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

Living in Osia Keeby’s household were his children: 22-year-old Fannie Keeby, 20-year-old Zelphia Keeby, 24-year-old William Keeby, 19-year-old Osia Keeby Jr. and 29-year-old Aaron Keeby. Also in the household was Luvenia Patterson, Osia Keeby’s daughter, and her 1-year-old son, Osborne Patterson. Osia’s other daughter, Patience Wiley, was also living in the household with a 9-year-old daughter named Carrie Wiley and a 12-year-old daughter named Disey Wiley.

Interestingly, in the 1920 U.S. census record, Osia Keeby is listed as “Arthur Keeby.” Perhaps he was trying to Americanize his name. He was living with his daughters, Patience Wiley and Sylvia Keeby, along with his granddaughters, Dicey and Carrie Wiley.

Check Marriage Licenses, Too

You can also search and locate the Mobile County Probate Records. The Colored Marriage License Index shows that Osia Keeby was married a second time, after his wife, Innie Keeby, passed away on July 25, 1906. In locating the actual marriage record, we see that Osia Keeby married Ann Cannier on Aug. 27, 1913, in Mobile when he was 81 years old and she was 60. Since you also sent us an index record of this document, perhaps you believe you are descended from Osia’s second wife, Ann, and not his first wife, Innie.

The most telling piece of information in this marriage record is the mention of the name “Cudjo,” or “Cudgo,” Lewis as a witness to Osia Keeby’s marriage. As you know, Cudjo Lewis lived until 1935 and was the last known survivor of the Clotilde. He helped found the Mobile settlement of AfricaTown. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama website, he was born Oluale Kossola in the modern West African country of Benin and was a member of the Yoruba people.

The fact that Cudjo Lewis was the only witness to the marriage of Osia Keeby and Ann Cannier suggests that the two men were very close. This could be the biggest clue that Osia Keeby came over on the Clotilde along with Cudjo Lewis. Perhaps Osia Keeby was a member of the Yoruba people, just as Cudjo Lewis was—or at least belonged to a nearby group in Africa.

You mention that they were of “Tarkbar” ethnicity, and according to Sylviane A. Diouf in Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America, the Yoruba called the neighboring Nupe people takpa. Additionally, African art historian Suzanne Preston Blier told us in an email that “Tarkbar” could refer to the people of Atakpame, a hilly town in southern Togo. “Atakpame is known to be a very old Yoruba-linked community … with a lot of Fon (Benin) and Ewe (Togo, Ghana) traditions in play today.”

Look Up Records Relating to Enslavement

Another source of information could be the Alabama 1860 Slave Schedule, which is available to view at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. These records would contain the names of the slave owners but not necessarily the names of the slaves themselves. It would, however, contain ages and gender descriptions to help narrow down a search for Osia Keeby.

At Emory University in Atlanta, David Eltis and Martin Halbert have worked with professors and scholars from across the world since the 1960s to create the Voyages Database, which has records of the transatlantic slave trades. This database consists of nearly 35,000 individual slaving expeditions between 1541 and 1866. The Clotilde’s voyage in 1860, captained by William Foster, is contained within this database. It shows that slaves were purchased in Whydah, Dahomey, and brought back to Mobile, Ala. It shows that 110 slaves, half female and half male, were aboard and all landed in Mobile.