James deWolf, One of the "Great Folk" of Bristol
The deWolf family, one of the most famous in Rhode Island, was held in awe through most of the state's history. In Bristol, members of the family were known as "The Great Folk" and nearly everyone was well versed in the family's accomplishments. They intermarried with the Howes, Colts and Perrys and produced a number of pillars of society, churchmen, millionaires, actors and actresses, and some rogues and rascals. Two of the most notorious that might be placed in the last category were James deWolf and his nephew, George deWolf.
James deWolf (1764-1837), known in local history and folklore as Captain Jim, was the most successful of all Rhode Islanders engaged in the slave trade and in privateering. He was one of fifteen children born to Marc Anthony deWolf (1726-1793) and Abigail Potter.
According to deWolf descendant, George Howe's excellent 1959 book. Mount Hope, Captain Jim's career began during the Revolutionary War when, in 1779, he sailed on a privateer owned by John Brown. DeWolf was only fifteen years old at the time and the privateer, after successfully evading the British fleet (*also spelled d'Wolf, De Wolfe, and Dewolfe.) in Newport, was captured off the coast of Bermuda. James deWolf was captured, escaped, and was captured again. He was mistreated and carried a life-long hatred for his British captors.
During James deWolf's lifetime Bristol became one of the chief ports in America. The four decades following the Revolutionary War were among the richest in New England Maritime history and Bristol shared in its glory. While seaports such as Providence and Boston became wealthy because of the China trade, Salem from trade with the Indies, and New Bedford from whaling, Bristol became rich through the slave trade and privateering.
The deWolf brothers, following the lead of their notorious, cantankerous uncle, Simeon Potter, dominated Bristol's trade. Molasses from deWolf plantations in Cuba was carried to Bristol in deWolf owned vessels. The molasses was turned into rum at deWolf distilleries, and the rum was taken to Africa in deWolf ships, exchanged for slaves which were sold at tremendous profits in Cuba and other southern ports.
James deWolf became the richest of the five deWolf brothers and represented Bristol in the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1802 until 1821, when he became U. S. Senator. His early fortune was made in the nefarious slave trade. At age twenty-five he served on John Brown's slave ship. Providence, and made a great deal of money as a result. He was able to use his wages to buy a share of the cargo and increase his profits. By 1790, he owned his own brigantine. Little Watt. In that same year, he married Nancy Bradford, daughter of Massachusetts Governor Bradford, a close friend of George Washington. Nancy, known especially for her irascible disposition, added wealth, power and prestige to the growing deWolf enterprises.
James deWolf built a large warehouse on Thames Street made of heavy timbers and large stone blocks which had been imported from Africa as ballast. Here he loaded and unloaded his slavers and privateers. Not far from the warehouse was his large distillery which was capable of converting 300 gallons of molasses to 250 gallons of rum per day at the cost of about ten cents per gallon. In time, James deWolf became Bristol's most
honored and respected man, but this was not the case in 1790. At that time a Federal Grand Jury, in its first session, returned an indictment of murder for jettisoning a female slave who fell victim to small pox. The indictment read:
...James deWolf, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil ...did feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought, with his hands clinch and seize in and upon the body of said Negro woman ...and did push, cast and throw her from out of said vessel into the Sea and waters of the Ocean, whereupon she then and there instantly sank, drownded and died.
James deWolf was well protected by his uncle, Simeon Potter, as well as by other family members and was never arrested. While there were other stories of horror and inhumane treatment of slaves, no other charges were levied against James deWolf. When other slavers, such as John Brown, abandoned the slave trade as not being profitable enough, James deWolf continued and made large profits. One of the reasons for this is that he quickly learned how to circumvent the law. In 1794, Congress forbade Americans from carrying slaves between foreign countries or into states that had statutes against the trade. This was to stop trade between Africa and Cuba, and the only American port open was Georgia. As there was no law to stop the traffic of slaves to or from Georgia, James deWolf brought slaves openly into that state, pretended to sell them to a Georgian, and shipped them to Cuba where the best prices were obtained.
The deWolfs owned plantations in Cuba where the slaves were kept during periods when prices were low. Once prices rose, the deWolfs had plenty of slaves on hand to take advantage of the market. In addition, slaves were often smuggled into Rhode Island by the deWolf ships. The fledging U. S. Government had but a small navy and could not patrol Narragansett Bay effectively. It was relatively easy to get by the customs officials at Newport, and when customs officials, such as William Ellery, made it a point to pursue deWolf vessels, James deWolf neutralized this by having his own man appointed as a Customs Inspector for Bristol.