Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave Trading Family in U. S. History by Thomas Norman DeWolf

History becomes very alive when you discover that your own ancestors participated in atrocities. Such was the case for Thomas Norman DeWolf, who grew up in Oregon, far from Bristol, Rhode Island, the ancestral family home of the prominent DeWolf family. The DeWolfs owned ships that sailed the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th and 19th centuries, Bristol to Africa to the Caribbean to Bristol, the infamous Triangle Trade of slaves, sugar, and rum. DeWolf tells about his unusual journey of enlightenment in Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave Trading Family in U. S. History.

DeWolf's cousin Katrina Brown discovered the "family secret." It was not really a secret, she confessed. She said she had always known that there was something dark about her family's past. All the history was readily available, but she had never connected the dots of family, ships, and slaves. When she read a note from her grandmother that mentioned the family trade, she was roused to learn more. She studied history and planned a family pilgrimage to confront the legacy. She invited many distant cousins to join her in a trip to Bristol, Ghana, and Cuba, but only ten agreed to come. She recorded the journey in her Point of View documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.

One of cousins who agreed to participate was DeWolf, the only one to bear the family name. The clan met in Bristol outside the family church in 2001. Over the next several months, they traveled to the sites where ancestors bought and sold slaves. The experience joined with a personal scandal of his own several years later transformed DeWolf's life. It took seven years for him to sort out his feelings and publish this book.

The book may also be a journey of discovery for the reader. DeWolf fully describes the vile slave prisons, ships, and sugar plantations from which the family fortune arose, a legacy that provided wealth and privileged for many generations, many of whom attended Harvard, Princeton, and Brown. He reports on the heated family discussions about their complicity and their ideas for reparations. A strong point made is that all of the city of Bristol was involved as trading partners, ship builders, and investors. Furthermore, all of America participated in slavery, North and South. The wealth of our country is derived from stolen land and stolen labor. Furthermore again, all of Europe and the Middle East participated in ten centuries of African slave trade. There are no innocent parties.

I found the book electrifying for personal reasons, too. Though I grew up in Texas, many generations removed, I learned several years ago that I had ancestors in Bristol, including Shearjashub Bourne, who reportedly owned shares in 42 ships! Looking at the new Voyages Database, I found records for the voyages of several of his ships. Also on those records, as joint owner or captain, was the name DeWolf. What a small world!

Inheriting the Trade would be a great book for discussion groups in libraries, who might also show Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.

DeWolf, Thomas Norman. Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave Trading Family in U. S. History. Beacon Press, 2008. ISBN 9780807072813


James said...

Rick, I was pleased to read this post on my cousin Tom's book, but I was especially interested to see your personal note at the end.

How wonderful that you were able to use the book and the latest edition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database to learn more about your slave-trading ancestors, and isn't it something that your family, including Shearjashub Bourne, and our family were in business together?

I think it's astonishing how many American families have ties, large or small, to slavery and the slave trade. Of course, as you mention, everyone living in this country today benefits from the profits of those vile businesses.

Thomas N. DeWolf said...

Dear Rick,

Thanks so much for reading and reviewing Inheriting the Trade. Our "Traces of the Trade" family continues reaching out to people across the country (schools, churches, conferences, and other events) regarding the legacy of slavery and its continuing impact on all of us today.

Your readers can learn more at and at my blog (

Perhaps our paths will cross in Bristol one day! Best wishes to you,

Tom DeWolf

ricklibrarian said...

James and Thomas,

I am honored that you noticed and commented on my review. Perhaps our paths will cross as did our ancestors in Bristol.

Susan said...

Wow - this book sounds fascinating. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

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