The Early Years of Slavery in Bristol

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

After King Philip’s war (1675-78) and the death of Pokanoket leader Metacomet (King Philip), the area containing the spiritual and political center of the Pokanoket tribe, known as Potumtuk (Mount Hope), was confiscated as a war prize and sold to four men from Plymouth. Many Indigenous Peoples who lived in the area and/or had fought in the war were sold into slavery in the West Indies. In 1680, the four founding proprietors laid out the town of Bristol on a rectangular grid alongside its safe harbor and sold shares to populate the town.

Enslaved African and Indigenous people were present from the town’s earliest years. Town Founder Nathan Hayman owned at least one enslaved woman at the time of his death in 1689. Throughout the eighteenth century, enslaved people were a key part of Bristol’s urban and rural landscapes. Joseph Reynolds, whose house still stands on Hope Street, enslaved at least four people, including a “Molatto Boy about 15 years of age” who ran away in November, 1752. 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.

After the Revolution, Bristol’s relationship with slavery entered a new phase, as the town’s elite families embarked on an intensely profitable period of human trafficking. Families like the Wilsons, Fales, Ushers, Wardwells, Munros and, most famously, the DeWolfs all participated at sea in the trade and back home in the manufacture of goods related to the trade. Outfitting a boat for the slave trade required the services of captains, agents, merchants, blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, tradesmen, and even farmers. Banks and insurance institutions, also founded to support the trade, allowed those from all parts of Bristol’s community to invest in and profit from human trafficking in some way. Over time, many of Bristol’s elite families purchased plantations, particularly in Cuba, where they forced enslaved people to grow and process high revenue commodities, like sugar and coffee. This slave-trade and slave-based economy continued to operate, with Bristol as a central hub, well after the 1807 embargo outlawed the trade in enslaved peoples.


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Excerpt from the inventory of the estate of Nathan Hayman, 1689. Courtesy of the East Bay BIPOC Research Committee.

Excerpt from the inventory of the estate of Nathan Hayman, 1689. Courtesy of the East Bay BIPOC Research Committee.

An advertisement put in the December 4, 1752 edition of the Boston Evening-Postby Joseph Reynolds, of Bristol, RI. Courtesy of Charlotte Carrington-Farmer.