One Square Mile: Bristol's Rich History

Oct 7, 2013

Rhode Island Public Radio is proud to resume our acclaimed "One Square Mile" series where we take an in depth look at one Rhode Island community. This week the spotlight is on Bristol.

Bristol is a town of historical contradictions. Its wealth came from the slave trade, yet it also boasts the oldest 4th of July Day celebration in the United States; a town that went from repudiating human freedom to embracing it.

The Old State House in Bristol.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

Bristol was founded in 1680 by four Boston merchants who paid the British crown 1,100 pounds for the land. The Wampanoag Tribe, who for generations used the land as a summer gathering place, had lost it in the King Philip's War a few years earlier. The merchants set out planning a town with unusually wide streets for the period, notes retired Roger Williams University history professor Kevin Jordan.

"The width of our original streets are original,” says Jordan.  “So High Street and Hope Street are still the original width which was extremely wide -- unlike say the narrow streets of Boston, Providence or Newport even. So it was a very rational, laid out town. The founders then divided the land up into lots. When the settlers came in they had to be voted into living in town, be approved."

Bristol's original wide streets
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

From the outset, Bristol drew its strength from its natural harbor. It was here at that livestock and produce were shipped to other colonies and abroad. Bristol farmers were especially adept at growing onions, which were then in high demand because they prevented scurvy. At its founding in 1680 Bristol was part of Massachusetts. It would remain so until 1747 when the Crown awarded it to Rhode Island.

Bristol's dark passage into the slave trade began in the mid 1700's when Mark Anthony DeWolf came to town. He tried his hand at slaving but wasn't very successful at it. His five sons, on the other hand, became rich men off the slave trade -- owning not only the ships used in the voyages but the distilleries that made the rum and the Cuban plantations that fueled them with sugar and molasses. They even owned their own bank and maritime insurance company.
In the documentary "Traces of the Trade", ten members of the DeWolf family trace their ancestors' involvement in the slave trade.They learned that the family was responsible for the importation of 10,000 slaves over a period of about fifty years. The descendants of those slaves could number half a million today, according to James DeWolf Perry, one of the DeWolf family members who participated in the making of the documentary.

James Dewolf Perry, of Bristol
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

“Well, it turns out the DeWolf family was by far the family that was most involved in the slave trade in the United States,” Perry explains. “James DeWolf and his extended family sent out more slaving voyages than anyone else in the history of the United States. Rhode Island, as well, was the leading state in terms of the slave trade. Bristol was the city more than any in the United States that sent out slaving voyages." How profitable was this slaving business? “Slaving was extraordinarily profitable.  James DeWolf when he died the newspapers reported that he was the second richest man in the United States."
The DeWolf family may have dominated the Bristol based slave trade but they weren't alone in it. Barrel makers profited by making kegs for rum. Iron makers crafted the shackles that would be used to harness the slaves. And ordinary citizens -- lured by the promise of a 25 percent return on their money -- bought shares in the slaving ships.
During the American Revolution the British Navy bombarded Bristol twice, looted and burned it. Perhaps that's why there was such great rejoicing when on July 4th, 1777 British troops heard 13 cannon fires from Bristol in apparent celebration of the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It would be the first in Bristol's long 4th of July celebration tradition according to town clerk and amateur historian Lou Cirillo. 

"So I think that there was a terrific celebration when the British were defeated and Bristol was one of the places that was the epicenter of that time due to its direct attack,” says Cirillo. “So Bristollians embraced the idea of their independence -- maybe a little more strongly than places that had not been directly attacked -- and carried on the tradition."

By the 1820's the slaving voyages had ended and the DeWolfs turned their attention to the Industrial Revolution. They built textile mills that spun into cloth cotton imported from the South -- some of it undoubtedly grown by slaves they had exploited.In time, textile mills and a huge rubber plant provided thousands of jobs in this east bay town.  There was a time when Bristollians never had to leave town, notes town clerk Lou Cirillo.  

"Bristol, for most of its existence, pretty much was an island even though it's a peninsula. It's kind of a self-contained community. Up until 50 odd years ago pretty much everybody who lived in Bristol worked in Bristol. There were loads of manufacturing jobs employing thousands of people that there was very little reason to go anywhere else."

Docks on a portion of Bristol's waterfront
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

 Most of the textile plants and the rubber mill are gone now. Today, Bristol is primarily a bedroom community of Providence, with an active boat building industry and Roger Williams University as its main economic engines. Its biggest draw is what it comes by naturally -- spectacular views of Narragansett Bay, the park like setting of its downtown, distinctive housing  stock, good schools and a strong sense of community.

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