The Wanderer (slave ship)

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USS Wanderer (1857)
Wanderer in U.S. Navy service during the American Civil War (1861-1865), after her days in the slave trade were over.
Name: Wanderer
Launched: 1857
Fate: Lost 12 January 1871
Notes: In slave trade and mercantile service 1857-1861
In U.S. Navy service 1861-1865
In mercantile service 1865-1871
General characteristics
Displacement: 300 tons
Length: 106 ft 0 in (32.31 m)
Beam: 25 ft 6 in (7.77 m)
Draught: 9 ft 6 in (2.90 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Schooner-rigged
Speed: 20 knots

(See also: Clotilde (slave ship))

The Wanderer is the last documented ship to bring a cargo of slaves from Africa to the United States (on November 28, 1858). Stories of subsequent mass landings of slaves have been told, but are in dispute (see, Buchanan Administration, below.)

When the Wanderer reached Jekyll Island, Georgia from Africa, approximately 409 of the enslaved Africans had survived. The federal government prosecuted the owner and crew, but failed to win a conviction, although there was outrage in the North about the slave ship. During the American Civil War, Union forces took over the ship and used it for various roles.

In November 2008 the Jekyll Island Museum unveiled an exhibit dedicated to the enslaved Africans on the Wanderer.[1] A memorial sculpture has been erected on the island as well.


Upon ending the slave trade in all British colonies in 1808, the British began pressuring other nations to end their slave trades. At the same time, the British began pressuring the African rulers to stop exporting people as slaves.[2] The United States officially outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808. It did not use its own ships to enforce the law until 1859, when U.S. naval ships joined British patrol ships in the Caribbean to intercept slavers.[3]

Even after the US outlawed the slave trade, people tried to evade the law. The Wanderer was built in 1857 and in 1858 it was partially outfitted for a long voyage. The ship flew the pennant of the New York Yacht Club.[4] Although there was speculation about the ship, it was inspected and there was no conclusive evidence that it was to be a slave ship, so it was allowed to pass.[5]

The captain sailed to Angola, Africa where over 10 days he had shelves and pens built in to accept a shipment of 490-600 slaves, who were loaded on the ship.[6] Many of the slaves died on the six-week journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The Wanderer reached Jekyll Island, Georgia on November 28, 1858 and delivered 409 slaves alive.

A prosecution of the slave traders was launched, but the defendants were found not guilty. The outrage aroused by the case was a contributing cause to the American Civil War. During the war, the ship was seized by Union troops and used for the Naval blockade of the Confederate States of America. (See USS Wanderer (1857).)


The Wanderer was built in a Port Jefferson, New York (Long Island) shipyard in 1857 as a pleasure craft yacht for Colonel John Johnson. She was built to be one of the most impressive pleasure crafts in the world. This was clearly demonstrated as her streamlined design allowed the ship to achieve speeds of up to 20 knots, making Wanderer one of the fastest ships of the day. While on a trip to New Orleans, Johnson stopped in Charleston, South Carolina and sold the Wanderer to William C. Corrie.

Corrie became a partner with wealthy businessman and cotton planter Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar from Savannah, Georgia, who hired him to transport slaves from Africa. Corrie managed conversion of the ship for that purpose.[7] They were both opposed to restrictions on importing slaves. The Wanderer was returned to New York to undergo preparation for a long voyage.

Some observers accused the shipyard of preparing it as a slave ship. The ship was inspected and cleared on its voyage out. Public rumors of the ship's being involved in the slave trade persisted and were permanently associated with her name.[8]

Arrival at Jekyll Island and publicity

In his ship's log, Corrie noted arriving at Bengula (probably Benguela in present-day Angola) on October 4, 1858. Wanderer took on 487 slaves at this port on the Congo River.[9] After a six-week return voyage across the Atlantic, the Wanderer arrived at Jekyll Island, Georgia around sunset on November 28, 1858. The tally sheets and passenger records showed that 409 slaves survived the passage to arrive at Jekyll Island, which was owned by John and Henry DuBignon, Jr., who conspired with Lamar.[10] These figures present a slightly higher mortality rate than the estimated average of 12 percent during the illegal trading era.[11] Hoping to evade arrest, Lamar had the slaves shipped to markets in Savannah and Augusta, Georgia; South Carolina and Florida.[12]

As the federal government investigated, news of the slave ship raised outrage in the North. On the other hand, Southerners continued to press for re-establishment of importing slaves. The federal government tried Lamar and his conspirators three times for piracy, but was unable to get a conviction. It failed to convince the jury of a connection between Lamar and the ship.[13]

Buchanan Administration

The arrival of the Wanderer prompted the Buchanan Administration to strengthen the United States’ role in anti-slave-trade efforts. Following the dispersion and sale of the 400 Africans throughout the South, there were rumors of subsequent slave ship landings in the region. Determine to discover the truth of these stories, the Buchanan Admininstration sent a "secret agent" named Benjamin F. Slocum on a two-month journey to search for evidence.

Slocum, working undercover, spoke with slave traders, plantation owners, and townspeople, hunting down every possible lead. In the end he delivered a detailed report, in which he concluded that the rumors of subsequent landings, "were founded upon the movements of the Wanderer negroes, or else they were mere fabrications, manufactured and circulated for political effect, or to fill a column in a sensation newspaper." .[14]

Based on that investigation, Buchanan reported to Congress on December 3, 1860 that "since the date of my last inqugural message not a single slave has been imported into the United States in violation of the laws prohibiting the African slave trade." (ref) Senate Executive Documents, 36 Cong., 2 Sess, No 1, Pt. 1 (Serial 1078), 24.

Description of Wanderer slaves

The slaves who arrived to the United States on the Wanderer gained a celebrity status, that spread beyond the south to newspapers in New York, Washington, and London. (ref) The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy that Set Its Sails, St. Martins Press). They were the only group of slaves who were frequently identified with the ship which they arrived on. The tendency of newspapers and private correspondence to identify the slaves in this way showed there were no other known large-scale importations of African slaves in this period.[15]

Wanderer's later career

During the next two years, ownership of the vessel changed several times. On one occasion, the ship was stolen and taken to sea on a piratical and slaving voyage. Near the coast of Africa, the first mate led a mutiny and left the pirate captain at sea in a small boat before bringing the ship back to Boston, Massachusetts, on 24 December 1859 and turning her over to authorities.

In April 1861, upon the outbreak of the American Civil War, the United States Government seized Wanderer to prevent her from falling into the hands of the Confederate States of America. She served in the United States Navy from then until June 1865, serving as a gunboat, a tender, and a hospital ship. Sold into mercantile service in June 1865, the Wanderer operated commercially until lost off Cape Maisi, Cuba, on 12 January 1871.


Was the Wanderer the last slave ship to reach American shores? Most historians believed so, including historian W.E.B. Dubois, the first African-American graduate of Harvard University and later the head of the NAACP. In his landmark work of 1896, "The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870", Dubois made this clear: The appendix of the book lists the voyages of dozens of slave ships, including the Wanderer, and suggests that no other ship reached America after the Wanderer. Even in a chapter titled, "Increase of the Slave Trade from 1850 to 1860, is any other ship suggested (other than the Wanderer) as having made that final voyage. Thirty-seven years after the landing of the Wanderer, in other words, no subsequent landings were noted.

In the early 1900s, however, tales of slaving and slave ships became popular in the pulp press. Several fictional accounts of the Wanderer's voyage were published in newspapers; there was even a novel written that spun a wild and completely imagined tale from the bare historical facts. About this time a story appeared in Harper's Monthly Magazine (CXIII, 1906), by a S. H. M. Byers. The story detailed a supposed voyage of a ship caled the Clotilda. According to the story, Timothy Meagher, a plantation owner, bet some of his friends that he could bring a ship full of Africans into Mobile Bay, Alabama. In the summer of 1860, the story continued, Meagher succeded: 110 slaves reached shore. Subsequently, the story concluded, Meagher was arrested and charged.

Despite the richness of Byer's story, its veracity is in dispute. In "American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862" (Berkeley: U. of Ca. Press, 1963, P. 302) Professor Warren S. Howard noted that "the rumored landing of the Clotilda in Mobile Bay in July 1860 has been accepted by several historians as true, but no good evidence of it has ever been found. Moreover, three authors give three different versions of the affair, and not one offers a sound source for his assertions." As for the particular Harper's Monthly article, says Howard, "Byers, though claiming to have obtained his information from some of the Africans who were landed, gives numerous details about the business side of the voyage which must have been unknown to them; furthermore, he cites no authority for these details."

Whether the Clotilda story is true, and to what extent it is based on any real occurence, may never be known. That is why the Wanderer is still considered the last documented slave ship to reach America. As historian David M. Potter noted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, "The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861," (NY: Harper Perennial, 1977, P. 397), "Apparently everyone in the South in the late 1850s knew someoone who knew someone else who had seen a coffle of slaves direct from Africa. But no one who had seen them has left any testimony. One ship, the Wanderer, did bring a cargo of slaves from Africa in 1858, and this bizarre event was apparently reenacted many times in the imagination."

  • 2008 - In the summer of 2008, on the south tip of Jekyll Island,the state of Georgia erected a monument to the voyage of th Wanderer, consisting of three 12-foot steel sails and several historical storyboards. And on November 25, 2008--150 years to the day following the arrival of the Wanderer on Jekyll--a dedication of the memorial was held. Attended by about 500 participants, including descendants of the original Wanderer slaves, as well as some of the descendants of the whites involved, the ceremony included prayers, songs, dancing by the Darien Geechgee Shouters and a speech by Erik Calonius, author of The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy that Set Its Sails," the book which was credited for reviving interest in the Wanderer story. Dan Chapman, "Slave ship's voyage of shame recalled"], Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 23 Nov 2009, accessed 12 May 2009</ref>

See also


  1. Jekyll Island Beachscape, vol 5, #42, Nov/Dec 2008, pg. 1
  2. Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 183.
  3. Herbert S. Klein, Slave Trade, 191.
  4. Jekyll Island Beachscape, vol 5, #42, Nov/Dec 2008, pg. 1
  5. Joye Brown, "The Wanderer", Newsday, 12 May 2009, accessed 12 May 2009
  6. Joye Brown, "The Wanderer", Newsday, 12 May 2009, accessed 12 May 2009
  7. Dan Chapman, "Slave ship's voyage of shame recalled", Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 23 Nov 2009, accessed 12 May 2009
  8. Tom H. Wells, The Slave Ship Wanderer (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1967), 8-10.
  9. Dan Chapman, "Slave ship's voyage of shame recalled", Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 23 Nov 2009, accessed 12 May 2009
  10. Tom H. Wells, Wanderer, 30-31.
  11. Johannes Postma, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 44.
  12. Dan Chapman, "Slave ship's voyage of shame recalled", Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 23 Nov 2009, accessed 12 May 2009
  13. Dan Chapman, "Slave ship's voyage of shame recalled", Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 23 Nov 2009, accessed 12 May 2009
  14. Records of the office of the Secretary of the Interior Relating to the Suppression of the African Slave Trade and Negro Colonizaton, 1854-1872, No. 160, Roll 4, The Natonal Archives, Washington, 1949. Also, Ralph R. Davis Jr., “Buchanian Espionage: A Report on Illegal Slave Trading in the South in 1859", Journal of Southern History, vol. 16, no. 2, (May, 1971), 271-273.
  15. Tom H. Wells, Wanderer, 86.


External links