Russell Ladd remembers seeing the shipwreck as a boy fishing with his father at low tide. His father told him it was the Clotilda, the last American slave ship, though Ladd wasn't sure he believed him. He might now. Using Ladd's account and historical records, including the journal of Clotilda's captain, AL.com reporter Ben Raines believes he's found the remains of the ship that illegally carried 110 slaves to Mobile County, Ala., from Benin, Africa, in 1860, more than 50 years after the transfer of new slaves was outlawed. According to historian Sylvianne Diouf's book, Dreams of Africa in Alabama, plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could sneak slaves into Mobile, and hired Capt. William Foster for the job. When the Clotilda returned to Mobile, the slaves were removed. "Then I burned her and sunk her in 20 feet of water," Foster wrote in his journal.
Foster described burning the ship next to 12 Mile Island in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, which is where Raines found a burnt wreck sticking out of the mud "like a dinosaur backbone" at extremely low tide, per the Los Angeles Times. Built around the same time as the Clotilda, it's the same width at 23 feet. But though its 124-foot length doesn't line up with what was reported as the Clotilda's 86-foot expanse, Raines believes this figure might instead refer to the distance between the Clotilda's rudder and the base of the bow, as this was used to estimate cargo capacity. "The location is right, the construction seems to be right, from the proper time period, it appears to be burnt. So I'd say very compelling," says archaeologist Greg Cook. Raines hopes an excavation will confirm his theory, but notes that permits "and a lot of money" need to be acquired first. (Read more shipwreck stories.)