Were My Ancestors on America’s Last Slave Ship?

Tracing Your Roots: Delving into the story of Mobile, Ala.’s AfricaTown section and her proud progeny.

Joyful Keeby (center), son of Osia Keeby; Joyful’s daughter, Auerila (left); and Joyful’s wife, Zeilphia
Joyful Keeby (center), son of Osia Keeby; Joyful’s daughter, Auerila (left); and Joyful’s wife, Zeilphia Courtesy of William Green

Dear Professor Gates:

I believe that my great-grandparents were brought to America from Africa on the last known slave ship, the Clotilde. I would like your help confirming that they came here on that ship, and anything else you can find out about their origins.

The schooner Clotilde (or Clotilda) was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring slaves from Africa to the United States, arriving at Mobile Bay in the autumn of 1859 (some sources give July 9, 1860), with 110 to 160 slaves of Tarkbar ethnicity. The sponsors had illegally (since the transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed in 1808) arranged to buy slaves in Whydah, Dahomey, on May 15, 1859. Upon the schooner’s arrival, 32 of the Africans were settled on the Meaher property at Magazine Point/Plateau, three miles north of Mobile, Ala. Their descendants still reside in the area, in a community now known as AfricaTown, a neighborhood of Mobile. I am involved in the preservation and promotion of AfricaTown’s cultural legacy.

I am the seventh child of nine children born to Fred Nathaniel Green and Latonea Louise (Edwards) Green of Mobile (AfricaTown/Plateau). Orsey/Osia (Oluoala) Keeby and his wife, who were brought over on the Clotilde, were the parents of my father’s mother, Sarah Keeby. Sarah Keeby married Isaac Green, hence the family name of Green that we now carry. —William “Willie” LeBaron Green

It’s clear you’ve done a great deal of research into your heritage. Even so, we encourage you to gather as much information as you can about your forebears using the U.S. records available to you. U.S. federal census records from 1870 or later would list all inhabitants of Mobile, Ala., as well as marriage records for Osia Keeby. Additionally, if you know the name of the individual he was sold to, then that person’s probate record will, and land deeds might, mention Osia Keeby and his origins.

Start With Census Records

By using the website FamilySearch, you can search through the 1880 U.S. census to find residents of Mobile. We found that 39-year-old Osia Keeby was living in Whistler, in Mobile, in 1880 with his wife, Innie, and four children: Joiffu, age 9; Sarah (your father’s mother), age 7; Aaron, age 5; and Patience, age 2. All of the children were born in Alabama.

The 1880 census record shows an approximate birth date for Osia Keeby of 1841, meaning that he was approximately 19 years old when he was aboard the Clotilde. He was a carpenter and was born in Africa. Sometimes, looking at other families listed on the census can be extremely helpful in finding information. If the Keeby family were close with their neighbors, you might be able to find out information from their descendants still living in the Mobile area. Also, family members often lived close to one another, so searching the previous census page and the subsequent census page will often reveal additional family members.

The 1890 U.S. federal census records were destroyed by a fire and flooding, as has been noted in a previous column. More than 99 percent of the 1890 census records were destroyed; of the 62,979,766 people enumerated on that census, only 6,160 written names could be saved from these records. With such a small percentage of surviving records, it is not recommended that you search for records from this year.

Ancestry.com has digitized all of the U.S. census records. With a paid subscription, you can find Osia Keeby living with his family in Mobile in the 1910 U.S. census. He was a farmer, and it states that he was born in an unknown part of Africa. This could be because he was not the person giving the information to the census taker, which was often the case.