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Experts thought this wreck could be the last American slave ship. It wasn't

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Wreckage found near Mobile, Alabama, turns out not to be the Clotilda, the last American slave ship. Wreckage found near Mobile, Alabama, turns out not to be the Clotilda, the last American slave ship.
By Mercedes Leguizamon CNN

(CNN) -- The search for the last American slave ship continues.

A wreck found on Alabama's Gulf Coast in late January was believed to be that of the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States.

But the Alabama Historical Commission said Monday that it wasn't the ship after all.

The remains are simply too big to belong to the Clotilda, said Jim Delgado, senior vice president of SEARCH, a company that the commission had contacted because of its work on historical research.

Using information from archival records, expert volunteers involved in the search knew that the ship they were looking for was 86 feet long, was built of oak and wood, and had been burned at the end of its voyage in 1860.

"This wreck is at least 158 feet long," Delgado said. And he thinks they have not even gotten to the end of the ship. It might even be larger. They also didn't find evidence of oak.

And if that weren't enough to prove it wasn't the Clotilda, the team found this wreck had not been burned.

The Clotilda

After AL.com reporter Ben Raines discovered the remains more than a month ago near Mobile, experts and volunteers got working to determine if they really belonged to the last known slave ship.

The Clotilda collected 110 slaves from what is now Benin in West Africa in 1860. According to journals kept by the captain, William Foster, he was summoned to pilot this ship by Timothy Meaher, an Alabama plantation owner. Even though importing slaves into the United States was illegal, Meaher made a bet he could sneak his ship past federal officers and into the country.

Foster collected the slaves and brought them across the Atlantic to Mobile. The captain then transferred the slaves to a riverboat and burned the Clotilda upriver in an attempt to get rid of the evidence of illegal trafficking.

The vessel discovered in January had sat underwater before its exposure this winter by extreme low tides caused by the wintry "bomb cyclone" storm system that hammered the East.

Archaeologists searched the wreck to find evidence and try to reach a conclusion.

The shipwreck is one of four found near Mobile, but they finally decided it wasn't the Clotilda.

What now?

Even though volunteers did not find what they were looking for, Delgado said they've made a good start.

"This is an important wreck," he said. The team will now begin searching the area for more clues on where to find the Clotilda.

"What we do all feel is that we are in the right area," Delgado said, citing the journals left behind by the captain.

The last American slave ship left many unanswered questions for the descendants of the slaves brought on the Clotilda, many of which still live in the area after their ancestors settled in a place known as Africatown following the Civil War.

"The ship has never been out of the thoughts of that community," Delgado said.

Even though the ship proved not to be what they originally thought, Delgado said its discovery has sparked a renewed commitment by historians and scholars to find the Clotilda.

"Thanks to the Alabama Historical Commission, we all came together and worked closely with the community throughout the entire process," Delgado said.

CNN's Brandon Griggs contributed to this report.

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