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Inheriting the Trade:

A Northern Family Confronts its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U. S. History



Summary and Opinion

            “Inheriting the Trade”, by Thomas Norman DeWolf is a documented history of America’s past that is more honest and detailed than history books published for the education system. This candid account of a citizen’s rich family history and all of its experiences provides more insight to the foundation of the United States than one would receive from an encyclopedia; which would simply pale to the revelations of this book. The manufactured truth that is taught in schools across the nation is not only a creative fib, but a drastic thievery of credit. Despite the false truth that all Americans have been fed, slavery began out of greed, not need. The Royals of England did not need more than what they had, but they wanted more. In a quest to achieve that, Columbus, Spanish, sailed across the ocean. His genius, however, did not lead him to India like he thought. It instead lead him to a land, claimed but unnamed, across the Atlantic, that would later and forever be known as America. The Natives of that land were not Indian at all. They were Natives of the land that came to be known as America. This makes them Native Americans, not Indians. I detest when people use the two terms congruently; it is politically incorrect, and furthermore disrespectful. DeWolf, due to the culture he was raised in, ignorantly makes this mistake. The rest of his findings, however, lead me to believe what he lacks in ethnic understanding he makes up for in frankness.


            “Our nation was founded on the ideals of equality and freedom, but these “unalienable rights” have never been secured once and for all for all people. It is a perpetual struggle, an ongoing journey. The journey you are about to embark upon began when nine people responded to an invitation. It altered my life. I invite you to join us” writes DeWolf (xiii). He continues by writing:

Throughout this country’s history, white people have benefited as a direct result of the riches in land, money, and prestige that were gained because of slavery. A question that white people sometimes ask each other about black people in regard to slavery is “Why can’t they just get over it?” During our journey, several African Americans provided a terse and accurate response: “Because it’s not over” (xii)


His knack for bluntness is present and apparent from the beginning. He presents himself as a credible source and one whose work is worthy of reading. I find this respectable and am interested in his further opinions and point of view on society.




Section 1: Family

            It surprises me when Dewolf makes a mental note about the hypocrisy of many Christian and church-going people while in a service with the family. He writes:

I was jarred from my thoughts by the scripture reading from Galatians. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery, for you were called to freedom...” “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery...” How ironic to hear this just before the Fourth of July holiday and on the first day of filming Traces of the Trade. I have no doubt that these same words from Paul to the Galatians were also read here in the 1700s and 1800s when DeWolfs were slavers and members of this Church. What were they thinking as they heard these words? (15)


His thinking is quite logical and can easily be understood. I have often pondered this phenomenon as well. What did scriptures like the latter mean to the Christian leaders and church-goers of the past? In any regard, the family and lineage aspect of our nation’s history fascinates me the most.



The attainment of English, Spanish, and French surnames and the rid of African names completely demolished all possibility of any slave or slave descendant’s lineage. Yet people of other races and the white race in particular, do not seem to realize the magnitude and unfortunate reality of this truth. A slave descendant’s best attempt at tracing back their ancestry can only lead to their great grandparents’ last slave owners. For example, I know that one of my mother’s great grandparents was Native American and one of my father’s grandparents was Native American but somehow I am an African American and my last name is Scottish. I can also go by hair color. People on my mother’s side have reddish brown hair and my mother’s maiden name is English. This would indicate that, perhaps, one of my mother’s great grandparents were partially Irish. But I can only make an educated guess about this. My speculations will never be confirmed.           


Moreover, “Two of the colonial soldiers who fought in King Philip’s War at the Great Swamp Massacre were brothers Edward and Stephen DeWolf, sons of Balthazar, the first DeWolf to arrive in colonial America,” (36)  Edward DeWolf is the author’s grandfather, ten generations back. I was shocked when I heard this. I do not even know of my grandfather three generations back. Almost all African Americans would say the same. The paradigm is amazing. DeWolf explains, “Captain James DeWolf is [his] first cousin six times removed. His father, Mark Antony, had a brother Simon who was a carpenter in Connecticut. [The author] is descended from his line” (20). He also mentions that “Ledlie’s wife, Roxana, is a direct descendant of the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher— brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin— and of the Civil War general Samuel Chapman Armstrong who, in 1867, founded the Hampton Institute in Virginia to provide a teacher’s education for ex-slaves,” (18). This rich, detailed history makes me just a little bit jealous.


            Another member of DeWolf’s family, Dain Perry, mentions “…I am one of the few in the group that does not have Howe or DeWolf in my name. I was named after my maternal grandfather,” (21). I have always been interested in the development of last names. I have always wanted to know when and where they originated and how they are passed down. If surnames are strictly the last name of the father, what happens in special circumstances when a father is estranged or there are doubts of paternity? Legally, because of documentation, my great grandfather is my aunt’s father. This is because my aunt’s father died before she was born and my grandmother did not stay close with her father’s family. So my great grandfather signed his name on my aunt’s birth certificate because he did not want her to be called a bastard. I wonder if the assignment of last names was a non-negotiable, strict procedure, would American families be bigger. Would the percentage of black-on-black crime decrease? Would African Americans who ancestors lived on the same plantation unite or merge families? Would African Americans, in general, feel a stronger sense of belonging and community? Would the subject of slavery be easier to confront?


Section 2: Culture

Family can also impact our culture & life experiences. The writer tells readers of some of his family members’ experiences with black people. Some family members were much more familiar with and comfortable around black people than others. DeWolf says about himself that he lives in a place that is about 95% white and has not dealt with race issues since junior high. His neighborhood sounds like one infested with white privilege. One of his family members says, ““the privilege that I do have couldn’t be clearer to me, especially in terms of comfort. I mean, I get to sit here.” She looks around Helen’s yard. “I get to be in beautiful places of my choice that actually belong to my family.” Since she grew up here, where she says there weren’t any black people, Elizabeth didn’t begin interacting with people of African descent until she was a teenager, and when she did she was afraid they wouldn’t like her” (19). What could help with this dynamic is diversity training. One of the writer’s family members spoke out about that saying, “What really stands out that’s hard was when I started doing diversity training and I was working with black people. I was walking down the hall with one of my training partners, a black woman. I wanted to tell her about [our family history] and I couldn’t do it. I stopped talking because I got so choked up inside. I told her that night at dinner. It was so difficult to talk about this with somebody who was black,” (20). Even though this family member named Holly was uncomfortable about the thought of having an honest conversation with a black person, she started that conversation.


A family member named Dain explained that “[He] grew up with blacks riding in the back of the bus and my thinking not too much of it.” Later in his life, at a boarding school in Connecticut there were many more blacks than he was used to, “By the end of the first year [his] best friend was black and it didn’t feel like a transformation at all. It felt natural.” DeWolf then mentions that “Dain has done a great deal of work in inner-city African American communities, worked in prisons, where he developed strong relationships with blacks, and mentored African Americans, which always seemed a very normal thing to him.” For other whites, this charity can feel more like a relief of guilt; cultural guilt that they deny having (21). One reason whites may feel uncomfortable about having these types of conversations is due to them being raised on some sort of ‘No Talk Rule’.



The “No Talk Rule”

This rule is an unspoken rule that makes it almost forbidden to discuss any role their ancestors may have had in the dark history of the United States. ““The No Talk Rule that I feel so strongly in our family I see in our whole social structure,” says Keila,” another member of DeWolf’s family (20). The author provides a brief piece of external history:

In the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included in his list of “unremitting injuries and usurpations” committed by “his present majesty” (King George III) that “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” Yet Jefferson owned slaves when he wrote these words. He owned slaves until his death. “He names it, and he doesn’t free his slaves,” underscores Joanne. (61)


However, I personally believe that Thomas Jefferson’s wife, though purchased by him, was indeed just that. It is written in history that Jefferson impregnated and had many children with his “slave” wife. The scene at the end of the movie Lincoln further supports my belief that Jefferson’s “slave” family was in actuality his real family that he loved dearly. It is quite likely that he may have called them his slaves when speaking with others in order to fit in. More external history was provided as well.


Section 3: Past, Present, Future

Between 1500 and 1800, fourteen million people came to the New World. Of that total, eleven and a half million were African and were forced immigrants through the slave trade. This is the foundation of the creation of North America. DeWolf explains:

Even after the Civil War, blacks were prevented from becoming equal citizens through Jim Crow laws, racial violence, lynching, and various other forms of terror and discrimination. Though civil and voting rights laws were adopted in the 1960s, the pecking order that has been in place for hundreds of years— with major disparities between blacks and whites in terms of education, housing, employment, health care, and treatment within and by the criminal justice system— continues. It’s easy to agree that slavery prior to the Civil War was wrong. It’s much more difficult for whites to reflect on the systemic racism that lingers today. In my experience, one of the major impediments to discussing the legacy of slavery is that the subject is so overwhelming. My hope is that focusing on one family’s history will help readers get a better grasp on it, so that we can all begin an honest dialogue about race in the United States. (xii)


I find it easy to agree with his statements about dialoguing. While only a small, definite percentage of people in the United States will read his book, and agree with it, a much larger percentage still remains to be confronted.


Unseparated yet Unequal

            A well-known statute in Civil Rights is “Separate but Equal”. Every honest person knows the irony of the phrase. Overtime, the reality of this phrase became ‘unseparated yet unequal’. DeWolf writes, “The more I hear, the more isolated I feel. Some of my newfound relatives come from quite privileged backgrounds with international travel, servants, and boarding schools. I’ve only read about these things in books,” (22-23). This is a common viewpoint among African Americans, and other minorities as well. DeWolf soon learned of other perspectives when his family met some people familiar with the history and culture in their area, in order to gain insight. One of the people they met with told them that “This journey will be a challenge. Race relations are difficult to talk about. People of color have an especially difficult time talking about it.” However, I disagree and think it is more challenging for whites to talk about, even in this era. DeWolf puts both views in the dialogue but does not take a side.


This portion of dialogue confronts the truth about some black people that is still true today:

“At that time my family was crossing the line, as they say, trying to be white. They lived in Bristol as white people.” He leans forward as he emphasizes the last two words. “They were trying to ignore any black heritage in the family. They wanted to dilute what they felt was inferior black blood. In my research on my grandmother, I found out that I was a descendant of the DeWolfs.” This comes as a surprise. I’d like to know more, but John hasn’t been able to figure out if he’s descended from DeWolfs, DeWolf slaves, or both. (23)

There are some people with black parents, grandparents, or great grandparents that despise the fact that they are in such a bloodline. These people often bleach their skin and change their whole appearance (like icon Michael Jackson) to try to blend in with whites.


The Native Americans

People often talk in circles when it comes to African Americans and African American history, but what happened to the Native Americans? “In 1620, the Pilgrims landed thirty-five miles away at Plymouth. Massasoit, the sachem, or chief, of the Wampanoag— a branch of the Algonquin Nation— ruled the area now called Bristol. Wampanoag people had lived in this region for twelve thousand years,” (31). His village, at the foot of Mount Hope rose two hundred feet above sea level overlooking Mount Hope Bay; he was born there in 1580. The Pilgrims from the Mayflower were members of the “English Separatist Church who fled their home to escape religious persecution,” (31). Some years later, these same immigrants made laws mandating that any Natives “who refused to accept the Puritans’ religion would be put to death for blasphemy,” (31). Sadly, the irony of the circumstance is not funny, nor is it surprising. The European peoples of the past claimed they were divine in the eyes of the Lord and, therefore, apparently, they could be hypocrites if they wanted to be. European ‘Christians’ dealt many great atrocities onto the Natives; “explorers captured and enslaved them in the colonies, or sold them into slavery in the Caribbean islands and Europe,” (31). At least fifty thousand Native Americans “were exported from the colonies between 1670 and 1715. On March 22, 1621, Massasoit led a small group of braves to Plymouth, where the Mayflower remained anchored in the harbor,” (32). He brought Squanto, another Wampanoag kidnapped and sold in Spain seven years earlier, as his interpreter. “After escaping to London, Squanto learned English before returning home. Massasoit signed a peace treaty that day which he honored until his death forty years later,” (32). I always thought there was more to the story; I had no idea it was completely fabricated.


I am completely astonished by the depth of fabrication. DeWolf shares in my astonishment with the truth and it propels him to write:

I suspect that in grade school most of us heard the story that the Wampanoag people probably “saved the Pilgrims from starving to death. They shared food and taught them to fish. They gave the Pilgrims seed corn and taught them how to plant and cultivate it. A three-day feast of thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621 celebrated these acts of kindness. Plymouth Colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent men hunting after wild ducks and geese to supplement the bountiful harvest of that first year in this new land. The colonists and Wampanoags observed a second thanksgiving feast two years later. (32)


DeWolf’s astonishment soon becomes a quiet outrage and his next piece of text is exactly what I was thinking. “What wasn’t taught in any classroom of my youth is what happened soon after that auspicious beginning,” (32) Throughout the next forty years, Massasoit traded unoccupied lands for weapons, rum, and horses; they had not known of such things before the intrusion of the Europeans. “They also did not understand the concept of owning land,” (32). Clearly, these “savages”, for the most part, were a very generous and gracious people with a strong sense of unity and an unawareness of betrayal. “Samoset, from the Pemaquid Nation, accompanied Massasoit to Plymouth in 1621. Four years later, colonists asked Samoset to give them twelve thousand acres of Pemaquid land (32). Samoset, quite spiritual, believed that “land came from the Great Spirit, was as endless as the sky, and belonged to no man” (32). However, to humor the Europeans “in their strange ways,” he took them through a ceremony of land transferring and made his mark on a paper for them. It was the first deed of Native land to English colonists, and Samoset had no idea what he had done in his innocence and blissful harmony.


            The Untold Story

Massasoit tried very hard to maintain peace between his people and the colonists, but many Wampanoag people “began to hate the European invaders long before Massasoit died in 1661,” (33). Metacom, one of Massasoit’s sons, “was twenty-four years old when he became sachem in 1662, and would become known by the Europeans as King Philip,” (33). Metacom wanted revenge for his brother’s death; the Wampanoag suspected that the Europeans poisoned him, Massasoit’s oldest, when he was sachem. The Europeans were greedy and the Natives were generous. By 1671, so many English settlers lived in the colonies that the Natives were outnumbered – ratio: two to one. “Metacom foresaw the ruin of his people and formed alliances with other tribes,” (33). William Bradford, Plymouth Colony’s governor for 31 years since 1620, died in office in 1657. This marked the beginning of a new generation and all hopes of unity vanished. “Metacom and his allies attacked dozens of settlements, destroying some,” (33). The Natives mobilized easily over the terrain, organized themselves efficiently, and primarily attacked outlying towns and farms. Still, throughout the years, colonists had succeeded in converting some Natives to Christianity. Many of them became aid and soldiers for the colonists against Metacom. Several New England colonies united in the spreading war as well. On December 19, 1675, a blizzard raged as a massive attack began. More than two hundred soldiers died and hundreds of Natives, non-combatants and all, perished. This was only the beginning. War was rampant. “King Philip’s War remains the costliest war, per capita, in American history,” (35). Even still, there is much more to this disturbing history that could be told.


Politically Correct

The author seems to be honest and level headed, but all throughout the book he refers to Native Americans as Indians. The term is so politically and logically incorrect, one would think that since it is frowned upon to call blacks ‘niggers’ that it would be frowned upon to call Native Americans ‘Indians’. The Native inhabitants of the land the English named ‘America’ were in no way descendants of, cousins to, or remotely related in any way to the people of India. Due to one man’s foolish assumption in 1492, people across the globe have been misled for centuries. He observes, “I’ve always been taught that America was founded on the ideals of equality, freedom, and liberty,” (36). What sounds ironic is actually just fabrication.


Truths like, “the DeWolfs financed eighty-eight voyages, which transported approximately ten thousand Africans. Alone, or in partnership with others, the DeWolf family was accountable for almost 60 percent of all African voyages sailing from Bristol, making them the largest slave-trading dynasty in early America,” will never be revealed mainstream (43). Nor will truths like “The man who made the most money in New England in the War of 1812 was James DeWolf,” ever be revealed mainstream because they involve the truth about the government: “During the war DeWolf was a privateer, essentially a legalized pirate authorized by the government to seize enemy ships and share the booty with the government…the DeWolf family actually owned more ships in 1812 than the United States Navy…Slave trading had been illegal in Rhode Island since 1787, but many in the trade, including the DeWolfs, ignored the law,” (45). Furthermore, there is still a piece of the puzzle missing: “Bonnie explains…how many people depended on James DeWolf and the slave trade. In the stock market today people buy shares in a new company. Back then, many bought shares in slave ships…[they] anticipated an average of twenty-five percent return The final piece of the completed puzzle was getting into politics,” (47). The deception goes so deep, it would take forever and a day to explain the truth in it all; or at least 513 years {i.e. 2015-1492}. “People throughout Bristol supported that business, apparently willing to overlook certain unsavory things, undoubtedly for economic reasons,” (48); “which explains the ship’s anchor on the state flag,” (31). Slave trading was seen as being patriotic and a true Rhode Islander.



The actual reasons that slavery began in no way excuses the atrocity it turned into, however, it was not as much an illogical evil as most African Americans think and teach their children. Slavery was not just the enslavement of innocent people. Slavery was a business at a time when resources were low, modern technology was non-existent, education was limited, thus, knowledge was shallow, and people lived in ignorant bliss. Basically, they did not know any better. They did not see another way and did not understand why the way those chose to survive was wrong. They felt superior to anyone that was not them and that God was on their side, wanting them to Christianize the “savages” and “inferior”. They felt and were taught that being superior gave them the right and privilege to change and control the world; make it their world, make it “better”. This is the mentality that changed slavery from a business to a disgusting bout with abuse of power and psychologically damaging intimidation as its legacy. Unfortunately, it is also the mentality that many Caucasian Americans have yet to find fault with today. The only difference is, power has become more associated with riches; greed. It is greed that continues to divide social classes in America; “the poor get poorer and the rich get richer”. As the author pointed out, “You can’t understand America without understanding what the slave trade did for it.” (66). The author also makes the point that the people then were probably not much different from the people now and if the people now were there at that time, some may actually have been involved in the slave trade. It is an impactful perspective.




DeWolf, Thomas Norman. Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U. S. History. Boston, MA, USA: Beacon Press, 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 February 2015.

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