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D'Wolf Family papers

Scope & content

The bulk of this collection is composed primarily of the papers of John D'Wolf (b. 1760) and secondarily of his brother, Senator James D'Wolf (b. 1764). John, who married Susan Reynolds (b.1759) is often referred to as "farmer John" because of his skills running a farm in Bristol. However, he was also a partner in many D'Wolf enterprises, including the slave trade, the Arkwright Mill in Coventry, and the Bank of Bristol. As a young man, he fought in the Revolutionary War aboard armed privateers, and, like James, was captured by the British and imprisoned. After the War of 1812, he was appointed the Principal Assessor for the First Rhode Island District, and this collection includes extensive correspondence regarding this.

This collection is primarily a financial one, and approximately three-quarters of it consists of bills, orders, receipts, promissory notes and agents' statements, many related to the D'Wolf ships.

John, like his brother James, was a powerful person in Bristol and a trusted member of the community, serving on local town commissions. He was often given power of attorney for ships captains and more than once served as guardian for children who were orphaned when their parents died or were incapacitated. This is most notable in the case of Captain John Sabens, one of the D'Wolf's slaving captains. After Capt. Sabens died on a slaving voyage in 1807, John D'Wolf became guardian of his daughter Sarah. Thus, this collection includes not only the records of Captain Sabens, including the probating of his will, but also those related to his daughter's education, subsequent marriage to another captain, Joseph Oliver Wilson, and then extensive correspondence from when they moved to Cuba in 1818. John D'Wolf managed their affairs in the United States, including boarding their eldest son when he came to the United States to attend school.

Other family members represented in this collection include William, Levi, and Charles and their father, Mark Anthony. There is extensive correspondence related to John D'Wolf, Jr. (who became known as the "Professor" and taught at Brown University, and his son John D'Wolf III, their nephew, George, whose failure brought down the Bank of Bristol in 1825, and caused a financial panic in Bristol, is also represented.

The Slave Trade

The slave trade is well represented in this collection. It includes navigational logs to Africa, bills of sales for slaves, orders to captains, and other materials which document the family's participation in the slave trade from 1786-1808 although it was illegal under Rhode Island law. Some documents in the collection suggest that the D'Wolfs continued to make slaving voyages after the enactment of the Federal law in 1808, which made participation in the slave trade an offense punishable by death. The collection also contains information about the D'Wolf sugar and coffee plantations, and of the expatriate community that grew up in Cuba. The letters of Sarah (Sabens) Wilson contain many mentions of slaves, including glimpses of their daily life, an account of a slave uprising in Cuba and a cholera epidemic that killed many.