A Story from the Deep North


In Traces of the Trade, Producer/Director Katrina Browne tells the story of her forefathers, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Given the myth that the South is solely responsible for slavery, viewers will be surprised to learn that Browne's ancestors were Northerners. The film follows Browne and nine fellow family members on a remarkable journey which brings them face-to-face with the history and legacy of New England's hidden enterprise.

From 1769 to 1820, DeWolf fathers, sons and grandsons trafficked in human beings. They sailed their ships from Bristol, Rhode Island to West Africa with rum to trade for African men, women and children. Captives were taken to plantations that the DeWolfs owned in Cuba or were sold at auction in such ports as Havana and Charleston. Sugar and molasses were then brought from Cuba to the family-owned rum distilleries in Bristol.

Over the generations, the family owned 47 ships that transported thousands of Africans across the Middle Passage into slavery. They amassed an enormous fortune. By the end of his life, James DeWolf had been a U.S. Senator and was the second richest man in the United States.

The enslavement of Africans was business for more than just the DeWolf family. It was a cornerstone of Northern commercial life. The Triangle Trade drove the economy of many port cities (Rhode Island had the largest share in the trade of any state), and slavery itself existed in the North for over 200 years. Northern textile mills used slave-picked cotton from the South to fuel the Industrial Revolution, while banks and insurance companies played a key role throughout the period. The DeWolf family story is a quintessential representation of this multi-faceted New England story.

While they were one of only a few "slaving" families, the network of commercial activities that they were tied into involved an enormous portion of the Northern population. Many citizens, for example, would buy shares in slave ships in order to make a profit.

The film follows ten DeWolf descendants (ages 32-71, ranging from sisters to seventh cousins) on a journey that is both literal and existential. Over several weeks during the summer of 2001 the family members retraced the steps of the Triangle Trade, visiting the DeWolf hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island, the slave forts on the coast of Ghana, and the ruins of family plantations in Cuba. The family met with scholars and held inter-racial dialogues in each country.

One year later, the family reunited in order to confront the thorny topic of what to do now. In the context of growing calls for reparations for slavery, family members struggled with the question of how to think about and contribute to "repair."


Traces of the Trade is being independently produced for national and international television broadcast. The film is also intended as a catalyst for dialogue and education through screenings in communities and classrooms. The documentary will thus be distributed through civic and community associations, race dialogue groups, museums and historical societies, religious congregations, high schools, college and universities, etc. We will develop discussion guides, study guides and other materials to facilitate use of the film, including the expansion of the website.

Principal photography has been completed. We are currently in post-production.

Stay tuned for updates on completion, distribution, and broadcast. The "How to Help" section of this site will tell you how to connect with us if you would like to get involved in contributing to the completion of the documentary or would like to use the final film once it is available.



Episcopal Life, June, 2006

Katrina Browne and the film are also featured in "I Didn't Do It Alone: Society's Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success", a report published by United for a Fair Economy, June, 2004

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