The history of Rhode Island includes the history of Rhode Island from pre-colonial times (1636) to modern day.


King Philip's Seat," a Native American meeting place on Mount Hope,

Native American inhabitants, including the Narragansett tribe and the closely related Niantic tribe, occupied most of the area now known as Rhode Island. Most of the Native Americans were decimated by European diseases and warfare with the Europeans. The Narragansett language died out for many years but was preserved in Roger Williams' the "A Key into the Languages of America."[1] In the twenty-first century, the tribe remains a federally recognized entity in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Colony period: 1636–1776[]

Roger Williams meeting with the Narragansetts

In 1614 the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block visited the island that is now called Block Island, and by 1625 the Dutch West India Company set up a temporary trading post on Dutch Island in Narragansett Bay to trade with local Native Americans. In 1635 William Blackstone arrived in the area now known as Cumberland, and he became the first permanent European settler of what is now Rhode Island.

In 1636, after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views, Roger Williams settled at the tip of Narragansett Bay. He called the site Providence and declared it a place of religious freedom. This is the article of agreement Roger Williams and others made, and every person who decided to live in Providence had to sign it:

We, whose names are hereunder written, being desirous to inhabit the town of Providence, do promise to submit ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good by the body in an orderly way by the major consent of the inhabitance, masters of families, incorporated together into a township, and such others as they shall admit into the same only in civil things.

Williams purchased the land for Providence from the Narragansett natives in 1638.[1]

In 1637, Anne Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts for committing heresy. She and some others, including William Coddington and John Clarke, founded the town of Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island. In 1639, Coddington left Portsmouth and founded Newport, also on Aquidneck Island.

In 1643, a patent was issued for Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport by Robert Rich, incorporating the three towns as "Providence Plantations, in the Narraganset-Bay, in New England".[2]

In 1643 Samuel Gorton attempted to purchase Shawomet or Shawhomett (now called Warwick) from the Narragansett sachem Miantonomoh. Other sachems complained to Boston about the sale, and Massachusetts Bay arrested Gorton and seized the settlement. Gorton received a land patent from Robert Rich in 1648, which changed the name of the town to Warwick. Massachusetts continued to claim the town, but did little to enforce that claim.

Originally, Providence and Rhode Island were an self-governing colonies, established without sanction from authorities in London. In 1644, Roger Williams obtained a charter from Parliament. The 1644 charter, however, was issued during the English Civil War without the consent of King Charles I, who was fighting a war against Parliament. In 1647, the colony on Rhode Island was united with Providence under a single government, and liberty of conscience was again proclaimed becoming a safe haven for persecuted people such as Baptists, Quakers, Jews, and other exiles.

Disagreement arose between the mainland towns of Providence and Warwick (both on the western mainland) of Narragansett Bay) on the one side and the towns of Aquidneck Island (Portsmouth and Newport) on the other. After a disagreement between John Clarke and William Coddington on the island, Coddington went to England and, in 1651, secured a commission to rule the islands of Rhode Island and Conanicut Island. This arrangement left Providence and Warwick to themselves. Coddington's scheme was strongly disapproved by Williams and Clarke and their followers (many were Baptists), especially as it seemed to involve a federation of Coddington's domain with Massachusetts and Connecticut and a consequent threat to liberty of conscience, not only on the islands, but also in Providence and Warwick, which would be left unprotected.

Later in 1651, Williams and Clarke went to England on behalf of their friends to secure from Oliver Cromwell's government the annulment of Coddington's charter and the recognition of the colony as a republic, dependent only on England. They succeeded, and Williams soon returned to Providence.

In 1660, following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, concern grew regarding the validity of the colonial charter issued by Parliament. In 1662, Rhode Island again dispatched representatives to London to obtain a charter.

John Clarke was granted a Charter by King Charles II in 1663 for Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which effectively united the two colonies into one, and gave the new colony a remarkable degree of self-government.[3] By the eighteenth century, Rhode Island (along with Connecticut) was one of only two charter colonies remaining in British North America. Under the terms of the charter, only landowners could vote. Before the Industrial Revolution, when most people were employed as farmers, this was considered democratic.

The charter of 1663 expanded Rhode Island's territory west of the Narragansett Bay, in some places up to three miles. [4] This conflicted with the 1629 grant to the Plymouth Colony, which put its western boundary in the middle of the Narragansett. [5] Plymouth appealed to King Charles, who appointed commissioners in 1664. Plymouth's position was affirmed, and it gained jurisdiction over all lands on the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay.

In 1664, the seal of the colony was formally adopted. It pictured an anchor and the word HOPE.

In 1686 King James II ordered Rhode Island to submit to the Dominion of New England and its appointed governor Edmund Andros. This suspended the colony's charter but Rhode Island still managed to retain possession of it until Andros was deposed and the Dominion was dissolved. When William of Orange became King in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, Rhode Island colonial government resumed under the 1663 charter, which was used as the state constitution until 1842.

In 1693 the throne of William and Mary issued a patent extending Rhode Island's territory to three miles "east and northeast" of Narragansett Bay, conflicting with the claims of Plymouth Colony.[6] This resulted in several later transfers of territory between Rhode Island from Massachusetts. (See History of Massachusetts.)

Colonial Relations with Native Americans[]

The relationship between the New Englanders and the Native Americans was at first strained, but did not result in much bloodshed. The largest tribes that lived near Rhode island were the Wampanoag, Pequots, Narragansett, and Nipmuck. One native named Squanto, from the Wampanoag tribe, stayed with the pilgrims and taught them many valuable skills needed to survive in the area. He also helped greatly with the eventual peace between the colonists and the natives.

Roger Williams had won the respect of his colonial neighbors for his skill in keeping the powerful Narragansett on friendly terms with local white settlers. In 1637, the Narragansett were even persuaded to form an alliance with the English in carrying out an attack that nearly extinguished the warlike Pequots. However, this peace did not last long. By 1670 even the friendly tribes who had greeted Williams and the Pilgrims became estranged from the colonists, and smell of war began to cover the New England countryside.

The most important and traumatic event in 17th century Rhode Island was King Philip's War, which occurred during 1675–1676. King Philip (his British nickname, his real name was Metacomet) was the chief of the Wampanoag Indians. The settlers of Portsmouth had purchased their land from his father, Massasoit. King Philip first led attacks around Narragansett Bay, but later these spread throughout New England. Philip rebelled against the English until he was killed in 1676 by a group led by Captain Benjamin Church at Mount Hope.

Revolution and Industrialization: 1776-1860[]

a typical 19th century Rhode Island farm in North Smithfield

Samuel Slater (1768 – 1835) popularly called "The Father of the American Industrial Revolution"

Rhode Island was the first of the British colonies in America to declare its independence on May 4, 1776. British naval forces controlled Narragansett Bay for much of the Revolution, periodically raiding the islands and the mainland and occupying Newport from 1777 to 1778. The Battle of Rhode Island was fought during the summer of 1778 and was an unsuccessful attempt to expel the British from Narragansett Bay. The Marquis de Lafayette, however, called the action the "best fought" of War. The following year, the British, wanting to concentrate their forces in New York, abandoned Newport.

In 1780, the French under Rochambeau landed in Newport and for the rest of the war Newport was the base of the French forces in the United States. The French soldiers behaved themselves so well that in gratitude, the Rhode Island General Assembly repealed an old law banning Catholics from living in Rhode Island. The first Catholic mass in Rhode Island was said in Newport during this time.

Rhode Island was the last of the original 13 states to ratify the United States Constitution (May 29, 1790)—doing so after being threatened of having its exports taxed as a foreign nation. Rural resistance to the Constitution was strong in Rhode Island. In 1789 anti-federalist politician and revolutionary general, William West, led an armed force of 1,000 men to Providence to oppose a celebration of the 9th state ratifying the Constitution.[2] Civil war was narrowly averted by a compromise limiting the Fourth of July celebration.

In 1790 English immigrant, Samuel Slater founded the first textile mill in the United States in Pawtucket (Slater Mill), and Slater became known as the father of the American industrial revolution. During the nineteenth century Rhode Island became one of the most industrialized states in the United States with large numbers of textile factories.

As the Industrial Revolution moved large numbers of workers into the cities, a permanently landless, and therefore voteless class developed. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white males were ineligible to vote.

Several attempts had been made to address this problem, but none passed. In 1842 Thomas Dorr drafted a liberal constitution which was passed by popular referendum. However the conservative sitting governor, Samuel Ward King, opposed the people's wishes, leading to the Dorr Rebellion. Although this collapsed, a modified version of the constitution was passed in November, which allowed any white male to vote that owned land or could pay a $1 poll tax.

Slavery in Rhode Island 1652-1850[]

In addition to industrialization, Rhode Island was heavily involved in the slave trade during the post-Revolution era. Slavery was extant in RI as early as 1600s. In 1652 Rhode Island passed the first abolition law in the thirteen colonies, banning African slavery.[3] The law was not enforced by the end of the century. By 1774, the slave population of RI was 6.3%, nearly twice as high as any other New England colony. In the late Eighteenth century, several Rhode Island merchant families (most notably the Browns, for whom Brown University is named) began actively engaging in the triangle slave trade. In the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves.[4]

In February 1784 the Rhode Island Legislature passed a compromise measure for gradual emancipation of slaves in Rhode Island. All children of slaves born after March 1 were to be "apprentices," the girls to become free at 18, the boys at 21. By 1840, the census reported only 5 African Americans enslaved in Rhode Island.[5]

The population of Rhode Island, 1790–1860
Towns 1790 1810 1830 1860
Providence 6,380 10,071 16,836 50,666
Other 9 expanding towns 14,424 21,432 31,361 65,343
All Expanding Towns 20,804 31,503 48,197 116,009
Newport 6,716 7,907 8,010 10,508
16 Static Towns 37,133 35,709 39,064 50,992
6 Declining Towns 10,888 9,719 9,949 7,619
Rhode Island 68,825 76,931 97,210 174,620
Source: Coleman p 220

Civil War to Progressive Era: 1860-1929[]

Watchman Institute in North Scituate, burned by the Ku Klux Klan

During the American Civil War, Rhode Island was one of the Union states. Rhode Island furnished 25,236 fighting men, of which 1,685 died. On the home front, Rhode Island, along with the other northern states, used its industrial capacity to supply the Union Army with the materials it needed to win the war. Rhode Island's continued growth and modernization led to the creation of an urban mass transit system, and improved health and sanitation programs. After the war, in 1866, Rhode Island abolished racial segregation throughout the state[7]. Post-war immigration increased the population. From the 1860s to the 1880s, most of the immigrants were from England, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and Quebec. Towards the end of the century however, most immigrants were from South and Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean[8]. At the turn of the century, Rhode Island had a booming economy, which fed the demand for immigration. In the years that lead up to World War I, Rhode Island's constitution remained reactionary, in contrast to the more progressive reforms that were occurring in the rest of the country. During World War I, Rhode Island furnished 28,817 troops, of whom 612 died. After the war, the state was hit hard by the Spanish Influenza [9].

In the 1920s and 30s, rural Rhode Island saw a surge in Ku Klux Klan membership largely among the Swamp Yankee population in reaction to the large waves of immigrants moving to the state. The Klan is believed to be responsible for burning the Watchman Institute in Scituate, which was a school for African American children.[10].

Great Depression to Present: 1929-2007[]

U.S. Senator and Governor, T.F. Green

Since the 1935 "Bloodless Revolution" in which Governor Theodore Francis Green and Democrat majorities in the state House and Senate replaced a Republican dominance that had existed since the middle of the 19th century, the Rhode Island Democratic Party has dominated state politics. Since then, the Speaker of the House, always a Democrat, has been one of the most powerful figures in government. The Democratic Party represented a coalition of labor unions, working class immigrants, intellectuals, college students, and the rising ethnic middle class. The Republican Party has been dominant in rural and suburban parts of the state, and has elected occasional "good government" reform candidates who criticize the state's high taxes and the excesses of Democratic domination. Cranston Mayors Edward D. DiPrete and Stephen Laffey, Governor Donald Carcieri of East Greenwich, and former Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci of Providence ran as Republican reform candidates.

Although enormously well-liked, Cianci has had his share of legal problems. In 1984 he pleaded no contest to assault and received a five-year suspended sentence. He spent the rest of the 80's hosting a radio talk show. In 1991 he ran for mayor and was reelected. In 2002, however, he was indicted for racketeering, conspiracy, and extortion and is serving a five-year sentence. He has now served his sentence and works for a hotel in Boston Massechusetts.

Despite a perceived culture of corruption, Rhode Islanders have overwhelmingly supported and re-elected Democrats to positions of authority, where issues involving education, health care, and liberal causes are promoted.

See also[]

Regarding border disputes:

References, Sources and external links[]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Patent of Providence Plantations, 1643
  3. ^ Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations - July 15, 1663
  4. ^ From "Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations - July 15, 1663":
    all that parte of Our dominiones in New-England, in America, conteyneing the Nahantick and Nanhyganset Bay, and countryes and partes adjacent, bounded on the west, or westerly, to the middle or channel of a river there, commonly called and known by the name of Pawcatuck, alias Pawcawtuck river, and soe along the sayd river, as the greater or middle streame thereof reacheth or lyes vpp into the north countrye, northward, unto the head thereoof, and from thence, by a streight lyne drawn due north, vntill itt meets with the south lyne of the Massachusetts Collonie; and on the north, or northerly, by the aforesayd south or southerly lyne of the Massachusettes Collony or Plantation, and extending towards the east, or eastwardly, three English miles to the east and north-east of the most eastern and north-eastern parts of the aforesayd Narragansett Bay, as the sayd bay lyeth or extendeth itself from the ocean on the south, or southwardly, vnto the mouth of the river which runneth towards the towne of Providence, and from thence along the eastwardly side or banke of the sayd river (higher called by the name of Seacunck river), vp to the ffalls called Patuckett ffalls, being the most westwardly lyne of Plymouth Collony, and soe from the sayd Balls, in a streight lyne, due north, untill itt meete with the aforesayd line of the Massachusetts Collony; and bounded on the south by the ocean: and, in particular, the lands belonging to the townes of Providence, Pawtuxet, Warwicke; Misquammacok, alias Pawcatuck, and the rest vpon the maine land in the tract aforesayd, together with Rhode-Island, Blocke-Island, and all the rest of the islands and banks in the Narragansett Bay, and bordering vpon the coast of the tract aforesayd (Ffisher's Island only excepted)
    Thus claimed for Rhode Island was all of Narragansett Bay, west to the Pawcatuck River (the mouth of which is the current Connecticut-Rhode Island border, also known as the Narragansett River), up the main branch of the Pawcatuck to its head, and then due north to the southern boundary of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The middle of the eastern mainland boundary was drawn from a point three miles northeast of the most northeastern part of Narragansett Bay, along the eastern Bank of the Providence and Seekonk Rivers, to Pawtuckett Falls, and then due north to the southern boundary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. All the lands of Providence, Pawtucket, Warwick, and Pawcatuck, plus Rhode Island, Block Island, and all the other islands bordering the afforementioned territory (except Fisher's Island), were explicitly included.
  5. ^ History of Fall River, p. 67
  6. ^
  7. ^ Accessed 3/28/06
  8. ^ Accessed 3/28/06
  9. ^ Accessed 3/28/06
  10. ^ Robert Smith, In The 1920s the Klan Ruled the Countryside, The Rhode Island Century, The Providence Journal, 4/26/1999

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