Last U.S. Slave Ship Largely Intact, Prompting Question of If DNA Can Be Found Below Deck

The last slave ship known to have transported enslaved Africans to the American South decades after the practice was outlawed in the state is intact, buried beneath mud underwater off the coast of Alabama, as researchers wonder what could be found inside, including DNA.

The Clotilda was sunk off Alabama's coast in 1860 and has been listed as unidentified wreckage on navigational charts since the 1950s, before being publicly confirmed as the slave ship in 2019.

Researchers have been studying the remains of the wooden schooner since the announcement, and recently confirmed the section below deck where the Africans that were set to be sold into slavery were stored in a small pen near other cargo is still largely intact, while the top portion of the ship was destroyed when it sunk.

"It's the most intact (slave ship) wreck ever discovered," SEARCH Inc. maritime archaeologist James Delgado told the Associated Press. "It's because it's sitting in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta with fresh water and in mud that protected it that it's still there."

Delgado said researchers are wondering if the section of the ship at large is intact, what could possibly still be inside, from food and water containers to chains that could reveal human DNA.

Clotilda Slave Ship, Alabama, Maritime Archaeology
This sonar image created by SEARCH Inc. and released by the Alabama Historical Commission shows the remains of the Clotilda, the last known U.S. ship involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Researchers studying the wreckage have made the surprising discovery that most of the wooden schooner remains intact in a river near Mobile, Ala. including the pen that was used to imprison African captives during the brutal journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Alabama Historical Commission via AP

"It's a stunning revelation," Delgado said in an interview.

The discovery enhances the research value of the Clotilda's remains and sets them apart from all other wrecks, Delgado said. The finding was confirmed in a report that was provided to The Associated Press and led to the site becoming part of the National Register of Historic Places in November.

For Joycelyn Davis, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis and vice president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, the story of what happened more than 160 years ago is best told through the people who were involved, not a sunken ship. But she said she's excited to learn more about what has been discovered, adding: "I think it's going to be a surprise for us all."

Nearly 90 feet (27 meters) in length, it departed Mobile, Alabama, for an illegal trip to purchase people decades after Congress outlawed such trade in 1808.

The ship had been sent across the ocean on a voyage financed by a wealthy businessman whose descendants remain prominent in Mobile. The Clotilda's captain transferred its human cargo off the ship once it arrived in Alabama and set fire to the vessel to hide evidence of the journey. But most of the ship didn't catch fire and remained in the river.

The state has set aside $1 million for preservation and research, and additional work planned at the site in early 2022 could show what's inside the hull, Delgado said. But far more work is needed to determine whether the ship could ever be pulled out of the mud and put on display, as some have suggested.

"Generally, raising is a very expensive proposition. My sense is that while it was survived, it is more fragile than people think," said Delgado. "A recovery could be a very delicate operation and also a very expensive and lengthy process."

Freed after the South lost the Civil War, some of the enslaved Africans who were transported to America on the Clotilda settled in a community they started called Africatown USA a few miles north of downtown Mobile.

A documentary about the now-impoverished community by Alabama-born filmmaker Margaret Brown titled "Descendant" will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and descendants of the Clotilda captives are planning an annual gathering in February. Work is underway on a new museum that's meant to be a catalyst for tourism and new development in the area.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Researchers hope to find DNA in the remains of the last slave ship. Above, the Schooner, "Amistad", (Friendship) flies the U.S. flag and the Cuban flag as it approaches Havana Harbor March 25, 2010. The Schooner is a replica of the 19th century slave revolt Cuban slave ship that carried Africans and became an icon of the abolitionist movement. Reuters/Desmond Boylan