The Early Years of Slavery in Bristol

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

In the wake of King Philip’s war (1675-78), the spiritual and political center of the Pokanoket tribe known as Potumtuk (Mount Hope) was confiscated by Plymouth Colony as a war prize. At this time, many Indigenous Peoples living in the area, some of whom had fought in the war, were sold into slavery in the West Indies. In 1680, Plymouth Colony sold the land to four founding proprietors, who laid out the town of Bristol on the east side of Potumtuk’s peninsula.

Even in its founding years, the town’s population included enslaved African and Indigenous people. In 1718, Town Founder Nathaniel Byfield purchased a 13 year old girl named Rose, who had just been brought to Bristol from the West Indies (proving a “faithful servant”, Rose was freed in Byfield’s will in 1732). Merchant Joseph Greenhill owned four enslaved people, London, Angura, Adjuba, and Primo (they were also freed in Greenhill’s will). On the eve of the American Revolution, Bristol was home to 132 enslaved people (115 of African descent, 17 of native descent), which represented 11% of the town’s population. Four of them, Plato Van Doorn, Thomas Lefavour, Prince Ingraham, and Juba Smith, fought with the First Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution.

After the Revolution, Bristol’s elite families embarked on an intensely profitable period of human trafficking. Most famous among them were the DeWolfs, but other families, including the Wilsons, Fales, Ushers, Wardwells, and Munros, also participated in the slave trade and in the manufacture of slave-related goods. Ships sailing to Africa required captains and agents, as well as goods and provisions purchased from merchants, blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, tradesmen, and farmers. Almost everyone in Bristol found ways to profit from human trafficking, including through investments in local banking and insurance institutions or through the purchase of slave-produced commodities, like sugar and coffee. Bristol remained a central hub of such activities long after the 1807 embargo outlawed the trade in enslaved peoples.


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Excerpt from the will of Nathaniel Byfield, 1732. Courtesy of the East Bay BIPOC Research Committee.

Excerpt from the will of Nathaniel Byfield, 1732. Courtesy of the East Bay BIPOC Research Committee.

Military payroll card for Thomas Lefavour for the month of November 1779. Courtesy of the East Bay BIPOC Research Committee

The Medallion at DeWolf Warehouse and Wharf