By Chuck Walker
MOBILE, Ala. – Generally stated, the mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District Regulatory Program is to protect the Nation’s aquatic resources, while allowing reasonable development through fair, flexible and balanced permit decisions.
One aspect of Federal law that the Regulatory Division ensures is compliance within the permitting decisions in the National Historic Preservation Act.
Since 2018, the Mobile District Regulatory Division has been working with the Alabama Historical Commission and other stakeholders in its search for and preservation of the sunken ship Clotilda, the last known slave ship to enter the United States, whose remains are in the Mobile Harbor, near Africatown, north of Mobile.
“Over the last several years, the Mobile District has been responsible for the federal permitting of ongoing archaeological investigations of the submerged shipwreck known as the Clotilda, a historic site of international significance located in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta north of Mobile,” said Dylan Hendrix, Regulatory Division project manager. “We have been working with the AHC and other stakeholders to allow permits to be able to locate and preserve this historically significant ship.”
The Clotilda is the last known slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the mainland United States, more than 50 years after the importation of captives was outlawed by Congress.
The modification of the schooner and subsequent illegal voyage was contracted by local businessman Timothy Meaher and the vessel was captained by Capt. William Foster in 1860, carrying 110 African men, women and children from Benin, Africa to Mobile.
Soon after arrival, the ship was secreted to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta where the captives were unloaded and hidden in the unforgiving marsh while Foster attempted to burn the vessel in order eliminate any evidence of the unlawful activities.
Meaher and his co-conspirators then divided the captives, who remained enslaved on various plantations throughout Mobile and southern Alabama until the end of the Civil War.
Following the end of the Civil War, a group of Clotilda captives purchased land Meaher in the Plateau area of Mobile and established what is now known as Africatown.
Many of the descendants of the original Clotilda captives still reside in Africatown today and the discovery and investigation of this shipwreck represents an important connection between this unique descendant community and their history.
Following a 2018 story by a local reporter about the potential location of the historic shipwreck, the AHC in partnership with other stakeholders, began undertaking archaeological surveys in the vicinity of Twelvemile Island to identify and confirm the location and the identity of the wreck.
After the positive identification of the wreck in 2019, the AHC returned to the site in 2021 and 2022 to undertake more detailed archaeological investigations, including additional sonar surveys, installation of environmental sampling and monitoring equipment, limited artifact collection and structural assessment of the wreck itself.
The Mobile District has been involved with the investigation of the Clotilda shipwreck as the lead federal agency with jurisdiction over certain work occurring in the navigable waters of the United States, under the statutory authority of Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
Hendrix said he is proud to work on this historically significant project and the Mobile District’s role in the preservation of history.
“Working on this project has been a humbling experience,” Hendrix said. “Learning more about the history of these events and the connection to Africatown. My hope is that this important work amplifies the voices and stories of a community that has always been present in Mobile, but not always seen and heard.”