed from Mobile with a crew of 12, including him.[9] In addition to supplies, he carried $9,000 in gold for purchase of slaves.[9] He arrived in Whydah on May 15, 1860,[9] where he had the ship outfitted to carry slaves, using materials he had transported.[7] He offered to buy some 125 Africans in Whydah for $100 each.[9] They were primarily Tarkbar people taken in a raid from near Tamale, present-day Ghana.[8] He described meeting an African prince and being taken to the king's court, where he observed some religious practices. Describing how he came in possession of the slaves, Captain William Foster wrote in his journal in 1860, "from thence I went to see the King of Dahomey. Having agreeably transacted affairs with the Prince we went to the warehouse where they had in confinement four thousand captives in a state of nudity from which they gave me liberty to select one hundred and twenty-five as mine offering to brand them for me, from which I preemptorily [sic] forbid; commenced taking on cargo of negroes [sic], successfully securing on board one hundred and ten." [9]

As the slaves were being loaded, Foster saw two steamers off the port and ordered the crew to leave immediately, although only 110 slaves had been secured on board. The Clotilda sailed without the last fifteen slaves, in order to avoid capture. After making their way for a time, they saw a man o' war, but were saved when a squall came up and they outran the ship.[9] They reached Abaco lighthouse at the Bahama banks by June 30, on their return to Mobile.[7] As they continued across the Caribbean, they disguised the schooner as a "coaster" (a ship that carried slaves in the coastal trade of domestic slaves along the US coast) by taking down the "squaresail yards and the fore topmast", and avoided interception.[9]

Foster anchored Clotilda on July 9 off Point of Pines in Grand Bay, Mississippi, near the Alabama border. He traveled overland by horse and buggy to Mobile to meet with Meaher. Fearful of criminal charges, Captain Foster brought the schooner into the Port of Mobile at night and had it towed up the Spanish River to the Alabama River at Twelve Mile Island. He transferred the slaves to a river steamboat, then burned Clotilda "to the water's edge" before sinking it.[9] He paid off the crew and told them to return North.[9]

The African slaves were mostly distributed to the financial backers of the Clotilda venture, with Timothy Meaher retaining 30 of the Africans on his property north of Mobile.[1] Cudjo (aka Cudjoe) Lewis, known as Kossoula or Kazoola, was among the 30 held by Meaher. Mobile was in the Deep South and blacks, whether Africans or native-born, were mostly enslaved, occupying the bottom rung of a racial hierarchy. The Africans from Clotilda could not be legally enslaved because they were smuggled in; however, they were treated as chattel.[1] Some of the captives were sold to people who lived a distance from Mobile. Among them were Redoshi (later known also as Sally Smith) and a man later known as William or Billy, who were sold to Washington Smith, a planter from Dallas County, Alabama. They later married and had a daughter.[4]

The federal government prosecuted Meaher and Foster in 1861 for violation of the act prohibiting the slave trade, but did not gain a conviction. They had no evidence from the ship nor its manifest. The men were tried in a federal court in Mobile, and the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Historians believe the case was dropped by the federal government in part because of the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Because Captain Foster reported he burned and sank Clotilda[2] in the delta north of Mobile Bay, archaeological searches have continued into the twenty-first century for the wreck.[10] Several visible wrecks have been referred to by locals as the slave ship.

Wreckage from Clotilda was allegedly found in 2018, but the Alabama Historical Commission ruled out the findings because of "major differences between the two vessels," and appeared to lack any fire damage.[11] But in May of 2019, the Alabama Historical Commission announced the Clotilda has finally been found by researcher Ben Raines. The wreckage found bears "physical and forensic evidence [that] powerfully suggests that this is the Clotilda."[12]


The Africans taken by Meaher were held on his plantation. The end of the American Civil War resulted in effective emancipation of the survivors of the Clotilda. As was the case for many freedmen, Redoshi and William stayed with their daughter at the plantation in Bogue Chitto and continued to work there.[4]

Many of Meaher's former slaves returned to Magazine Point, and land owned by Meaher on the delta just north of Mobile and on the west bank of the Mobile River. They founded an all-black community, which was known as Africatown.[7] Other ethnic Africans joined them in the independent community. They adopted community rules based on mostly Takpa tribal customs, and chose their leaders. They maintained use of their Yoruba language into the 1950s, and kept many cultural traditions for decades. Children born in the community began to learn English, first at church, and then in schools that were founded in the late nineteenth century. Cudjo Lewis lived until 1935 and was long thought to be the last survivor of the Clotilda. In 2019, a new study established that Redoshi (Sally Smith) lived to 1937, and she is thus considered to be the last survivor. She had continued to live in Bogue Chitto.[4]

The community of Africatown grew as industry was established along the upper river. Workers were attracted to the paper mills built after World War II. In the twentieth century, the population reached 12,000. But closing of industries and the loss of jobs resulted in declines in the population, which is about 2,000 in the early twenty-first century. Since the postwar period, the area was mostly absorbed into a neighborhood of Mobile. A portion is within the neighboring town of Prichard, Alabama. In 2012 the Africatown Historic District was recognized and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Their cemetery is also listed.

Finding the wreckEdit

On January 24, 2018, reporter Ben Raines claimed to have discovered the wreck of the Clotilda in the lower Mobile–Tensaw Delta, a few miles north of the city of Mobile. Record low tides, caused by a storm system that produced the January 2018 North American blizzard, had left parts of a wreck visible above the mud.[7][13] Based on their preliminary review, a team of archeologists said, "based on the dimensions of the wreckage and its contents... the remnants were most likely those of the slave ship."[6] People in Africatown began to discuss what should be done with the wreckage if it is the Clotilda, and how best to tell their story.[14]

On March 5, 2018, Raines reported that the wreck he had discovered was not likely to be the Clotilda. Researchers had concluded the wreckage appeared to be "simply too big, with a significant portion hidden beneath mud and deep water".[15]

A few weeks later, Raines and a team from the University of Southern Mississippi returned to the river and performed the first ever survey of the 12 Mile Island section of the Mobile River. One week later, Raines and Monty Graham, head of Marine Sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, explored several of the 11 wrecks identified in the survey, along with Joe Turner and a team from Underwater Works Dive Shop. On April 13, the team pulled up the first piece of Clotilda to see the light of day in 160 years. The coordinates and survey data were shared with the Alabama Historical Commission, which hired Search Inc., to verify the find. The discovery was kept secret for a year, until the verification process was complete. On May 22, 2019, the Alabama Historical Commission announced that the wreckage of the Clotilda had been found in the Mobile River.[16][17][18]

Representation in other mediaEdit

  • Margaret Brown's film Order of Myths reveals that in 2007 the queens of the two major, segregated Mardi Gras organizations had a poignant link., the ancestors of the MCA queen had smuggled the ancestors of the MAMGA queen into Mobile Bay as slaves on the Clotilde[19].
  • local Mobile television news team produced a program, AfricaTown, USA, about the settlement and its history.[8]
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr's Finding Your Roots, Season 4, Episode 9 (12 December 2017), showed census data for Mobile, and Captain William Foster's journal from the Clotilda, during a segment explaining the family history of Questlove, a drummer and producer, head of The Roots. His 3× great-grandparents Charles Lewis (b. ca.1820) and his wife Maggie (b. 1830) were among the slaves brought from West Africa on the Clotilda. Gates also discussed an article from The Tarboro Southerner, which reported on July 14, 1860 that 110 Africans had arrived in Mobile on Clotilda. A Pittsburgh Daily Post article of April 15, 1894 recounted the wager that Captain Timothy Meaher had made in 1859 that he could smuggle in slaves within two years, and that he accomplished in 1860.[20]
  • In 2018, Zora Neale Hurston's book Barracoon was published in an annotated edition. She had completed it in 1931, but was unable to get it published. An account of Cudjo Lewis and his life story, it also discusses her feelings as an African-American researcher during the experience of interviewing and getting to know him during a period of about three months. It is an example of what is now classified as a "testimonial text".[21]

See alsoEdit

  • Wanderer, a slave ship that arrived November 1858 (prior year)
  • La Amistad, a slave-carrying cargo ship in the Caribbean taken over by a mutiny


  1. ^ a b c d e f David Pilgrim. "Question of the Month: Cudjo Lewis: Last African Slave in the U.S.?" Jim Crow Museum, Ferris University, July 2005.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Black Travel - Soul Of America | Home" (historic sites), Soul of America, 2007, webpage: SoulofAmerica-6678.
  3. ^ "AfricaTown, USA". The American Folklife Center: Local Legacies. The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2009-05-12.
  4. ^ a b c d Durkin, Hannah (26 March 2019). "Finding last middle passage survivor Sally 'Redoshi' Smith on the page and screen". Slavery and Abolition/ A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies: 1–28. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2019.1596397.
  5. ^ Ben Raines, "Wreck found by reporter may be last American slave ship, archaeologists say",, 25 January 2018; accessed 26 January 2018. Quote: "...the ship's license and the captain's journal make clear that Clotilda is correct." (as the name)
  6. ^ a b Sandra E. Garcia and Matthew Haag, "Descendants' Stories of a Slave Ship Drew Doubts. Now Some See Validation", New York Times, 26 January 2018; accessed 26 January 2018
  7. ^ a b c d e f "Wreck found by reporter may be last American slave ship, archaeologists say". Retrieved 2018-01-24.
  8. ^ a b c "AfricaTown, USA", Local Legacies, 2000, Library of Congress; accessed 28 January 2018
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Last Slaver from U.S. to Africa. A.D. 1860": Capt. William Foster, Journal of Clotilda, 1860, Mobile Public Library Digital Collections; accessed 28 January 2018
  10. ^ Sarah Gibbens (Mar 6, 2018). "The Last Ship to Bring Slaves to the U.S. Has Not Been Found". National Geographic Society. Retrieved Mar 12, 2018.
  11. ^ "The Last Ship to Bring Slaves to the U.S. Has Not Been Found". National Geographic News. 2018-03-06. Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  12. ^ "Alabama Historians Say The Last Known Slave Ship To U.S. Has Been Found". Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  13. ^ Jr, Cleve R. Wootson (2018-01-24). "The last U.S. slave ship was burned to hide its horrors. A storm may have unearthed it". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2018-01-24.
  14. ^ Ingber, Sasha (May 22, 2019). "Alabama Historians Say The Last Known Slave Ship To U.S. Has Been Found". NPR. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  15. ^ "Wreck found in Delta not the Clotilda, the last American slave ship". Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  16. ^ Koplowitz, Howard (May 22, 2019). "Clotilda, the last American slave ship, found in Alabama, historical commission says". Retrieved May 22, 2019. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  17. ^ "Officials: Last slave ship from Africa ID'd on Alabama coast". WALA-TV. May 22, 2019. Retrieved May 22, 2019. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  18. ^ Ingber, Sasha (22 May 2019). "Alabama Historians Say The Last Known Slave Ship To U.S. Has Been Found". NPR. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  19. ^ "Independent Lens . THE ORDER OF MYTHS . The Film | PBS". Retrieved 2019-05-25.
  20. ^ Boyd, Jared (December 18, 2017). "PBS show reveals Questlove descended from last known slave ship, which landed in Alabama". The Birmingham News. Retrieved December 18, 2017.
  21. ^ Sexton, Genevieve (2003). "The Last Witness: Testimony and Desire in Zora Neale Hurston's "Barracoon"". Discourse. 25 (1): 189–210. doi:10.1353/dis.2004.0012. ISSN 1536-1810.

Further readingEdit

  • Diouf, Sylviane Anna. Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Glennon, Robert M. Kudjo; The Last Slave Voyage to America, Fairhope, Alabama: Over the Transom Publishing, 1999.
  • Lockett, James D. "The Last Ship That Brought Slaves from Africa to America: The Landing of the Clotilde at Mobile in the Autumn of 1859". The Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 22, no. 3 (Fall 1998).
  • Robertson, Natalie S. The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA: Spirit of Our Ancestors. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2008.
  • Roche, Emma Langdon. Historic Sketches of the South. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1914.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. "Barracoon. The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo'", Amistad Press. Harper Collins, 2018.

External linksEdit