Answers From the Past

Humble pieces of wood and metal speak volumes in a new exhibition about the slave ship Clotilda.

In 2019, the History Museum of Mobile began work to curate “Clotilda: The Exhibition.” In partnership with the Alabama Historical Commission, Mobile County Commission and the City of Mobile, that work is coming to fruition with the July 8 opening of Africatown Heritage House, where the exhibition is installed. The display begins with life among the various West African ethnic groups, where art objects give a sense of religion and culture. Visitors learn the story of the 110 African men, women and children on the last voyage of the Clotilda, and follow their story through the establishment of the remarkable community of Africatown. 

Near the end of the exhibition, visitors will find the pieces of the shipwreck, recovered from the bottom of the Mobile River and on loan from the Alabama Historical Commission. Each artifact at right and the others on view at the Africatown Heritage House played some role in confirming that the discovered shipwreck was, in fact, the Clotilda

The descendants who have advised on the exhibition will be quick to tell you that the essence of the story is not about a ship, but rather about the people. The exhibition does not lose focus of that crucial fact. These fragments of wood and iron are tangible links to the story of those people — the horrors they endured, their courageous resistance and resilience, and the remarkable community of Africatown they established. And they are a reminder that the past is very much present.

In addition to the forensic analysis of the individual pieces, some of the most compelling evidence came from the measurements of the shipwreck. Registration records indicate that the Clotilda measured 86 feet, unusually large for a Gulf-built schooner. In fact, records show that no other Gulf schooner was built to this size in this period. So, when analysis of the wood and iron fragments helped date the wreck and the measurements matched, there could be no question this was the Clotilda.

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Artifacts from the Clotilda
Clotilda Artifacts left to right Drift Bolts, Material Evidence, Hull Plan and Drift Pin

These iron drift bolts or drift pins were used to secure large timbers. This artifact was selected for X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis, a non-invasive technique used to determine the elemental composition of materials. The analysis determined that the artifact is composed of nearly 100% pig iron, which is consistent with practices for fabricating ship fasteners in the mid-19th century.

material evidence
Registration documents for the Clotilda, found in the National Archives, records that the ship’s frames were constructed of oak and the hull planking was southern pine. Three wood samples were recovered from the wreck and analyzed at the University of West Florida. They confirm that the vessel was constructed of these regionally available woods, and that the different woods were used in the respective parts of the ship. 

This hull plank of Southern pine is probably from the ceiling planking inside the hold of the ship. When recovered by professional maritime archaeologists, it was disarticulated from the wreck, and lying in the mud between the wreck and the shore. Although the fasteners were missing, the holes indicate the plank was attached to the hull with square nails or spikes, consistent with shipbuilding practices in the 1850s. Moreover, oral histories indicate that the shipwreck was dynamited in the mid-twentieth century. Finding a probable interior plank outside the wreck lends credence to this story. 


This iron drift pin is still attached to a piece of the oak frame. The rounding around the edges of the oak remnant suggests the wood was burned: Fire would have made the wood less dense, and therefore more susceptible to erosion over the years. Charring from the fire is also visible around the outer edges. Captain Foster reported that he scuttled the Clotilda by burning the ship, so evidence of the fire was key to identifying the wreck.

In the gallery space, visitors will notice that these artifacts and others are exhibited under water. The History Museum team has met the curatorial challenge of displaying objects that must be kept in water, developing an innovative system of transparent tanks that meets the complex needs of both exhibition and conservation. After going on view, a team of curators will continue to carefully monitor the water conditions to preserve
the ship fragments.

Long term conservation work is the purview of the Alabama Historical Commission. They have partnered with some of the world’s top marine archaeologists and conservators to research the wreck and make plans for ongoing preservation and conservation. Their analysis includes sonar surveys, sediment studies and examinations of river currents. Visitors will notice some artifacts are covered in barnacles – even research into such biological colonization helps determine the
best way to preserve
the shipwreck.

Africatown Heritage House 
A site of the History Museum of Mobile
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tue – Sat
Tickets should be purchased online in advance at

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