Last Survivor of the U.S. Transatlantic Slave Trade Discovered

There may be people alive today who remember this woman! Matilda McCrear lived until 1940 – the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Matilda died in Selma, Alabama, in January 1940, at the age 83 – and her rebellious life story was the last living link with slaves abducted from Africa.

Matilda had been captured by slave traders in West Africa at the age of two, arriving in Alabama in 1860 on board one of the last transatlantic slave ships. With her mother Grace, and sister Sallie, Matilda had been bought by a wealthy plantation owner called Memorable Creagh.

You can read the full story in an article by Sean Coughlan in the BBC News web site at: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-52010859.

7 Comments

Inspiring story/

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As compelling a story as this is, there is something that doesn’t ring true about it. Though slavery was still legal until the Civil War, the African slave trade was not. By 1808 the only state still allowing the slave trade was South Carolina. Many sources say that it had ceased in all states by the 1820s. By that time, the U.S. slave population was growing because of the high-birth rate among slaves, often encouraged by the slave owners (who were sometimes the father’s themselves). In order to believe this story, I’d like to see more documentation about this slave ship and the other slaves it carried. This has all the earmarks of a family legend that is long on “oral history” and short on actual facts. As always, I could be wrong, and in this case would be happy to be wrong. But at this moment, color me skeptical.

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    Slave trade across the Atlantic was outlawed by the U.S. starting in 1808. However, the laws didn’t stop everyone. Many outlaws still kidnapped Africans and transported them to the United States, to the Caribbean islands, and to several South American nations.

    The last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States was the Clotilda, arriving at Mobile Bay in autumn 1859 (according to some accounts) or on July 9, 1860, (according to other accounts) with 110–160 slaves. Because these trips were illegal at the time, records were rarely kept and the ships usually did not land in busy ports.

    You can read about the Clotilda in Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotilda_(slave_ship) and note that it has extensive footnotes and references as to where further information may be found.

    The Clotilda probably was the last slave ship to land in the U.S. but not the last to cross the Atlantic while carrying kidnapped Africans. It is believed (but usually not proven) that even later slave ships landed in the Caribbean islands or in South America. The Clotilda simply was the last one known to land in the U.S. and was documented.

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Dick, thanks for the response. I did find this scholarly article, by Paul Finkleman, a law professor, which indicates that a small number of slaves might have been imported after 1820, when a U.S. Law was passed that proscribed a penalty of death for importing slaves. Here’s a quote from the article: “To be sure, some slaves were smuggled into the United States after 1820 from both Africa and other places in the Western Hemisphere. But the risks were high and the numbers were relatively few. In an eight-year period, from 1800 until December 31, 1807, about 100,000 Africans were forcibly brought into the country. After 1820 it is unlikely that more than 10,000 were successfully landed in the United States. It may have been far fewer than that.”
Here’s a link to the full article: http://abolition.nypl.org/essays/us_constitution/8/
So, while, I’m still a little skeptical of this story, I can now see that it could possible be true.

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David Paul Davenport March 26, 2020 at 3:40 am

The wee bit written above about Memorable Creagh can be verified. His obit appears on findagrave [https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/103720953] and it reports he owned a large plantation in Wilcox County, and a “city house” at near Demopolis, Alabama, and owned large numbers of slaves. The 1860 slave schedules list his slaves by age and gender and if Matilda arrived on the Clotilde in 1859 at the age of 2 she might be the 3 year old entered on line 36 of column 1, Page 19 (machine page number 517), of the western division of Wilcox County. Line 35 contains and entry for a 7 year old female (her sister Sallie ?). Her mother is likely among the considerably older slaves. Since the BBC News item reports all three were alive to receive word of their emancipation I conjecture the Freedman’s Bureau might have further information about them. It is also likely that the property records of Wilcox County has a record of their official emancipation – one that followed ratification of the 13th amendment and ended any argument as to whether Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation which took effect on January 1, 1863, applied to the western division of Wilcox County. Keep in mind tht the E.P. applied only to those araas of the Confederacy not controlled by e Union Army. I don’t know the military situation in Wilcox County on that date. Matilda Creagh is enumerated in 1880 at Liberty Hill Beat no25, Dallas County, Alabama on line 17 of page 4, as a 2 year old single native of Africa. Her mother 60 year old,mother Gracie lives with her as do Matilda’s three children, Eliza age 8, Sallie age 4, and Winny age 11 mos. Twenty years later she appears has head of household 100 beginning at line 10 of sheet 5 B, Martin’s precinct no. 7, in Dallas County. Living with her are 7 children, all of them too young to have been with her in 1880. She reportedly gave birth 14 times, but only ten were still alive at the time of the 1900 census. She appears on the FamilySearch tree as person G3S4-XBM as the wife of John Jacob Shuler, but FS says her parents were Osie Craig and Gracie Crear, both natives of North Carolina. Based on the BBC research this is obviously wrong and should be corrected. Shuler appears in various censuses as a single white male born in Germany in 1849.

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    Thanks, David, for the additional detail. I agree that Freedmen’s Bureau records might be a good source of further documentation. I wonder if FS might actually have it right, and that the BBC has it wrong. Admittedly, FS records are full of errors, so the reverse could also be true. All I’m saying is that this story needs a lot more research for me to completely buy into it. I think it certainly could be true, but at this juncture, I still have not seen enough to believe it more likely than not.

    One bit of trivia about the E.P.: What you say about it only applying to areas of the South not under Union control is about 99 percent correct. There were, however, a few very rare exceptions. The way the E.P. was promulgated by Lincoln it first referred to the states “in rebellion” and then proceeded to list all the areas exempted because they were now under Union control. However, and this is the arcane point that many miss, Lincoln purposely left off the exemption list at least three areas that were under Union control, thus making the E.P. apply to slaves in those areas. The only one of these areas that I’ve studied in any depth is the Beaufort-HHI corridor in South Carolina. This area had been under Union control since November of 1861, and had been used as a staging area for much of the East Coast blockade and, more importantly from this perspective, all of the African Americans living there had been treated as free since the Union takeover. By leaving this area off the exemption list, Lincoln, in essence, was simply recognizing the reality on the ground.

    One other interesting aspect of this Beaufort-HHI corridor is that the Union takeover was the largest amphibious operation of the U.S. military up to Normandy. It was massive — involving naval, marine and army personnel. According to some estimates, there were a total of 77 ships involved, including warships and transports. The Confederates in the face of such overwhelming power put up only token resistance and then fled, along with virtually all of the white civilian population. The locals refer to it as the “great skedaddle.”

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Regarding the Clotilda having been the last slave ship importing slaves into America, Henry Louis Gates addressed the event on one of his “Finding Your Roots” episodes several years ago. It involved the genealogy of Questlove, bandleader for Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show”. Questlove is a descendant of two of the people that arrived on that ship in 1860. Here is a link to an article about that fascinating episode that includes a clip with Questlove on that episode:
https://time.com/5057004/questlove-finding-roots-last-slave-ship/

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