James DeWolf died the second richest man in America after accumulating a fortune from buying, selling and – in one case – murdering slaves.
He was born into two powerful slave-trading families in Rhode Island, the DeWolfs and the Potters. He leveraged the family business into great wealth and a seat in the U.S. Senate. His descendants became prominent writers, artists and ministers.
At least one of his progeny had the good grace to be ashamed of her slave-trading heritage. And at least James DeWolf was somewhat inconvenienced when he was found to have murdered a sick woman he enslaved.
James DeWolf was born in Bristol, R.I., on March 18, 1764, the seventh son of Mark DeWolf, a slave trader, and Abigail Potter, who also came from a slave-trading family.
During the American Revolution, he sailed as a teenager on a private armed vessel.
After the war he became captain of a ship and began to trade slaves, often bringing enslaved farmworkers from Cuba to the American South to work on plantations.
Rhode Island banned slavery in 1787, but that didn’t stop James DeWolf and his family. They continued to finance and run slave trading voyages to Africa.
In 1790, DeWolf married into another powerful family that would protect him when he needed protection. His wife, Nancy Ann Bradford, was the great-great-great-granddaughter of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, and the daughter of another William Bradford who would be elected to the U.S. Senate.
In 1791, a warrant was issued for the arrest of James DeWolf. He was captain of the Polly, a slave ship, sailing from Africa to Cuba with 142 slaves and 15 crew. When an enslaved African woman, middle-aged, came down with smallpox, James DeWolf ordered her quarantined. She was tied to a chair and brought abovedeck. When she got worse, DeWolf asked for a volunteer to throw the sick woman overboard. The crew refused.
James DeWolf decided to do it himself. He blindfolded and gagged her so the other slaves couldn’t hear her scream. Then he asked a sailor to help him with a grappling hook, which they attached to her chair. The two men lowered her into the ocean. She sank immediately, drowned and died.
According to a crewman’s testimony, James DeWolf said he regretted the loss of such a good chair.
What James DeWolf did wasn’t unusual. Sick slaves were often tossed overboard. But murder on the high seas was illegal under the Federal Crimes Act of 1790.
James DeWolf returned to Rhode Island on the Polly. He recorded that he sold 109 slaves at a profit, and he kept 10 for himself. In doing so he broke the Rhode Island Act of 1787, which decreed no slave should be brought to Rhode Island.
Someone, it isn’t clear who, found out about the murder aboard the Polly. A federal grand jury investigated and charged James DeWolf with murder. Attorney General John Jay requested a warrant for his arrest. But James DeWolf had disappeared.
James DeWolf absconded to the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, leaving his wife and children behind in Bristol. In St. Eustatius he continued his slave-trading business by corresponding with his brother.
He was eventually discovered in the West Indies and charged with murder. Two men who crewed on DeWolf’s ships testified that they had to throw the woman overboard to save the crew and ‘valuable cargo’ from catching smallpox. The prosecuting attorney filed a formal declaration that he didn’t want to prosecute the case.
DeWolf then moved to St. Thomas, where he was also charged with murder. No one testified against him, and the judge ruled in his favor.
Meanwhile, his well-connected family was working to drop the charges in Rhode Island. After four years, the federal marshal in Rhode Island dropped the arrest warrant against James DeWolf. He immediately returned to his home in Bristol, Linden Place.
Upon his return to Rhode Island, James DeWolf amassed power and wealth. He served 17 years as a Rhode Island state senator, and in 1821 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
All the while he continued his slave trading, usually with his family. His father had started importing slaves in 1769 and his nephew George continued the tradition until 1820. The DeWolf family is estimated to have brought 11,000 enslaved people to the United States.
James DeWolf also owned sugar and coffee plantations in Havana, a rum distillery and a mill. He and his family started the Bank of Bristol and a company to insure slave ships.
In 1809 he invested in the Arkwright Manufacturing Co. During the War of 1812 he fitted out privateers that captured 40 British ships worth more than $5 million. When he died in 1837 in New York City he was believed to be the second wealthiest man in the United States.
His daughter Abby married Charles Dana Gibson; they had a grandson, also named Charles Dana Gibson, the artist who created the Gibson Girl.
His descendant Katrina Browne directed a documentary about her family’s slave trading heritage, Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North. (See the trailer for the film here.)
Images: Linden Place By Kenenth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57710961. This story was updated in 2022.
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