James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island (1764-1837) was a United States senator and a wealthy merchant who, at the time of his death, was reported to be the second richest person in the country.

He was also the leading slave trader in the history of the United States.

Over fifty years and three generations, from 1769 to 1820, James DeWolf and his extended family brought approximately 12,000 enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage, making the DeWolf1 family our nation’s most successful slave-trading family.

In a notorious incident aboard the slaving ship Polly in 1789, James DeWolf ordered an enslaved woman, dead or dying of smallpox, thrown into the Atlantic Ocean. While there was an attempt later to prosecute him for this act, he was found not guilty, on the grounds that this was his duty as ship’s captain. (See below, “The incident aboard the Polly.”)

One of our founders, James DeWolf Perry, is a direct descendant of James DeWolf, and co-founder Katrina Browne, producer/director of our documentary film, Traces of the Trade, is descended from another member of the extended DeWolf slave-trading family.

The DeWolf slave trade

The DeWolf family fortune was built on the buying and selling of human beings. DeWolf slave ships brought the enslaved from the west coast of Africa to auction blocks in Charleston, South Carolina and other southern U.S. ports; to Havana, Cuba and to other ports in the Caribbean; to their own sugar plantations in Cuba; and into their own homes. James DeWolf owned a rum distillery, and he and his family started both a bank and an insurance company, all to profit even further from the slave trade. They even sent a family member to establish an auction house in Charleston, S.C., where many of their slaving voyages ended up.

In the 1790s and early 1800s, DeWolf and his brothers virtually built the economy of Bristol, Rhode Island: many of the buildings they funded still stand, and the stained glass windows at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church bear DeWolf names to this day. Across the generations, their family has included state legislators, philanthropists, writers, scholars, and Episcopal bishops and priests.

Illegal slave trading

The DeWolf family continued in the slave trade despite state and federal laws prohibiting many of their activities in the late 1700s. Their efforts to circumvent those laws eventually lead them to arrange a political favor with President Thomas Jefferson, who agreed to split the federal customs district based in Newport, R.I. This maneuver permitted the appointment of a customs inspector just for Bristol, and the choice was Charles Collins, the brother-in-law of James DeWolf, who conveniently ignored the slave ships moving in and out of harbor.

One member of the family, George DeWolf, is known to have continued in the trade after 1808, when Congress banned the importation of slaves into the U.S. He did so until 1820, when Congress made slave trading a hanging offense. James DeWolf himself was reported to have abandoned the slave trade as of January 1, 1808; there is, as yet, no evidence to demonstrate that he took part in any slaving voyages after that date, but it seems quite possible that he did.

The DeWolf family’s complicity in slavery continued after 1820 in other ways, too, as the family maintained slave plantations in Cuba and James DeWolf invested his slave trade profits in textile mills which used slave-produced cotton. Today, there are as many as half a million living descendants of the people traded as chattel by the DeWolfs.

The incident aboard the Polly

In 1789, James DeWolf commanded a voyage of the two-masted sailing ship Polly from Bristol to slave trading posts on the west coast of Africa, where he purchased 142 enslaved men and women. He then set sail across the Middle Passage for the West Indies. About two weeks into the voyage, a middle-aged, enslaved African woman, whose name is lost to history, was seized with smallpox.

As smallpox and other contagious illnesses were especially deadly in the close and unsanitary quarters aboard sailing ships, this illness posed a crisis for DeWolf, his crew, and the other enslaved people aboard. The patient was first quarantined, and then, as the smallpox reached an advanced stage, was “put in the main top” for two more days, in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading to the crew and the enslaved people below deck.

At an emergency meeting of the watch, two crewmen, formerly stricken with smallpox and thus believed to be immune, reported that they had examined the woman and found her condition so advanced that she “could not survive the Malady.” Other crewmen familiar with smallpox offered their opinion that at this stage, she would be dead “in a short time.” It further appears to have been the consensus of captain and crew that they were at least 50-60 days from their next port, and had no effective means to preserve the lives of anyone on board should the illness begin to spread.

The meeting concluded, with no sailors dissenting, that “no alternative was left to save the Crew & Cargo … but to throw” this woman, “so dangerously infected,” overboard. Captain and crew decided, however, to give her until the next morning, apparently in the hope that she might then have died, rendering their decision to kill her moot.

The following morning, DeWolf went up to the main top with a member of the crew, where they found the infected woman still clinging to life. They proceeded to blindfold her and tie her to a chair, after which four sailors lowered her to the deck. Although she was alive in the main top before being lowered down, no witness was able to say afterwards whether she was still alive when, a short time later, two sailors lowered her, still in the chair, down the side of the ship into the waters of the Atlantic below.

In 1791, an unknown person or persons brought an accusation of murder against DeWolf in Rhode Island, which resulted in a sensation in the press.2 A grand jury was convened to weigh the evidence, and returned an indictment. In the 18th century, however, throwing overboard a person dying of smallpox was far from unknown, and arguably within a ship captain’s lawful authority. As a result, the judge responsible for the case eventually accepted a filing of nolle prosequi, or a formal declaration by the prosecuting attorney that he did not wish to pursue the case.

In April 1795, criminal proceedings for the same incident were initiated in St. Thomas, a Dutch colony, where James DeWolf was then living. A fellow ship captain, Isaac Manchester, brought the complaint. The court heard testimony from, among others, Captain Henry Bradford, who was a sailor aboard the Polly at the time, and depositions were read into evidence from two other members of the crew, which were sworn by them before the governor of St. Eustatius, a Dutch colony, after the Polly arrived there from Africa. These eyewitness accounts agreed that the enslaved woman had been given all available treatment, that there appeared to be no possibility that she would recover (and, indeed, no one could say for sure whether she was alive or dead when lowered into the water), and that there appeared to be no alternative to save the others on board but to throw her off the ship. The witnesses further agreed that all sailors who had been previously infected with smallpox joined the captain in carrying out this task.

Judge Advocate Christian Frederick Petri declared in his ruling that “this act of James De Wolfe was morally evil, but at the same time physically good and beneficial to a number of beings.” He further found that it was the captain’s “duty” to prevent the infection from spreading further aboard ship and that what he had done was to “choose out of two evils the least.” Finally, he determined that DeWolf “did not act in this case merely by his own will, but after a mature deliberation with his officers and crew who found it to be the only means to save them all from misery and destruction.”

The judge advocate therefore found James DeWolf not guilty, and the charge against him to be “groundless.”3

This incident has often attracted more attention and debate than any other aspect of James DeWolf’s life, including his involvement in the illegal slave trade. While he was acquitted of the charge of murder (and apparently rightly so, from a contemporary legal standpoint), this case also illustrates graphically the great risk of death to which DeWolf knowingly exposed each and every person whom he forcibly took across the Middle Passage. In other words, while throwing this woman overboard might, arguably, have been DeWolf’s duty at that moment, and the lesser of two evils, as the trial judge found, the very existence of this deadly choice was a situation entirely of DeWolf’s own making.

Sources: Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 (Philadelphia: Temple Press, 1981); David Eltis, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, eds., The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM (Cambridge, 1999); George Howe, Mount Hope: A New England Chronicle (New York: Viking Press, 1959); M.A. DeWolfe Howe, Bristol, Rhode Island: A Town Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930); Cynthia Mestad Johnson, James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2014); Sowande’ Mustakeem, “‘She must go overboard & shall go overboard’: Diseased bodies and the spectacle of murder at sea,” Atlantic Studies 8:3 (Sept. 2011), 301-316; Isidor Paiewonsky, Eyewitness Accounts of Slavery in the Danish West Indies (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1989); Rufus King Papers, New York Historical Society, Box 6, Folder 2, Item 26.

  1. also spelled D’Wolf or DeWolfe []
  2. After the grand jury presented its indictment, the story was reported in in the press throughout New England. Sowande’ Mustakeem, “‘She must go overboard & shall go overboard’: Diseased bodies and the spectacle of murder at sea,” Atlantic Studies 8:3 (Sept. 2011), 301-316, at 301 and n. 1. []
  3. “Account of a trial held in 1795 before Danish judge of Island of St. Thomas, of Capt. James De Wolfe, having thrown a negress suffering from small pox overboard,” Rufus King Papers, New York Historical Society, Box 6, Folder 2, Item 26. See also Isidor Paiewonsky, Eyewitness Accounts of Slavery in the Danish West Indies (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1989). []

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