DNA recovery attempt begins on last American slave ship

Archaeologists hope to unearth valuable information about the enslaved Africans from Clotilda’s last passage—and have already found evidence of its criminal sinking.

By Jordan Salama
Published 13 May 2022, 12:01 BST
Timbers from the stern of Clotilda are quickly inspected, measured, and recorded before being resubmerged in ...
Timbers from the stern of Clotilda are quickly inspected, measured, and recorded before being resubmerged in water to prevent them from drying out.
Photograph by Daniel Fiore

One July night in 1860, on a remote river bend just north of Mobile, Alabama, the last-known American slave ship went up in flames.

At the behest of a wealthy Mobile businessman and slaveholder named Timothy Meaher, who had wagered a bet that he could smuggle enslaved people into the United States undetected, Captain William Foster had just sailed the 86-foot wooden vessel Clotilda from the port of Ouidah, in West Africa's present-day Benin, back to the United States. Aboard were 110 captive Africans—even though the international slave trade had already been outlawed in the U.S. for more than 50 years.

Once the enslaved Africans were hastily unloaded under the cover of darkness, Foster set fire to the shipsinking Clotilda in an attempt to destroy all that remained of the horrific crime that the captain and the businessman had just committed.

In a press conference recently held by the Alabama Historical Commission in Mobile, scientists announced the discovery of artefacts from inside Clotilda's sunken hull, including charred timbers, that directly point to the fiery coverup of the crime more than 160 years after it was committed.

Photograph by Daniel Fiore

Since the beginning of May, a team of archaeologists, divers, and forensic scientists has been working to further explore and stabilise the submerged remains of Clotilda, which was found in the Mobile River in 2019

"A number of artefacts have come up, and with some of them, dramatic evidence of the fire and the sinking," says archaeologist James Delgado, the chief scientist and one of the co-principal investigators on the state-run project, in an email.  "Our knowledge of Clotilda has likely doubled in the last week."

In addition to the burned timbers and charcoal, the research team has made a series of significant discoveries on the wreck, including a lead hawse pipe, which would have guided Clotilda's anchor cable, and other shipbuilding elements that date back to the specific time period when Clotilda sailed the high seas.

Researchers are also attempting to recover traces of human DNA that could yield more information about the captive Africans brought to Alabama aboard Clotilda in 1860. "Cellular material could be potentially part of the accumulated sediment on the bottom of the hold," says Frankie West, director of the Forensic Science Program at Western Carolina University, who will lead a genetic analysis of the material recovered from the wreck in her lab. The research is funded by the National Geographic Society.

Despite the fact that Clotilda's remains have been submerged in the muddy waters of the Mobile River for more than 160 years, DNA may still exist on the wreck in the vestiges of skin cells, fingernails, or hair shed by the captives, as well as faeces, vomit, and blood that accumulated during their entrapment. Any genetic evidence will likely be extracted from sediment deep inside the vessel, or even from the wooden planks of the ship itself.

Vernetta Henson (left), a descendant of Clotilda survivors Pollee and Rose Allen, and Emmett Lewis (right), a Clotilda descendant of Cudjo Lewis, pose for a portrait on the Mobile River near the site of the wreck in May 2022. “A lot of people tell me I look like Cudjo Lewis,” Lewis says. “Just having that pride of my father talking about him and having that pride of hearing that my grandfather was raised by him. It’s like I was raised by him too.”

Photograph by Elias Williams
Wanda Patrice Henderson (left), a descendant of Clotilda survivors Pollee and Rose Allen, and Patricia Frazier (right), a descendant of Clotilda survivors James and Lottie Dennison, pose for portraits near the wreck site in May 2022. “I worked, went to school, and now that I’m retired, I'm interested—you know I want to learn my history,” Frazier says. “I want to learn where I came from.”
Photograph by Elias Williams

"If it were just an open boat, if you will, or just the top decking, [DNA recovery] wouldn't be a possibility," says West. "But it was an enclosed space, and that makes it a real possibility."

The quality of the sediment also increases the chances of recovering DNA, which can quickly degrade when exposed to heat, light, or oxygen. "What's going to make this an excellent preservation situation is the mud," says Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. "It's thick, gooey, grey, nonoxygenated mud."

The Alabama Historical Commission (AHC), the state historical preservation agency, contracted with RESOLVE Marine, a maritime services company, to remove submerged trees and other hazards that have hindered exploration of the shipwreck.

The agency also partnered with SEARCH, Inc., an archaeology firm that assembled a diverse team of experts—including geomorphologists, sedimentologists, and environmental scientists—to study the shipwreck and assess its condition. The team has been taking wood samples, examining the aquatic species and microbes colonising the wreck, and determining what can be done to offset deterioration of the site.

Conservators Claudia Chemello and Paul Mardikian inspect of piece of Clotilda’s hull plank to determine the strength of the wood.
Photograph by Daniel Fiore

The information will be used to decide what should come next for the Clotilda, including whether or not its remains can be raised, and how its stunning story can best be memorialised.

"As the legal steward of the Clotilda archaeological site, the Alabama Historical Commission has the responsibility to care for this unique resource, which is direct, tangible evidence of slavery," Lisa Jones, state historic preservation officer and executive director of AHC, says in a statement. "[AHC] recognises that we have a tremendous duty to ensure that this historic artefact survives to tell the story for future generations."

Gators, snakes, and near-zero visibility

The landscape where the wreck of Clotilda is located has "largely not changed" since the ship was scuttled there more than a century and a half earlier, according to Delgado. Take a boat into the sprawling Mobile-Tensaw delta and encounter a labyrinth of tributaries and swamps home to alligators and water moccasins, rattlesnakes and manatees, and an abundance of freshwater fish and bird species. Water levels and currents can rapidly fluctuate along the river, where such unpredictable natural elements have added to the research team's array of dangers and challenges.

A sonar image shows dead trees, highlighted in red boxes, identified for removal from the wreck.
Photograph by Daniel Fiore

Divers expected to be working with just a few inches of visibility in the muddy waters. Due to unusually favourable conditions, however, visibility levels increased to about a foot. "We've actually seen Clotilda," Delgado said, pointing to his eyes. "These are the absolute best conditions we've ever had on this wreck."

Still, the work has largely required "Braille-type diving," says Kamau Sidiki of Diving With A Purpose, a group that trains mostly Black divers to find and conserve historical and cultural artefacts.

Archaeologists must also tackle the evidence of modern interference with Clotilda's legacy. At some point in the 20th century—before it was identified by researchers—the wreck was partially dynamited by someone who was aware of its whereabouts. (It has been reported in the past that a great-grandson of Timothy Meaher once spoke about dynamiting the wreck with his father).

Due to the sensitivity and importance of the site, the Alabama Historical Commission now monitors the site of Clotilda 24 hours a day to prevent further tampering or looting of the wreck.

To gain a clearer picture of the shipwreck, researchers are using high-resolution sonar and laser technology called LiDAR to capture 3D images of the vessel and the surrounding area. The images reveal that despite the efforts of Foster and others to destroy the ship, Clotilda remains remarkably intact—including the cramped space where the captives were confined, which was just 23 feet long and less than seven feet high.

"The forward hold has survived," says Delgado. "It's very clear what this is. This is evidence of what happened."

Clotilda's next steps

 Until Clotilda was identified in 2019, much of that evidence came from oral histories passed down through the families of the African captives. Freed by the Civil War and the 13th Amendment five years after they arrived enslaved in Alabama, some of the displaced Africans founded a small community north of Mobile that came to be known as Africatown. Many of their descendants still live in Africatown today, and they hope the ongoing research into Clotilda will further ground their ancestors' stories in science—a crucial step, they say, toward truth and reconciliation.

"The biggest thing we want to do," says Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, "is to preserve the legacy of the 110, to make sure the legacy of those people on that ship never dies."

Even if human DNA is recovered, forensic scientists want to be clear about the limitations of their potential discoveries. They expect only to be working with mitochondrial DNA, which can help identify general haplogroups and regions of origin—not nuclear DNA, which provides information on the individual level.

"We don't need as much cellular material to get mitochondrial DNA as we would need to get nuclear DNA," West explained. Still, such research has the potential to be groundbreaking, both in what it can reveal and the setting in which the DNA would be recovered. "I can't think of another ship where we'd have an opportunity to do this kind of research," West adds.

After completing their analysis, the scientific team will present their findings and recommendations to the Alabama Historical Commission, which will then determine the future of Clotilda in close cooperation with the descendant community.

Some would like to see the remains of the ship raised and placed in a museum in Africatown. Others are advocating for the ship, already added to the National Register of Historic Places, to remain in its current location—known in archaeology as "in-situ preservation"—with a monument placed nearby.

"There's going to be strong feelings and opinion," Delgado concedes. "The power of the ship in that place cannot be underestimated. The power of it in a museum cannot be underestimated. The question is what works best."

In either case, there is hope that a memorial and heritage site could help lead to the revitalisation of Africatown, a neighbourhood surrounded by polluting industrial sites and fractured by highway construction. And as Clotilda continues to give up its secrets, each new milestone is significant for a community still coming to terms with its traumatic origins.

The sun sets on the site of Clotilda's sinking in the Mobile River. Future research will continue to tell the important stories of its survivors.
Photograph by Ben Depp

"This ship is a physical artefact that's left from a very tragic event," Sadiki says. "It's one of many left over from the trade. And that has to be processed."

Joycelyn Davis, another Clotilda descendant, has been doing just that. She was out on the Mobile River this week observing the work on the wreck site from afar when she noticed something special in a picture she'd taken with her cellphone.

"I saw a ray of sunshine shining right down where the divers were," Davis recalls. It was her community's ancestors, she says, giving clarity and light to all that was being unearthed from the muddy waters below.

 Jordan Salama is a writer and the history reporting resident for National Geographic. His first book, Every Day the River Changes, was published in 2021. Follow him on Instagram.
Elias Williams is a New York-based photographer whose work honours underrepresented people in the United States.

Ben Depp is a photographer and National Geographic Society Explorer based in New Orleans focusing on wetland loss and coastal erosion.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, is supporting this project. Learn more about the Society’s work to inspire, educate, and better understand human history and cultures.


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