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Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  161 Ratings  ·  53 Reviews
In 2001, Thomas DeWolf discovered that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history, responsible for transporting at least ten thousand Africans. This is his memoir of the journey in which ten family members retraced their ancestors' steps through the notorious triangle trade route—from New England to West Africa to Cuba—and uncovered the hidd ...more
Paperback, 280 pages
Published January 1st 2009 by Beacon Press (first published January 1st 2008)
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Aug 31, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book really got me thinking about slavery and its effects worldwide. It made me sad and angry and frustrated. Some of my thoughts:

1. We all know about slavery in the United States. We all know a bit about the slave trade and about how an uncountable number of Africans died on the way to America. We know that rum is involved somewhere in there. What we aren't told is the impact the slave trade had on Africa. DeWolf doesn't explicitly make the connection, but I did. I have often wondered why
Wow. This is an amazing story that I first learned about watching the documentary entitled "Traces of the Trade" which was brought to my attention because Roger Miller from the seminar post-punk band "Mission of Burma" composed the score for the film! And I learned about the documentary because it begins in a neighboring town to where I live. It's hard to believe that people who lived in Bristol, RI were involved with the slave trade but they were and this is their story. I would suggest reading ...more
Jun 25, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I gave it one star because the legacy of slavery and the continuing privileges enjoyed by whites and males in the United States are important issues deserving of serious examination. That said, this was one poorly written book. The main point seemed to be that all white people are guilty of some responsibility for slavery and ought to apologize to blacks. There could be a lot of debate on that point, but most of the serious issues are rendered trivial in this book. On the one hand, the author se ...more
~ Jackson
Nov 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
'Inheriting the Trade' is the second book that I've read by author Thomas DeWolf. I was not familiar with this one when I read his latest (2012) 'Gather at the Table', co-written with Sharon Morgan. It takes a lot of courage to show yourself honestly and exposing all of your faults and blemishes. But I think that it takes those kind of steps to allow the reader to freely admit their own shortcomings and those of their ancestors.
Thomas' journey with his family is sometimes painful, physically as
A strange book but very readable and interesting. It is partly a story of the author's journey with 9 other DeWolf descendants to trace the history of their slave trading ancestors and try to come to terms with the shame of having come from such a legacy. The group spends time in Bristol Rhode Island, the center of Northern slave trading, Ghana, a major source of DeWolf slaves, and Cuba, the site of DeWolf plantations. This journey was also being filmed for a documentary called "Traces of the Tr ...more
Thomas DeWolf
Oct 26, 2010 added it  ·  (Review from the author)  ·  review of another edition
It would be a bit presumptuous to rate my own book so I'll leave that to others. I'm excited to learn that United Methodist Women (800,000 members strong) has selected Inheriting the Trade as one of their featured books for their 2011 reading program. Continued interest has resulted in a 2nd printing of the book. Read more at
Pat Simmons
Most blacks know their history, but many whites may know and not want to talk about it, but not this author, Thomas Norman Dewolf.
He shows how blacks and whites view situations like a glass of water. It is half full or half empty?
Jun 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Powerful, moving. I read it five years ago, thought of it recently in connection with the Project of Slavery. Race and Reconciliation under way at the University of the South.
From the book: In a trailer for "Traces of the Trade", a documentary about confronting her legacy, Katrina Colston Browne asks: what do we inherit from seven generations ago? A face, a laugh, a ring, a bible, table manners, a name? What do we inherit without even realizing it? What family secrets hide in the unspoken and unseen?

In the next scene, a camera pulls back from an indescribable black & white pattern to reveal the hold of a slave ship, African people crammed tightly together and the
When I first heard about the idea for this book, confronting a family legacy of descending from a powerful family of slave traders, I was impressed by the honesty and the good intentions of such a quest. So many times, we like to tell the stories about the great things our ancestors did and cover up all the dirty little secrets. But our ancestors were human beings, and sometimes, they did things we find hard to explain or defend. Some of my own ancestors were slave owners, who farmed in the Amer ...more
Deborah Replogle
Apr 21, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I actually read DeWolf's second book Gather at the Table first, and was so impressed that I knew I had to read his first one. Again, I am impressed and will make to recommend it to others. This is the book he wrote while he was involved with the film project Tracing the Trade, and while I have not yet seen the film, I'm sure it gives a solid background of the group's personalities.

Essentially, Mr.DeWolf has learned though his cousins that his family, and direct ancestors were the largest slave-t
Aug 27, 2010 rated it liked it
This book challenged me too take a hard look at my life as a white girl. My privileged upbringing, my access to so many opportunities in contrast to the systemic oppression of being a black person. It's like I was given something at birth that automatically placed me above a black person. This is the legacy of slavery that has invidiously carried on for centuries. I do not advocate reparations, or monetary damages, or that I carry the guilt of my ancestors, but what I do advocate is fighting for ...more
Apr 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Outstanding!!! Thomas DeWolf, along with other relatives, traces the DeWolf family's involvement in the Africa-North America Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Another mandatory read assigned by a graduate Professor. However, this book was captivating and extremely informative as Thomas DeWolf takes great pains to weave accurate geographic and historical facts throughout his story. It's a very personal story and you can hear DeWolf struggling to reconcile the vileness (is that a word?), boldness and sel
David Bales
Jan 27, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
A somewhat interesting book by Thomas DeWolf, a former county commissioner from Bend, Oregon who discovers that his ancestors, the DeWolfes of Rhode Island, were heavily involved in the slave trade. DeWolf is rather distantly related to the eastern half of his family--all Ivy Leaguers--but accompanies them to Ghana and Cuba in an attempt to make a documentary film about the subject; it has a lot of revelatory stuff about white people discovering their culpability in contemporary race difficultie ...more
Jun 24, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had no idea that the largest slave trader in the US came out of RI instead of a southern state, as I would have thought. This book followed the showing of the PBS documentary called "Traces of the Trade," in which the descendants of the largest slave owner traveled the route of the slave trade - from the US, to Africa to the Caribbean. The author is one of the descendants. Not long after I read this book, I watched a PBS show about "Big Sugar" that showed how Haitians are even now held as virt ...more
Kathryn Bundy
A huge five stars for this one. It is not often that I find a book that is interesting and accessible and also challenges me to think as much as this one did. I found myself looking up many topics and people who were mentioned, which greatly broadened the scope of the book. Consequently, I learned far more facts and made more connections than a straight reading would have given me. The final chapters drew the author's own experience together and caused me to consider my own privilege, attitudes, ...more
Jun 02, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Wow. I feel like I learned a lot about different aspects of US, Cuban and African history, that I had not been aware before.
An interesting take on the legacy of slavery and "what do do with it".
I appreciate how he is trying to understand the scope of it all, but in the end, race seems to remain an elusive and hard to understand issue in our society. Sure, we need to be aware of the atrocities, try to remedy or heal the situation and find some kind of common ground. But how exactly to get there
Carol E.
Jul 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
This was a fascinating book! I didn't expect to love it as much as I did. I learned SO MUCH. A family discovers that their ancestors were heavily involved in the slave trade. They go on a world journey to trace the history of slavery and to learn about its current day implications. They have very moving and painful experiences. They also learn much about reconciliation and how they think this country should face our history and current influences from our difficult history. I highly recommend th ...more
Jan 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
an in-progress review:

not that far into the book yet
did not get taught US history at least formally that is yet so much rings true to what seeps into the general culture: the lack of stories being told about what happened to Native peoples, the lack of stories about the involvement of African Americans in the building of this country:

quite literally, on their sweat and tears: the need to establish an economy that would make a new country viable once the links to the colonial power was cut

the ne

Oct 18, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall this book offered a pretty good introduction into the subject of the slavery trade in America since the focus is on one New England family with roots in the so called three way trade. The trade in slaves represents the logical beginning of this brutal, tragic and sad business. The book however is more that a history of the trade it is a story of how present day members of the DeWolf family attempt to understand, confront and deal with the family's prominent role in the trade.

Aug 08, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book challenged me. It caused to reflect on my own "white privilage" and what I did or didn't believe about that. Most importantly, it caused me to reflect upon my own role in a society that harbors racisim.I have been challenged to embrace what changes I can make and search out continued growth and implementation. I'm looking forward to following up the book with the movie. I was deeply engaged throughout the entire book and appreciate the author's honest sharing.
Apr 13, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: family, friends, most Americans
Recommended to Yvor by: radio interview
This is an instructive and inspiring exploration of race and attitudes towards race in America. The book approaches this subject through the experience of one family, the DeWolfs, the most prominent slave trading family in the United States, and 10 of their current day descendants who revisit their roots in Bristol, RI and Ghana and Cuba. This book is well-written, often entertaining and provacative. I would commend it to many individuals--family and friends.
Rusty Vaughan
Mar 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It could be that my knowing and respecting Tom DeWolf is the reason I like this books so much. I have read some parts twice and may read it again. That Tom is descended from the largest Slave holder and that he came to write this book is fascinating. I see that 150 years is not so long for such transformation to have taken place. Toms book will forever remind us of what we should continue to learn.
Harriett Milnes
Author Thomas DeWolf brings important questions. He and nine distant cousins traveled to Bristol, Rhode Island, Cuba and Ghana to investigate their ancestors' involvment in the slave trade. He questions slavery, modern inequality, reparations and other important issues. I recommend this book to all.
Pretty good but I felt a little sucker-punched by the author's personal revelations three quarters of the way into the book. Author was piggy-backing off a cousin's film documentary and I'm not sure if I had seen the film whether the book added much. To author's credit he does conclude with what in his opinion are positive action steps for healing the racial divide.
Oct 07, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a memoir of one man's journey with his cousins, all descendants of slave-traders in Rhode Island, to understand their family's disturbing past. The author illuminated the implications of history I knew almost nothing about as he grappled with the discovery of ongoing damage resulting from our country's tragic legacy of slavery. Well worth reading!
Ruth Soz
Nov 09, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
While this was such a unique concept, I was left wanting. Decendents of one of the most profitable slave-trading families travels to Africa to trace the route of the people who were most affected by the slave trade - the slave trade itself. I do applaud the quest; if we can't learn from history and the mistakes of our forefathers, then we will never move forward.
The author is one of the descendants of the DeWolf family of Bristol who participated in the journeys to Bristol, Ghana and Cuba. A documentary, "Traces of the Trade" was made about their journey and the slave-trading history of their ancestors. He reflects on the silencing of the history of slavery, the idea of reparations, present day relationships between whites and blacks.
Aug 31, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent and thought-provoking, explosive of the myth that the North had nothing to do with slavery, that Yankees were all abolitionists. Takes a hard look at the fact that all Americans are implicated in slavery and its economic benefits and the condition of Africa today. A little whiny on the personal front.
Nov 08, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is not a particularly well-written book. A group of decendents of a slave trader travel to Bristol, Ghana, and Cuba to trace the triangle slave trade from which their white ancestors profited. They made a film about it which I have yet to watch. The ideas of regret and shame are important, but the story lacks depth. I imagine the film is better than the book.
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Conversation on race and privilege or lack of... 1 7 Mar 15, 2009 06:59AM  
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Thomas Norman DeWolf is an author, serves as Executive Director of Coming to the Table, and is a certified trainer for Infinite Possibilities: The Art of Changing Your Life

Tom is co-author, with Sharon Leslie Morgan of Gather at the Table , published by Beacon Press in October 2012.

Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate calls it, "an honest exploration into the deep social wounds left by racism
More about Thomas Norman DeWolf

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