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Donald J. Ratcliffe

Riley, James (27 October 1777–18 March 1840), mariner, slave, and author, was born in Middletown, Connecticut, the son of Asher Riley, a farmer of reduced means, and Rebecca Sage, the daughter of an old Wethersfield family. Riley received a limited education, and from the age of eight he had to earn his keep helping local farmers. When he was fifteen, “tall and stout for my age,” Riley went to sea, working his way up until he gained command of his own ship at the age of twenty and subsequently acquired responsibility for trading the cargoes. Sailing mainly from New York, he made “voyages in all climates usually visited by American ships” and gained “a fair share of prosperity” ( Narrative, pp. 16–17). In January 1802 he married Phebe Miller, daughter of Hosea Miller and Mary Stow, with whom he had five children.

Like most American merchants ...