Skip to content

   

Background

Learn more about the nation's leading slave trading family, the DeWolfs, the complicity of the northern states in the slave trade and the history of slavery in the United States.


The DeWolf Family


Filmmaker Katrina Browne is descended from the DeWolf family (also spelled D'Wolf and 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 the course of 50 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 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 led them to arrange a political favor with President Thomas Jefferson, who agreed to split the federal customs district based in Newport, Rhode Island. 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 United States, until 1820, when Congress made slave trading a hanging offense. Their complicity in slavery continued even after that, however — the family maintained slave plantations in Cuba, and James DeWolf invested his slave trade profits in textile mills that used slave-produced cotton. Today, there are as many as half a million living descendants of the people traded as chattel by the DeWolfs.

 

The Slave Trade Business


Slave traders like the DeWolfs took part in what is often known as the "Triangle Trade," which, in the case of the U.S. trade, included New England, Africa, and slave markets in North America and the Caribbean. New England traders would send ships loaded with rum and other goods to the coast of Africa, to trade for enslaved Africans. Those ships would then take their human cargos across the Middle Passage to ports in Caribbean islands or the southern U.S. states. There, they would sell the slaves and often buy cargos of sugar cane, molasses and other goods produced with slave labor to bring north to markets in New England. Distillers in the northeast would then make rum from the sugar cane, which in turn could be sold in Africa for more slaves.

The DeWolf family found many ways to increase their profits from the slave trade. In Havana, Cuba, their ship captains could sell their cargoes in one of the largest slave markets in the world. If, however, prices were low when ships arrived, the captains could send the enslaved Africans to sugar plantations owned by the DeWolfs, where the slaves would be worked, producing the raw materials for northern rum distilleries, until prices in the slave market had risen again.

The DeWolfs also used the wealth gained in trading slaves to diversify their holdings and establish other, related businesses. Members of the DeWolf family eventually owned a bank, an insurance company and rum distilleries. Eventually, James DeWolf invested in textile mills where — in an early example of industrialization — cotton grown and harvested on southern slave plantations using inexpensive slave labor was spun into fabric.

The slave trade helped to build the growing economies of northern seaports like Bristol and supported the economies of many towns along the New England coast and farther inland. Slave traders paid shipbuilders, insurers, blacksmiths, and a wide variety of other tradesmen, merchants and farmers. New York financial institutions were heavily invested in slavery. Almost every business and industry in the region traded or did business with merchants or shippers whose wealth was generated by slavery. In addition, those who invested in slaving voyages came from almost all walks of life: although wealthy families such as the DeWolfs were often significant investors, smaller shares in voyages were owned by ordinary tradesmen and artisans, such as blacksmiths, masons, bakers, rope-makers, painters and those engaged in various other forms of manual labor.

 

Northern Involvement in the Slave Trade


A central fact obscured by post-Civil War mythologies is that the northern U.S. states were deeply implicated in slavery and the slave trade right up to the war.

The slave trade in particular was dominated by the northern maritime industry. Rhode Island alone was responsible for half of all U.S. slave voyages. The DeWolfs may have been the biggest slavers in U.S. history, but there were many others involved. For example, some members of the Brown family of Providence were prominent in the slave trade; the Brown family gave substantial gifts to Rhode Island College, which was later renamed Brown University.

Although local townspeople thought of the DeWolfs and other prominent families primarily as general merchants, distillers and traders who supported ship-building, warehousing, insurance businesses, and other trades and businesses, it was common knowledge that one source of this business was the cheap labor and huge profits reaped from trafficking in human beings.

The North imported slaves, as well as transporting and selling them in the South and abroad. Although the majority of enslaved Africans arrived in southern ports — Charleston, South Carolina, was the largest market for slave traders, including the DeWolfs — most large colonial ports served as points of entry, and Africans were sold in northern ports that included Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Newport, Rhode Island.

The southern coastal states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland were home to the vast majority of enslaved persons. But there were slaves in each of the 13 original colonies, and slavery was legal in the North for more than 200 years. Even though the northern states gradually began abolishing slavery by law starting in the 1780s, many of them did not take action against those who broke the laws until well into the 19th century; in addition, their laws generally provided only for gradual abolition, allowing slave owners to keep their existing slaves and often their children. As a result, New Jersey, for example, still had thousands of persons legally enslaved in the 1830s, and did not finally abolish slavery by law until 1846. As late as the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact, there were northern slaves listed on the federal census.

In the South, men, women and children were often forced to work on large plantations, which could employ the labor of hundreds or even thousands of enslaved Africans. In the North, farms were smaller, and those farmers who owned slaves generally had only a small number. And it was fairly common during slavery in the North to find one or two slaves in the households of farmers, merchants, ministers and others.

 

Ghana and the Slave Trade


For almost 150 years, Ghana, on Africa's west coast, was the center of the British slave trade. Western traders arrived in ships loaded with manufactured goods to barter or trade for slaves. Those who were sold had often been captured in tribal warfare; some had simply been kidnapped to sell to European slave traders.

Slavery existed in Africa prior to the transatlantic trade, and in fact the earlier, trans-Saharan slave trade sent more enslaved Africans east to the Muslim world, over many centuries, than would be transported west to the Americas. However, the large-scale organization of European slave trading and the development of industry and massive plantations dependent on slave labor gave rise to a trade in humans that was staggering in its scale. Approximately 10 million enslaved people were transported in the transatlantic slave trade, at rates of up to 100,000 persons per year.

The remnants of the trade in Ghana are still visible today in dozens of forts and castles built by Europeans between 1482 and 1786. American traders did business at trading posts run by the British, French, Dutch, Germans, Spanish, Portuguese and others. Among these trading posts were Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, which the DeWolf descendants visited in Ghana. Many of these sites have been preserved, and they attract thousands of visitors as part of the Slave Route Project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In addition to preservation efforts, Ghana has also made efforts to encourage descendants of enslaved Africans to learn more about their history. Descendants may be eligible for special visas, and the government has instituted programs to encourage Ghanaians to welcome people from the African Diaspora.

 

Cuba and the Slave Trade


In the 18th and 19th centuries, Cuba was dependent on an economy based on the sugar cane and coffee crops and on slaves imported from Africa to work on the sugar and coffee plantations. It is estimated that more than 600,000 Africans were taken from West Africa and shipped to Cuba over the course of three centuries, with tens of thousands dying during the brutal Atlantic Crossing.

Most of these people were brought to Cuba between the 1780s and the 1860s, when the slave population rose from 39,000 to 400,000. Despite the fact that the U.S. slave trade to Cuba was illegal after 1794, U.S. traders, including the DeWolf family, frequently made slave voyages to Havana and profited from their own Cuban plantations. At the peak of the slave-based economy, enslaved people comprised nearly one-third of the Cuban population.

There were a number of antislavery movements in the early 1800s, but those were violently suppressed and leaders of the revolts were executed. Although Britain and the United States abolished their slave trades in 1807 and 1808 and Britain pressured Spain into formally ending the trade to Cuba in the 1820s, Cuba remained one of the most common destinations for slave ships through the 1860s. Slavery itself was not abolished in Cuba until 1886.

 

Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era


The United States officially ended slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. There were various proposals to grant freed black slaves compensation or at least assistance in establishing themselves as free citizens. Most prominent was General William T. Sherman's field order granting land to black families near the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, which became known as "40 acres and a mule." Sherman's order was rescinded, however, after President Lincoln was assassinated, and the Reconstruction Era left formerly enslaved blacks to fend for themselves. In many cases, former slaves simply remained on plantations as sharecroppers under conditions similar to slavery.

In the hundred years following the end of slavery, blacks faced formidable barriers to political, economic and social equality. In the South, Jim Crow laws enforced a rigid racial segregation, consigning black citizens to inferior schools and other public services, imposing poll taxes and literacy tests aimed at preventing blacks from voting, and providing official support for a culture of segregation and discrimination. In other regions of the country, there were fewer legal barriers, but widespread, often blatant discrimination in employment, housing, schools, churches and most other aspects of life. Government policies, although not always based formally on race, were frequently designed in ways that benefited whites at the expense of black and other citizens of color. Race-based violence was also common, and thousands of blacks, and sympathetic whites, were lynched in the South and elsewhere, in waves that occurred from the 1870s until the 1960s.

Meanwhile, these were years of unparalleled social and economic progress for whites, including many whose families arrived as immigrants after the Civil War. The G.I. Bill, the Federal Housing Authority and other programs helped to provide citizens with access to education, home ownership, jobs and business loans, raising many whites into the middle class. Meanwhile, these programs were often unavailable to blacks, and unofficial policies such as redlining further restricted black citizens from access to banking, insurance, health care, jobs and home ownership.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was dramatic progress toward official acceptance of equality for those of all races. The Supreme Court struck down many laws that legalized discrimination, including those that permitted school segregation (Brown v. Board of Education) and that disallowed interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia). Following a series of popular protests lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, the federal government enacted civil rights legislation designed to end all legalized discrimination and to ensure equal access, in practice, to schools, voting booths, housing and jobs. The Civil Rights Movement resulted in changing laws and reshaping public attitudes, and new policies, such as affirmative action, began to significantly change circumstances for black Americans.

The advances of the 1950s and 1960s, however, were not enough to reverse the failures of Reconstruction or the discrimination of the Jim Crow era. Black Americans made little progress during the hundred years following slavery, falling further behind white Americans, and progress since that time has been glacially slow by most social and economic indicators. The median net worth of white families has risen to about $121,000, whereas for black families, the figure is only $19,000. Following the dramatic, government-supported rise in home ownership for whites during the 20th century, it would now take black families, at the current rate, more than 5,400 years to close the gap in homeownership.

 

The 2008 Bicentennial of U.S. Abolition of the Slave Trade


A key compromise between northern and southern states in the U.S. Constitution is found in Article I, Section 9:

"The Migration or Importation of such Persons ... shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight."

In 1794, Congress prohibited the U.S. slave trade to foreign destinations, but was powerless under the Constitution to end the slave trade into southern U.S. ports.

In his annual message to Congress, one year before the constitutional prohibition was to expire, President Thomas Jefferson proposed a total ban on the slave trade. The bill he signed months later would outlaw the importation of slaves into the United States as of January 1, 1808, just as the constitutional compromise expired. The legislation also prohibited U.S. involvement in slave trading throughout the world.

But the legal abolition of the U.S. slave trade did not end that trade: For example, although most of the DeWolf family ceased their slave trading, James DeWolf's nephew, George DeWolf, continued to finance slave voyages for another 12 years, until Congress imposed the death penalty for slave trading. Even then, an illegal trade in slaves into the southern U.S. persisted until the Civil War, with substantial numbers of slaves being imported in the 1840s and 1850s as demand rose.

The action of the United States to outlaw the slave trade, however, coupled with Great Britain's similar action months earlier, was a key step in gradually ending the transatlantic slave trade and in spurring the emancipation of slaves throughout the Atlantic world in the coming decades.

In 2007, the United Kingdom commemorated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of its slave trade with ceremonies at Westminster Abbey featuring the queen and the prime minister and with #20 million ($40 million) for public exhibits and events, conferences, school programs, stamps, and coins. The public commemoration of the bicentennial of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade has been, by contrast, understated. Although Congress has passed and President Bush has signed legislation to commemorate the anniversary, no funding was authorized, and there has been little public or private observance.

You can use this year as an opportunity to create awareness about the slave trade (as distinct from slavery itself), and the fact that it was primarily conducted on Northern ships, with Northern trade goods and Northern financial backing.

 

Current Legislative Action


Beginning early in 2007, the legislatures of seven states have officially expressed regret for their involvement in slavery: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia. Similar measures are pending or have been proposed in other states, including Georgia, Missouri, New York, Nebraska and Tennessee.

In the U.S. Congress, there is a similar apology resolution pending in the House of Representatives, introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and co-sponsored by 120 representatives. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have announced plans to introduce an apology resolution into the Senate, and their measure has already attracted 14 Senate co-sponsors, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

A bill to form a commission to study the history and legacy of slavery and its aftermath and possible reparations or other remedies has been introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D Mich.) into the House in each Congress since 1989. This bill, known as H.R. 40 (for the promised "40 acres and a mule"), was the subject of a hearing before a House Judiciary subcommittee in December 2007, and further proceedings are expected in the near future.





Talk About This

Share This

I was shocked again when I realized that instead of being the exception, the DeWolfe family was just the tip of the iceberg of the vast complicity to slavery in New England.”

— Katrina Browne