No one claims ownership of last slave ship ‘Clotilda’

Jay Reeves
Associated Press

Birmingham, Ala. – Alabama’s state historical agency apparently will retain control of the last U.S. slave ship, the Clotilda, after no one else laid claim to the wreckage.

Friday was the deadline under federal court rules for any potential owners to request control of wreckage of the wooden schooner, which was scuttled and burned near Mobile after illegally bringing about 110 captives to Alabama from west Africa in 1860.

A mural of the slave ship Clotilda along Africatown Blvd. in Mobile, Ala.

Because no one else sought the ship’s remains, the state can now move forward in federal court to take permanent possession, Andi Martin, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Historical Commission, said Monday. The agency already has temporary hold on an artifact from the wreck.

Researchers identified the wreckage of the ship earlier this year north of Mobile. It’s unclear how much the remains may be worth, but they could be priceless given the ship’s historical importance.

A wealthy Mobile businessman, Timothy Meaher, financed the Clotilda’s lone slave-trading trip after betting he could import Africans despite a ban enacted decades earlier, historical accounts show.

Officials say they’re unsure how much of the Clotilda remains, but they believe at least some of the hull could be intact in the muddy bottom of the Mobile River near an island. It’s also unclear what might be done with the wreckage or whether it can be raised.

The two-masted, 86-foot-long merchant ship was constructed and operated by William Foster, an antebellum captain on the coast. It was purchased before the trip to Africa by Meaher, who owned steamships, a sawmill and land in Mobile.

Meaher outfitted the ship for the voyage to Africa and provided money to purchase the Africans, according to an investigative report released by the state after the ship’s discovery.

The state’s report indicated Meaher used copper to sheath the wooden hull before the journey, and his son Augustine Meaher later claimed metal that remained on the ship after the scuttling was worth $100,000. Other accounts claim family members dynamited the ship’s hull for the metal as late as the 1950s.

Descendants of Meaher, who remain among Mobile’s most prominent families, have not commented publicly on the discovery and did not mount a claim for the Clotilda’s wreckage.

Freed after the Civil War, the Africans settled near Mobile in a community called Africatown, USA , which their descendants remain.