By Catherine W. Zipf, The Bristol Historical & Preservation Society
The Early Years of Slavery in Bristol
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.
Between 1800 and 1825, money from these operations flooded into Bristol, causing a significant building boom in the Town’s infrastructure. Most of Bristol’s exquisite architecture dates from this period and reflects the wealth Bristol’s elite families derived from the trade. Linden Place is one such house.
Built in 1810 by architect Russell Warren for George DeWolf, the large, Federal style mansion is set back from the street and surrounded by a black wrought iron fence. The funds to build the home – over a million in today’s dollars – came from the buying and selling of human captives and amounted to the equivalent of one year’s profit in the slave trade. George DeWolf continued to engage in human trafficking after it became illegal; Linden Place was built three years after the United States outlawed the slave trade. Among the four homes that Warren designed for other DeWolf family members, Linden Place is the only one still standing (James DeWolf lived elsewhere in Bristol).
For George, the trade was family business. He and his uncles financed, in whole or part, 88 slaving voyages, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of all African voyages that originated in Bristol. George’s uncle, James DeWolf, operated as many as 30 slave ships and brought an estimated 30,000 captured Africans to Cuba and the Americas. The DeWolf family’s political connections allowed them to continue trading in enslaved people after both national and international law outlawed the practice.
While the actual documentation is scant, it is likely that enslaved people helped build Linden Place. Once constructed, they certainly had a hand in its operations. The 1810 census documents two enslaved persons in residence at Linden Place as part of George DeWolf’s household. Their names remain unknown. But, despite the erasure of the details of these people’s lives, their contributions to the household were critical to upholding the DeWolf family’s lavish lifestyle.
Always a big spender, George’s dealings caught up with him in 1825. When his investments in English banks turned sour, his sugar crops from his Caribbean plantations failed, and his shiploads of Africans destined for sale were lost, George realized he was facing bankruptcy. During a December snowstorm, he loaded his family and whatever possessions they could carry into his coach and headed for Boston. From there, he and his family traveled to “Noah’s Ark,” his plantation in Cuba. While he would come back from time to time, Cuba remained his primary home for the remainder of his life.
The Decline of Slavery in Bristol
Following George’s abrupt departure, many of Bristol’s banks failed as townspeople realized that George’s substantial debts would never be repaid. Indeed, the town went bankrupt alongside George DeWolf. Linden Place was stripped of household furniture and fixtures as items were auctioned off to cover his debts. Even the DeWolfs struggled through the next few decades. In the 1850s, Linden Place left family hands and was repurchased in the 1860s by George’s daughter, Theodora DeWolf Colt. It then passed to Theodora’s son, Samuel Pomeroy Colt, who owned it for many years.
George DeWolf’s bankruptcy heralded the end of the era of enslavement in Bristol; the 1820 census is the last to document any enslaved people in the town. But, things were far from equal for people of color. By 1830, Bristol’s African-American and Indigenous community, consisting of the descendants of enslaved people owned by families like the DeWolfs and Munros, had found a home in New Goree, located on Wood Street between State Street and Bay View Avenue. Many continued to work in the homes of Bristol’s elite families in relationships that paralleled the era of enslavement. Others found work in the developing rubber industry. With new opportunities generated during the post-Civil War climate, many of Bristol’s African-American families began to move elsewhere. By 1920, with only a handful of such families remaining, Bristol had largely forgotten this important part of its history.
The Author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Lynn Smith to this article.
Stephen Chambers, No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States. US: Verso, 2015.
Christy Clark-Pujara, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. New York: NYU Press, 2018.
Cynthia Mestad Johnson, “From Bristol to the West Indies and Back: James DeWolf and the Illegal Slave Trade”. Rhode Island History: The Journal of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Vol. 78, No. 2, Spring 2021.
Cynthia Mestad Johnson, James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade. US: The History Press, 2014.
Nancy Kougeas, “Building the San Juan Plantation: A Bristol Family in Cuba, 1818-46”. Rhode Island History: The Journal of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Vol. 78, No. 2, Spring 2021.
Rafael Ocasio, A Bristol, Rhode Island, and Matanzas, Cuba, Slavery Connection: The Diary of George Howe. US: Lexington Books, 2019.\
Charles Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Lynn Smith, “The Rhode Island Slave History Medallion Project”, www.lindenplace.org/about-us/news
Catherine W. Zipf, “Finding Hope in “New Hope”: George Howe’s Diary of Life on a DeWolf-Owned Plantation in Cuba”. Rhode Island History: The Journal of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Vol. 78, No. 2, Spring 2021.
Please visit www.lindenplace.org for more information.