If you have any interest in local history, you know that, once upon a time, some Rhode Islanders made a lot of money in the African slave trade — chiefly, John Brown of Providence and Bristol’s James DeWolf. While Brown’s role is well-known, very little has been written about James DeWolf, and the best source on the history of the family has been “Mount Hope: A New England Chronicle”, a 1959 book written by George Locke Howe, a DeWolf descendant.
Cynthia Mestad Johnson, a historian and educator who lives in Southern California, recently published a book called “James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade”, released at the beginning of April.
Using primary source documentation (of which she has 5,000 images and counting), Johnson has fleshed out a narrative that paints a far more complete picture of the business dealings of “Senator Jim” than the one we have had for the past half-century.
How did a Californian who had never been to Rhode Island become so interested in DeWolf’s history? Pure chance. She was channel surfing one afternoon and came across “Traces of the Trade,” a documentary that examines how a group of DeWolf ancestors process their revelation that they are descended from slave traders. Johnson was intrigued. “How had I never heard of this man,” she said. “Why isn’t James DeWolf in a single U.S. history textbook?”
Motivated to correct the historical record, and just about to dive into her master’s thesis, she settled on a new topic. Once she convinced her advisor that she would be able to access appropriate primary resources, she got the green light to change course, and before she knew it she found herself in Rhode Island, digging through the archives of a man she had just heard of.
Local history buffs know, to one extent or another, that DeWolf was a slave trader. He was also a Senator, highly respected as both a politician and local businessman. He obviously wasn’t the nicest guy — he is said to have murdered a smallpox-infected slave by throwing her overboard during an Atlantic crossing — but he got off of that charge. He was good friends with Thomas Jefferson, a fellow slave owner, yet regarded as one of the best presidents in U.S. history. But DeWolf was a man of his time, and, it was said, when the federal government outlawed the importation of slaves into the United States in 1808, he stopped.
DeWolf continued to pursue his business, easily able to flout the local and federal authorities as the central figure that propped up the local economy. “DeWolf was absolutely brilliant — one of the most brilliant businessmen I have ever read about,” says Johnson. “The town was so completely dependent on his success, nobody wanted to see him stopped.”
DeWolf organized a vertically integrated trading empire from which he controlled all aspects of the business, owning both the enterprise and its ancillary divisions. He had five sitting U.S. Presidents in his back pocket. He was able to masterfully manipulate the the political system for his personal gain. He was above the law.
Intuitively, Johnson doubted DeWolf packed it in in 1808, and her research turned up historical documents that backed up her suspicions. Among the latest, an 1818 letter found in the collection at Harvard University, in which DeWolf ordered six slaves, requesting three boys and three girls, young, but not small.
“What finally stopped DeWolf?” Johnson asked. “He died.”
Even that did not stop his business, not immediately. “Letters continued to arrive addressed to him for a short period of time afterwards from his land managers and captains that continued to discuss the business of slaves.”
James is not the only DeWolf whose history needs editing. In a parallel to the Brown family history, in which Moses, the Quaker abolitionist Brown brother, publicly battled with brother John about the latter’s morally bankrupt avocation, Howe’s book cast James’ brother Levi as someone who went on one slaving voyage, was sickened by the entire business of it, and retired to his family farm (present-day Juniper Hill Cemetery) in Bristol to grow his onions.
Johnson’s research revealed that perhaps “Quaker Levi” was not quite as offended by the filthy lucre that slaving brought, finding evidence that while his involvement was a shadow of James’, he nonetheless participated in at least 10 voyages, and continued to act as an agent for his brothers long after. Presented with the evidence, a dismayed descendant with a collection of Levi’s letters said “When I saw all those references to cargo, I assumed he was talking about onions.”
DeWolf spent four years avoiding a murder charge, some of which he spent on the island of St. Eustatius, where he maintained a holding facility where slaves who were sickened by the crossing could recover prior to sale.
It was not difficult to evade capture with a marshall (William Peck) who “couldn’t find” DeWolf (despite the fact that DeWolf managed to return to Bristol often enough to inpregnate wife Nancy twice during his years on the run), and an extended family assisting in the ruse, including his esteemed father-in-law, Governor William Bradford, who personally lobbied to have the charges dropped.
Johnson’s picture of the DeWolf family trade continues to grow with each new source she uncovers. Thought to have been responsible for the importation of roughly 10,000 slaves into the United States, Johnson’s research definitively accounts for nearly 30,000 individuals.
Johnson is not sure what direction her next project will take her, but she would like to investigate another facet of the largely untold story of the Rhode Island slave trade. She’ll be coming East in June and July to do some more research and make a decision about her next step. She will also be speaking at Linden Place at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 19, and the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society will be hosting an author meet-and-greet on Sunday, June 22.
“James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade” by Cynthia Mestad Johnson can be found at Linden Place, Paper Packaging and Panache, Barrington Books, Parners Village Store, and the BHPS, as well as at major booksellers.