When a Slave Ship Figures Into Family Lore

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
USS Wanderer
Wikimedia Commons

Last month marked the 176th anniversary of the slave-led mutiny aboard the schooner Amistad. That act of bravery on July 1, 1839, resulted in freedom for 35 Africans after a legal process that culminated in having a former president, John Quincy Adams, plead their case before the Supreme Court.

Freedom, however, was not in the cards for most of the Africans brought to America by ship. The progeny of those who remained in chains write to me seeking clues about their heritage. Rarely are those descendants able to point to a particular vessel that conveyed an ancestor, but sometimes it happens—and when it does, it gives us a unique opportunity to flesh out long-forgotten details of a life in bondage.


Below are my three favorite columns in which we explored mysteries involving slave ships.

Is a Family Legend About a Slave Ship True?

Dominique Hazzard inquired into a family legend about enslaved ancestors coming to the Georgia Low Country aboard a “contraband ship.” The tale of how they were thrown overboard by slavers hoping to avoid detection and swam to safety sounded suspiciously to her like the story of The Wanderer, which landed on Jekyll Island in 1858.

The Wanderer was likely one of the last ships to successfully transport enslaved people to the U.S., an act that had been illegal for half a century by then. According to what we found, it landed with 409 slaves who had survived the Middle Passage, on an island owned by people who were complicit in the illegal conspiracy, so there was no need to throw anyone overboard to avoid being caught. We also found contemporary accounts of where the enslaved Africans were from and what language they spoke.

Read on to find out what happened to those who were on The Wanderer and where Hazzard’s ancestors may have ended up.


Were My Ancestors on America’s Last Slave Ship?

William “Willie” LeBaron Green wrote to us with extensive documentation of his familial connection to enslaved Africans brought to Mobile, Ala., in 1859 aboard the schooner Clotilde. It is arguably the last ship to have brought people to the U.S. to sell as slaves. Descendants of the enslaved Africans (whom Green described as being of “Tarkbar” ethnicity) have settled into the Africa Town neighborhood of Mobile, a community that is deeply proud of its connections to those who came aboard the Clotilde.


Among Green’s ancestors was Osia Keeby. We found out that Keeby was a carpenter from Africa who would have been 19 when he disembarked from the Clotilde. We also found out from where in West Africa the ship’s passengers may have actually hailed.

Continue reading to learn more about the Clotilde’s voyage before it landed in Mobile, as well as the African origins of its passengers.


I Found the Ship My Slave Ancestors Were On. What Now?

Dori L. Brown wanted to learn about the parents of her third great-grandparents Edward and Adeline Wright, who were both transported to Savannah, Ga., on separate dates in the 1850s aboard a slave ship named the Calhoun. They shared the same slave owner, Howell W. Hollister. As we told her, their experience was a common one during the Second Middle Passage, a slave trade internal to the U.S. that swept up several hundred thousand slaves and resettled them.


We were able to provide leads to help Brown track down clues to the Wrights’ parents, as well as advice for others seeking answers about their enslaved ancestors in Virginia and North Carolina. Read on to discover those resources.

Finally, although finding answers is a long shot for many descendants of enslaved Africans, if you’d like to delve into which ships your ancestors came over on or which ports they came through, read our previous column “Can I Find the Slave Ports Through Which My Ancestors Came?


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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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


The columns cited in this article contain answers provided in consultation with researchers from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, including Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., Kyle Hurst, Eileen Pironti and Andrew Krea. 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 about researching African-American roots.

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