The DeWolf Warehouse and Wharf

By Catherine W. Zipf, The Bristol Historical & Preservation Society

Distilling was a key activity in Bristol’s economy. Prior to the American Revolution, Jeremiah Finney constructed a rum distillery on the wharf at the corner of State and Thames Streets. In 1795, Jeremiah’s son, Josiah, sold the distillery to James and William DeWolf, who had married Josiah’s daughter, Charlotte. This property became the epicenter of the DeWolf family’s slave trade empire.

Shortly after purchasing the wharf, the DeWolfs constructed a store and a bank on its Thames St. side. In 1801, they built another “large brick store” immediately to the north of the bank and enlarged Finney’s distillery to contain 18 circular vats and a stillhouse measuring 78 by 48 feet. The distillery consumed 120,000 gallons of molasses per year and employed three men. Unfortunately, because the size of the still is unknown, the amount of rum produced each year cannot be calculated, but clearly the output was considerable.

The DeWolfs used the rum and the proceeds of its sale, both locally and abroad, to expand their operations. While documents show that the warehouse was completed by 1818, construction probably started earlier. Many stones did, indeed, come from Africa, and most likely were worked into the warehouse as they came, rather than piling up on the wharf. One imagines the idea to do this was something of an inside joke, as the symbolism of African stones being used to construct a building to house African enslaved people and the products they produced is too obvious to be otherwise.

Over time, the DeWolf family was responsible for financing, in whole or part, 88 slaving voyages, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of all African voyages that originated in Bristol. They also brought an estimated 30,000 kidnapped and captured Africans to Cuba, the West Indies and the American South. Unlike other slave traders, the DeWolfs took orders from other Bristol residents for enslaved people and usually delivered them directly upon arrival. Thus, while it did house a handful of enslaved people, more often, the warehouse was used to store commodities.

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Map dating to 1850 showing an early configuration of the DeWolf Wharf. Courtesy of the Bristol Historical & Preservation Society.

Map dating to 1850 showing an early configuration of the DeWolf Wharf. Courtesy of the Bristol Historical & Preservation Society.

The DeWolf Warehouse. Courtesy of Catherine W. Zipf.