Were My Ancestors on America’s Last Slave Ship?

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

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.

Another excellent source of material to research are the collections held at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Mass. They have many records that pertain to American slavery and the international slave trade. It would be pertinent to search for a ship’s log or ship’s manifest for the Clotilde.


Loyola University has also done a study on the slave trade in the city of Mobile. Additionally, the Historic Mobile Preservation Society may have records in its archives pertaining to early slaves or slave owners that could help you find more information regarding Osia Keeby. Again, you should inquire and search for a ship’s log or ship’s manifest for the Clotilda, if it exists. The Mobile Genealogical Society may also be able to offer additional insights.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Andrew Krea, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.