Alabama Historical Commission Continues Clotilda Search in New Project

The Alabama Historical Commission announced that it is launching a new effort to find and catalog sunken ships in the Mobile River delta, months after the unsuccessful hunt to find The Clotilda, reportedly the last known slave ship to bring kidnapped Africans onto American shores in Mobile.

In a press release issued on May 30, AHC said the Mobile River Shipwreck Project, will begin to inventory shipwrecks and other cultural resources in submerged portions of the Mobile River in Mobile County, Alabama. This project will ultimately result in a National Register Maritime Historic District, and the possible discovery of the Clotilda.

The hunt for the Clotilda started with AL.com reporter Ben Raines who announced in January 2018 that the wreck uncovered in a low tide near Twelve Mile Island in the delta might be the famed ship. In March 2018, a team assembled by the AHC — in coordination with the National Park Service (NPS), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, (NMAAHC), and SEARCH, Inc., billed as the leading national and global provider of archaeology, maritime archaeology, architectural history, history, and museum services — completed the investigation of the shipwreck remains.

After thorough testing of the wreck’s architectural and construction features and using minimally invasive research methods, the team concluded that Raines’ find was not the Clotilda.

However, during the search in March, divers who were part of the research team to identify the Clotilda stumbled upon a virtual graveyard of ships sunken at least 40 feet below waters of the delta. Satellite x-rays showed that are as many as 25 sunken ships located in a 5-mile radius of the Clotilda search area. This graveyard of ships has not been plotted on any maritime maps, which is very unusual. Most maritime shipyards, bone yards or sunken ships have been carefully documented throughout the years so as to avoid accidents from things hidden beneath the surface.

“As the Alabama Historical Commission, it is our agency’s duty to uphold the state law that manages and protects shipwrecks and archaeological sites in Alabama waters,” according to the press release. “Part of that duty involves identifying cultural resources such as shipwrecks.”

Accordingly, the state the Historical Commission has hired SEARCH to complete the Phase I remote-sensing survey to locate significant submerged cultural resources. Using advanced maritime remote sensing equipment, including a marine magnetometer, side-scan sonar, and sub-bottom profiler, SEARCH will conduct an archaeological analysis of the acquired data. In addition, a description of the area’s prehistoric and historic context will be included in the final report as well as a shipwreck inventory.

“We were powerfully struck by the story of the Mobile River,” said James P. Delgado, PhD, Senior Vice President, SEARCH, Inc. “The river, particularly the area to be surveyed, has a number of potential stories to tell. Clotilda is one of those important stories.”

The archaeological process will occur in phases with Phase I beginning as early as June. After all cultural resources in the project area are inventoried, any that have characteristics matching the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, will be investigated further in subsequent phases of the investigation.

The AHC asked that the public keep out of the area during while the surveying process. “During this intense and focused archaeological survey, we respectfully ask the general public and media not to visit the site. Any disruptions during this process could result in a significant loss of information and time. Updates will be available on the AHC website at http://ahc.alabama.gov/updates.aspx and on AHC social media.

Alabama State Senator Vivian Davis Figures and other elected legislators in the Mobile area are supporting the research, as well. “I am thrilled and honored to help advance the next phase of exploration,” Figures said. “Our children need to know and understand our history to understand better who they are. There are important emotional and intellectual connections to be made as a result of this research.”

Figures worked with other legislators to craft a bill saying that if and when the Clotilda is found, its remains will stay in the Africatown community of Mobile for preservation and tourism for economic and cultural sustainability of the community. Africatown was founded by some of Africans who survived the trans-Atlantic voyage in the Clotilda and were freed five and a half years later after the Civil War.

In conjunction with local and state partners, the archaeological process will occur in phases with Phase I beginning as early as June. During this intense and focused archaeological survey, we respectfully ask the general public and media not to visit the site. Any disruptions during this process could result in a significant loss of information and time. Updates will be available on the AHC website at http://ahc.alabama.gov/updates.aspx and on AHC social media.

Photo caption: Joseph Grinnan, MA, SEARCH, Inc., measuring exposed shipwreck remains. Image courtesy of the Alabama Historical Commission.

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