The Papers of the DeWolf Family shed light on one of the wealthiest New England families in the 18th-19th centuries who made their fortune by engaging in each part of the transatlantic slave trade. This collection is comprised of photographs, correspondence, publications, and business records including daily logs and ship manifests. Included in the collection are ship business records and documents from multiple countries including Cuba, the Netherlands, China, and India.
The materials in this collection have been kept at the folder level and separated into five series. The materials have been ordered and organized based on the content.
Biographical / Historical:
Rhode Island dominated the North American transatlantic slave trade, led by the DeWolf family of Bristol. They financed their wealthy lifestyle by engaging in each part of the triangular trade, which involved the shipping of natural resources from the Caribbean to America and Europe for manufacturing, then using them to fund the purchase of enslaved persons. The DeWolf family owned numerous sugar and coffee plantations in Cuba. Sugar from the Cuba plantations was made into molasses, transported to Rhode Island in DeWolf vessels, and transformed into rum in DeWolf-owned distilleries. The rum was then taken to Africa and used as payment for enslaved captives, who were eventually sold in Cuba and other southern ports for tremendous profit. Between 1769 and 1820, it is believed the DeWolf-owned vessels carried more than 12,000 enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage. The profit generated from these trade endeavors allowed the family to start a bank and insurance company.
The first patriarch of the DeWolf family was Mark Anthony DeWolf (1726-1792). Mark emigrated from Guadeloupe Island in the West Indies after serving as a deckhand on a slave trading ship owned by privateer Simeon Potter. Mark married Potter's sister Abigail and they had 15 children. Their son James DeWolf, born on March 18, 1764 in Bristol, was most apt to take over the family business. James, like his father, worked as a slave trader, privateer, and a politician, including time as an U. S. Senator for Rhode Island. During the Revolutionary War, DeWolf served as a sailor on a private armed vessel that was twice captured by the British. By his early twenties, his past experiences saw him promoted to the rank of captain of a ship. James married Nancy Ann Bradford, daughter of the Massachusetts governor William Bradford, in 1790. Together they had 11 children.
In 1791, DeWolf was indicted for murdering an enslaved woman on his ship. The enslaved woman may have had smallpox and DeWolf claimed that she threatened the lives of all the enslaved persons and crew members on board. DeWolf and two crew members agreed to throw the woman overboard to her death. Judge John Jay discovered the story and reported it to President George Washington who gave orders for DeWolf's immediate arrest, citing violation of the Federal Slave Trade Law of 1790. DeWolf fled to the West Indies and by 1795 the charges were dropped. The judge declared that "this act of James De Wolfe was morally evil, but at the same time physically good and beneficial to a number of beings." Further, it was the "least" of the "two evils," and the accusations against DeWolf were "groundless."
Buoyed by the acquittal, DeWolf's family continued their criminal activity within the slave trading business. In 1794, Congress outlawed Americans carrying slaves between foreign countries or into countries that had statutes against the trade. In order to circumvent these laws, DeWolf called in a favor with Thomas Jefferson to appoint his brother-in-law, Charles Collins, a customs inspector. Collins ignored many of the slave ships moving in and out of the harbor that in turn allowed the DeWolf family to continue profiting from human suffering. DeWolf funneled his slave trading efforts through Cuba, the only open Caribbean trade port with American access. DeWolf continually shipped men, women, and children from American soil to Cuba.
In 1808, Congress banned the importation of enslaved into the United States and DeWolf turned to new ventures to keep his wealth, including privateering. During the War of 1812, his ship Yankee was the most successful privateer of the war, capturing prizes worth over three million dollars. In order to continue to profit off slavery, DeWolf founded the Arkwright Mill in Coventry, Rhode Island, which became a pioneer in the processing and manufacturing of cotton harvested by enslaved people. The family also maintained plantations in Cuba, and James' nephew, George DeWolf, continued trading enslaved persons at least until 1820 when it became punishable by death.
From 1817-1821, DeWolf served as a member of the Rhode Island State House of Representatives; he was promoted to Speaker of the House from 1819-1821. In 1821, he was elected a U.S Senator for Rhode Island and served five years of his six-year term. He resigned and returned to the State House of Representatives from 1829 until his death in 1837. James DeWolf died in New York City on December 21, 1837. It was reported at his death that he was the second wealthiest man in America.
1726 -- Mark Anthony DeWolf was born
1764 -- James DeWolf was born in Bristol, Rhode Island, son of Mark Anthony and Abigail DeWolf
1775-83 -- James DeWolf served as a sailor in the Revolutionary War
1790 -- James DeWolf married Nancy Bradford, daughter of Massachusetts Governor William Bradford
1791 -- James DeWolf was indicted for murdering an enslaved woman on his slaving ship
1792 -- Mark Anthony DeWolf died leaving the business to his son, James
1795 -- All charges against James in the death of an enslaved woman on-board his ship in 1791 were dismissed
1808 -- Congress abolishes the African slave trade
1812 -- James DeWolf built the Arkwright Mills in Coventry, Rhode Island. He also served a privateer in the War of 1812
1817 -- James DeWolf began serving as a representative in the Rhode Island House of Representatives
1819 -- DeWolf began serving as the Speaker of the House in Rhode Island State General Assembly
1821-25 -- James DeWolf served as U.S. Senator for Rhode Island
1829 -- James DeWolf returned as a member of the State House of Representatives
1837 -- James DeWolf died in New York City, New York
Acquired through a purchase by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Portions of this collection are restricted from use as means to further preserve the collection. Digital surrogates are available for portions of this collection.
The NMAAHC Archives can provide reproductions of some materials for research and educational use. Copyright and right to publicity restrictions may apply and limit reproduction for other purposes.