Historians feared the last known documented slave ship to force enslaved people of African descent to the United States had been forever lost. After all, historical accounts of the slave ship Clotilda ended with its owners torching the 86-foot schooner down to its hull and burying it at the bottom of Alabama’s Mobile Bay. Then, earlier this year, researchers aided by NMAAHC recovered remnants of the Clotilda and, in doing so, expanded our understanding of our American story as part of a bigger human story.

Through the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), an international network of institutions and researchers hosted by NMAAHC, the Museum has ventured well beyond its walls to search for and find slave shipwrecks around the globe. Shipwrecks have been found off the shores of such countries as South Africa, Mozambique, Senegal, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

When the slave ship Clotilda arrived in the United States in 1860, it marked the persistence of the practice of cruel forced migration of people from Africa: Congress had outlawed the international slave trade more than 50 years before. The ship docked off the shore of Mobile, Alabama, at night to escape the eyes of law enforcement and deposited 110 men, women, and children stolen away from their homeland in modern-day Benin. The ship’s arrival on the cusp of the Civil War is a testament to slavery’s legal presence in America until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. After the war, people who had been held captive aboard the ship helped found the community of Africatown, a community that exists to this day.

The Clotilda’s original registry.

Alabama Historical Commission

Last year, NMAAHC and SWP joined researchers and archaeologists from the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH, Inc., in pursuit of the ship and its history. They scoured the turbulent waters of Alabama’s Mobile River where they located a wrecked ship that matched the dimensions of the Clotilda. Divers were dispatched to collect debris fragments like iron fasteners and wooden planks that were compared against construction details in Clotilda’s registration documents. And in May, after a year of research, scholars reached a confident conclusion: the Clotilda had been positively identified.

Divers recovered two wood sample fragments, including this one, in December 2018 to supplement the previous samples. The samples were consistent with the archival record for Clotilda.


For residents of Africatown, the close-knit community founded by people previously enslaved on the Clotilda, the discovery carries a deeply personal significance. SWP particularly focused on making sure the community of Africatown, Alabama, was central to the process of recovering the history and memory, and invited residents and descendants to share their reflections on the importance of this discovery.

While we can find artifacts and archival records, the human connection to the history helps us engage with this American story in a compelling way. The legacies of slavery are still apparent in the community. But the spirit of resistance among the African men, women, and children who arrived on the Clotilda lives on in the descendant community in Africatown.

Mary N. Elliott
Curator of American slavery at NMAAHC and leader of the community engagement activities for SWP

NMAAHC curator Mary N. Elliott speaks to Africatown community at a celebration of the discovery of the Clotilda.  Mary also leads community engagement activities for the Slave Wrecks Project.

Alabama Historical Society

In 2015, SWP helped recover remnants from the slave ship São José off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, providing the first archaeological documentation of a vessel lost at sea while transporting slaves. You can view artifacts from the São José in the Museum’s Slavery and Freedom exhibition and in our stunningly illustrated book, From No Return: The 221-Year Journey of the Slave Ship São José.

Underwater archaeology researchers on the site of the São José slave ship wreck near the Cape of Good Hope. Cape Town, South Africa.

Susanna Pershern, U.S. National Parks Service

159 years after its sinking, the Clotilda’s recovery and SWP’s continuing work around the world represent the vital role of the Museum in uncovering facets of our American story that have yet to be told. With the support of our community, we actively pursue new information that expands the way people around the world understand the American story.

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