General George deWolf: the man who swindled a whole town
The end of the War of 1812 called a halt to the excessive profits derived from privateering and the slave trade for most Rhode Island shipowners. The one major exception to this rule was George deWolf of Bristol, often referred to as "the General". His flamboyant life style and disregard for state and federal laws have placed him high on the list of Rhode Island's rogues and rascals. During his own lifetime he was viewed as both a pillar of society and the most treacherous knave to ever set foot in Bristol.
George deWolf was the oldest son of Charles, who was the oldest son of Mark Antony deWolf. In temperament and in his flagrant disregard for scruples, he was very much like his grand-uncle, Simeon Potter. DeWolf biographers, such as George Howe, point out that George regarded himself as the head of the deWolf family and was obsessed by a rivalry with his uncle, James "Captain Jim" deWolf. While the rivalry was in George's mind, it is said that one of the main reasons James deWolf resigned from the U. S. Senate was so that he could keep a closer eye on his nephew. George deWolf made a considerable fortune from maritime pursuits, yet never went to sea. He owned three slave ships while still in his twenties and when his uncle. Captain Jim, decided to leave the slave trade in 1809, George bought three of his slave ships.
The illegal slave trade paid huge dividends for George as he made enough money to commission Russell Warren, one of the state's most respected architects, to build the fine mansion, known for half a century by Bristolians as "The Mansion" and today called Linden Place.
George deWolf, always eager to outshine his uncle, Captain Jim, who was only fourteen years older than he, hired the same architect who, in 1806, had built the Mount, Captain Jim's stately mansion. Russell Warren was paid $60,000. This was an enormous sum at the time and reported to be but a small part of the profit George made in just one year of the slave trade. Warren was told to build a more magnificent mansion than the Mount, and this he achieved in 1810. The front of the building features two-story Corinthian columns on a sandstone base. Between the columns are two Palladian windows, which were very much in vogue in 1810. Warren used a classical four room Federal design, paying special attention to delicacy and detail. He placed a magnificent spiral staircase, which swept up three stories to a bulls eye skylight, at the side and back of the main hall to maximize free movement between the two drawing rooms on the left and a dining room on the right.
Five generations of the deWolf and Colt families have lived in this house. In 1989, the mansion was purchased by the "Friends of Linden Place" from Elizabeth Colt Stansfield for 1.5 million dollars. This purchase was made possible by the passage of a state bond issue in 1988. The Friends of Linden Place hope to keep alive that segment of Bristol's history that began with the flamboyant George deWolf and continued through the time of the Colt family.
George Howe, a relative of deWolf, in his 1959 history. Mount Hope, contends that, "There was not a more dashing man in the state than George deWolf. He had wide black eyes and long lashes, a romantic flood of dark hair...a chiseled nose, a thin-lipped mouth, and a small pointed chin." George deWolf's cousin, John "Fesser John" deWolf, Jr. wrote that George was, "A smiling quick-spoken man, but a cruel one withal."
During the War of 1812 George deWolf was the right age for military duty. Rather than serve in the National Army, however, deWolf elected to remain in Bristol with the militia. Bristol's difficulties during the Revolutionary War, when the British occupied Newport and bombarded Bristol, made this an honorable choice as it was greatly feared that an invasion of Rhode Island was imminent. Obviously, no attack ever came. At the end of the war, George deWolf was given a great honor when the troops which made up the militia elected him Commanding General of the Fourth Brigade of Rhode Island. George relished the title and it is used to identify him from other George deWolf s.
After the War of 1812, General George continued the illegal slave trade. He worked very closely with Revenue Collector Charles Collins, an old hand at evading the law. When Collins finally lost his position in 1820, he burned all his records, leaving no trace of his illegal activities in connection with George deWolf. As the nineteenth century progressed, more stringent laws against the slave trade developed. In 1808, the international slave trade was illegal and in 1819, the U. S. Navy was authorized to track down slave ships. Half the value of any confiscated vessel went to whoever informed against it. In 1820, any U. S. citizen who served on a slaver was considered a pirate and could be hanged.