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James DeWolf papers

Biographical note

James DeWolf (1764-1837) was born in Bristol, Rhode Island, the seventh son of Mark Anthony and Abigail DeWolf. His father and his mother's brother, Simeon Potter, were heavily involved in the trade of slaves from the Guinea Coast of Africa, both before and after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During the war, DeWolf and his brothers signed on to his uncle Simeon Potter's privateers operating out of Rhode Island ports as ship's crew. As a member of the ship's crew, DeWolf successfully survived naval battles and being captured by the enemy twice. These early experiences of cruelty and hardship made him into a man of force and indomitable energy with vague ethical distinctions.

Before he was twenty years old, DeWolf became captain of a ship and engaged in extensive commercial ventures, including trading in slaves with Cuba and other West Indian islands. In 1791, DeWolf was indicted by a grand jury in Newport, Rhode Island, for the murder of a slave woman being transported on one of his ships. The case was formally dismissed as being without merit. DeWolf went on to finance, as sole or primary merchant and ship owner, another twenty-five slaving voyages, usually with other members of his family. His business empire grew to include three sugar plantations in Cuba.

During the War of 1812 (1812-1815), DeWolf was a strong advocate of war with England and offered the government at his own expense "an armed Brig (one of the most suitable in this country for a Privateer), of one hundred and sixty tons burthen, mounting eighteen guns and carries one hundred and twenty men, called the Yankee, commanded by Oliver Wilson." The Yankee was immensely successful. It made six cruises in less than three years and captured more than five million dollars' worth of British property.

After the War of 1812 ended, DeWolf entered politics as a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, rising to become the Speaker of the House from 1819 to 1821. He eventually ran for the U.S. Senate and served from 1821 to 1825, when he resigned and returned to Rhode Island and their state legislature.

DeWolf is also noted for having begun one of the earliest cotton mills in the United States. In 1812, he founded the Arkwright Mills in Coventry, Rhode Island. He also turned his attentions to his hometown of Bristol, where he had his mansion, “The Mount” built by Russell Warren, and devised schemes for the advancement of the town and its industries.

By the time of his death, James DeWolf was not only the wealthiest member of the DeWolf family but the richest man in the state, if not New England, and was reported to be the second-richest person in the country.