A Northern Family Confronts Its Slaveholding Past

Filmmaker Katrina Browne discusses her family’s role in American slavery

Katrina Browne
Katrina Browne and a Ghanaian child on the ramparts of Cape Coast Castle slave fort. Katrina Browne

When Katrina Browne discovered that her New England ancestors, the DeWolfs, were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history, she invited DeWolf descendents to retrace the Triangle Trade route and confront this legacy. Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, which airs June 24 on the PBS film series P.O.V., follows their journey and documents the North's intimate relationship with slavery. Browne's cousin Thomas DeWolf has also written a book about the trip, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. This year is the bicentennial of the federal abolition of the slave trade.

How did you first find out about your family's history and why did you want to make a film about it?
I was in seminary in my late 20s—I was 28-years-old—and I got a booklet that my grandmother sent to all her grandchildren. She was 88 and coming to the end of her life and wondering if her grandkids actually knew anything about their family history—whether they cared. She was conscientious enough to put in a couple sentences about the fact that our ancestors were slave traders. It hit me incredibly hard when I read those sentences. I probably would have just treated the whole thing as my problem to reckon with on my own with my family, privately, if I hadn't come across a book by historian Joanne Pope Melish called Disowning Slavery. She traced the process whereby the northern states conveniently forgot that slavery was a huge part of the economy.

Slavery itself existed in New England for over 200 years. History books leave most of us with the impression that because it was abolished in the North before the South, it was as if it never happened in the North, that we were the good guys and abolitionists and that slavery was really a Southern sin. That book made me realize what I had done with my own amnesia, and my family's amnesia was really parallel to this much larger regional dynamic.

That's what inspired me to make this film—that showing me and my family grappling with it would give other white Americans an opportunity to think and talk about their own intimate feelings, wherever their family history may lie, and that it would also set Americans straight about the history.

What did you find out about how and why the DeWolfs first got into the trade?
They were sailors and worked their way up to being slave ship captains. People typically would buy shares in slave ships and become part owners, and if you were successful you became a full owner. It was really [James DeWolf] who became extremely successful. He had a number of sons who all were in the slave trade. That's how it really became a dynasty—three generations in 50 years.

How did they use the Triangle Route, from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back?
In the late 18th century rum became a commodity that was in demand—it rose to the top as a commodity of interest on the West African coast as part of the slave trade. So more and more rum distilleries were built in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The DeWolfs had a rum distillery—they would take rum to West Africa, they would trade it for people and then bring those captured Africans to, most frequently, Cuba and Charleston, South Carolina, but also to other Caribbean ports and other Southern states. In Cuba, they also owned sugar and coffee plantations. The molasses from the sugar plantations was a key ingredient for the rum-making. They had an auction house in Charleston, and they developed their own insurance company and bank.

Your family wasn't the only Northern family involved in this trade. How widespread was the practice and how did it impact the North's economy?
It would probably come as a surprise to most people that Rhode Island, despite being the smallest state in the country, was actually the largest slave-trading state in terms of the number of Africans brought on ships leaving from Rhode Island ports. The ships were often built by Massachusetts ship builders. The rope, the sails, the shackles, the other commodities were traded in addition to rum. Connecticut had a lot of farms, and a large portion of the commodities cultivated for trade were sent to [the West Indies]. The islands were typically turned into one-crop islands, where you turned all the land into sugar, tobacco, coffee—these commodities that were in demand. They weren't growing as much food [on the islands], so the food would be brought from Connecticut.

People may be surprised to learn that your family and others continued the trade well past when it was made illegal, in 1808. How were they able to do that?
Prior to 1808, various states passed laws outlawing the slave trade, but they weren't enforced practically at all. The DeWolfs and pretty much everyone else traded up until it was federally abolished in 1808. Thomas Jefferson was president at the time and he proposed they should close the trade. After 1808 a lot of people did quit the trade, including James DeWolf, but his nephew decided to ignore even that law, and he continued to trade until about 1820—at that point it became a capital offense, where you could be executed. It's interesting to think about how possible it was to be doing something that was not only completely immoral, but also illegal, and get away with it. With their Cuban slave-trading buddies they would sell one of their ships to one of their buddies for a dollar, and then it would be going around the triangle with the Cuban flag on it, and then they'd buy it back.

How did the DeWolfs' wealth and privilege manifest itself in the Bristol community?
The DeWolfs were under the jurisdiction of Newport, and the Newport customs collector believed in enforcing the state law. They wanted to get around the law so they lobbied Congress to create a separate customs district, and they succeeded. Then they recommended their brother-in-law, Charles Collins, to be appointed collector of ports, and that's who Thomas Jefferson appointed. Collins was part owner of one of their Cuban plantations. People including the Newport collector protested the appointment. It was brought to Jefferson and his Secretary of the Treasury's attention, and they didn't do anything about it. The DeWolfs were major campaign contributors to Thomas Jefferson. One can only assume that he wasn't going to cause trouble for them.

When you and your nine relatives arrived in Ghana and then in Cuba, what remnants of the trade did you see?
In Ghana we visited the slave forts—there were dozens of them up and down the coast and some of them have been turned into historic sites protected by UNESCO. It's very intense to go to the dungeons where people were held and where you know your ancestors had been. I'd brought so much defensiveness to the conversation before, some of which has to do with my ancestors and some of which has to do with being white in America. Something happened for me, being there, where I could just pull away that defensiveness and the very natural reaction became pure empathy—imagining what it would be like to be a descendent of people who had been brutalized in that way.

When you visited Ghana it was during Panafest, which is attended by many African Americans. What is that event, and what was it like to be in the midst of it?
We were totally nervous and always walking on eggshells. It's a time of pilgrimage for people of African descent who, for many, are the first ones to be coming back to West Africa since their ancestors were taken away. The reactions that we encountered were completely across the board—from people who really appreciated our being there and our desire to face the history to people who really resented us being there and felt we were invading their space. It was such a sacred moment for them that the last people they wanted to see were white Americans, let alone descendents of slave traders.

How did your family members' attitudes toward their slave-trading history—or towards contemporary race issues—change as the trip progressed?
A lot of us were really inspired to get involved in public policy debates—the reparations debate and how to think about repair. I think everyone [on the trip] would say we have a sense of responsibility because we know that we had a leg up, and therefore we think there's a responsibility to use those privileges to make a difference. Most of us would say we don't feel personally guilty.

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