The DeWolf Family

Filmmaker Katrina Browne is descended from the DeWolf family (also spelled D’Wolf or DeWolfe) of Bristol, Rhode Island. The most prominent member of this family, James DeWolf (1764-1837), was a U.S. senator and a wealthy merchant who was reportedly the second-richest person in the country when he died. In the 1790s and early 1800s, DeWolf and his brothers virtually built the economy of Bristol: many of the buildings they funded still stand, and the stained glass windows at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church bear DeWolf names to this day. Across the generations, their family has included state legislators, philanthropists, writers, scholars, and Episcopal bishops and priests.

The DeWolf family fortune was built in part on buying and selling human beings. Over fifty years and three generations, from 1769 to 1820, the DeWolfs were the nation’s leading slave traders. They brought approximately 10,000 Africans from the west coast of Africa to auction blocks in Charleston, South Carolina and other southern U.S. ports; to Havana, Cuba and to other ports in the Caribbean; to their own sugar plantations in Cuba; and into their own homes. The family continued in the trade despite state and federal laws prohibiting many of their activities in the late 1700s. Their efforts to circumvent those laws eventually lead them to arrange a political favor with President Thomas Jefferson, who agreed to split the federal customs district based in Newport, R.I. This maneuver permitted the appointment of a customs inspector just for Bristol, and the choice was Charles Collins, the brother-in-law of James DeWolf, who conveniently ignored the slave ships moving in and out of harbor. One member of the family, George DeWolf, even continued in the trade after 1808, when Congress banned the importation of slaves into the U.S., until 1820, when Congress made slave trading a hanging offense. Their complicity in slavery continued even afterwards, however, as the family maintained slave plantations in Cuba and James DeWolf invested his slave trade profits in textile mills which used slave-produced cotton. Today, there are as many as half a million living descendants of the people traded as chattel by the DeWolfs.

Sources: Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 (Philadelphia: Temple Press, 1981); David Eltis, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, eds., The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM (Cambridge, 1999); George Howe, Mount Hope: A New England Chronicle (New York: Viking Press, 1959); M.A. DeWolfe Howe, Bristol, Rhode Island: A Town Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930).


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