Rhode Island Is Founded

Dissatisfied members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sought freedom from the Puritan oligarchy and religious intolerance.

Summary of Event

The founding of Rhode Island was more complicated than the founding of most of the other American colonies because it involved five separate settlements and unusual leaders bent on expressing their individualistic beliefs. The earliest settlers in Rhode Island migrated to the area from the Massachusetts Bay Colony Massachusetts Bay Colony . Some had been forced out of that colony for their “dangerous” opinions, and others had left of their own accord, because they were dissatisfied with the Puritan oligarchy that controlled Massachusetts. Migration;English settlers to Rhode Island
[kw]Rhode Island Is Founded (June, 1636)
Colonization;June, 1636: Rhode Island Is Founded[1220]
Expansion and land acquisition;June, 1636: Rhode Island Is Founded[1220]
Religion and theology;June, 1636: Rhode Island Is Founded[1220]
American Colonies;June, 1636: Rhode Island Is Founded[1220]
Rhode Island
Colonization;England of Rhode Island

The first European settler of Rhode Island, with the exception of the recluse William Blakston, was Roger Williams, Williams, Roger who was ordered to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony on October 9, 1635. He managed to avoid deportation back to England for three months, but in January of 1636, he became aware that he would soon be arrested. Three days before his planned arrest, Williams left his home and set out on foot for what would become Rhode Island during a blinding blizzard. Walking 80-90 miles (130-145 kilometers) through the worst of a New England winter, Williams suffered immensely and would likely have died of exposure were it not for the aid of his friends among the Wampanoag Wampanoags Indians.

Williams managed to reach the lodge of Massasoit Massasoit , grand sachem of the Wampanoags, at Mount Hope. Williams had first met the Wampanoag sachem when the latter was about thirty years of age, and he considered Massasoit to be a great friend. Near the end of his trek, Williams also lodged with the Narragansett Narragansetts grand sachem Canonicus Canonicus and his family, whom Williams also counted as friends. Canonicus and Massasoit enabled Williams to survive his flight from Massachusetts. Nevertheless, his winter trek left Williams with permanent scars that hindered his health for the rest of his life.

Roger Williams says goodbye to his family before fleeing Massachusetts to avoid arrest.

(Gay Brothers)

Soon after purchasing land near the Seekonk River from Massasoit, Williams was joined by five other men. A warning from the governor of Plymouth that they were trespassing forced them to establish a new settlement on the Great Salt River in June, 1636, which they called Providence Plantations Providence . It is not known whether Williams had an actual plantation in mind or simply envisioned a trading post or mission, but other outcasts soon arrived at Providence and were welcomed, and each new settler was allotted a home lot and a farm from the land that Williams had purchased from the natives.

Providence was strictly an agricultural community. The colony was built without capital or outside assistance, and its population and economy grew slowly. The heads of families participated in a town-meeting type of government and signed a compact agreeing to obey the laws passed by the will of all. The compact was intended to be operative “only in civil things,” signifying a commitment to the separation of church and state—one of the central issues that had driven many of the settlers from the theocratic colony of Massachusetts.

Williams’s house at Providence Plantations quickly became a transcultural meeting place. He lodged as many as fifty Indians at a time, including travelers, traders, and sachems on their way to or from treaty conferences. If a Puritan needed to contact a native or vice versa, he more than likely did so with Williams’s aid. Among the Indian nations at odds with each other, Williams became known as “a quencher of our fires.” When the citizens of Portsmouth needed an American Indian agent, they approached Williams. The Dutch did the same thing after 1636. Williams often traveled with Canonicus, Massasoit, and their warriors, lodging with them in the forest. The Narragansetts’ council sometimes used Williams’s house for its meetings.

Roger Williams arrives in what will become Providence, Rhode Island, and is welcomed by the Narragansett Indians.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

In April, 1638, another band of exiles, led by William Coddington, Coddington, William left Boston in search of religious freedom. They had been preceded in March by Anne Hutchinson, Hutchinson, Anne whose Antinomian Antinomianism emphasis on “grace” over “works” elevated personal revelation and thus diminished the clergy’s role in religious practice. Arriving at Providence, the exiles arranged to purchase the island of Aquidneck from the natives, and by the following spring they had established the new settlement of Pocasset Portsmouth (Portsmouth). By seventeenth century standards, the settlement had a democratic form of government, with Coddington serving as judge.

Two such dominant personalities as Coddington and Hutchinson could not exist in harmony for long, however. When their two factions split over Hutchinson’s eccentric supporter Samuel Gorton, Gorton, Samuel Coddington was ousted and, with his followers, began the new plantation of Newport Newport . In March, 1640, he succeeded in uniting the two settlements on Aquidneck so that they could manage their own affairs apart from Providence. The union, the most orderly civil organization in the Narragansett region, was to endure for seven years. By today’s standards, the democracy that they proclaimed in 1641 was limited, because it excluded half the adult males from participating in government. Probably because Coddington was unsuccessful in obtaining a patent for Aquidneck, the people of Portsmouth became disillusioned and broke away from Newport in 1648.

Meanwhile, the controversial Gorton, driven from both Portsmouth and Providence for defying the authority of the government, purchased Indian lands to establish Warwick Warwick . After enduring harassment and imprisonment by Massachusetts officials, he obtained an order compelling Massachusetts to cease molesting him and lived in peace as an honored citizen of Warwick.

Of all the Rhode Island leaders, Williams emerged as the dominant figure. His efforts to maintain peace among the tribes were of inestimable service to the whole of New England, yet the ambitions of other political leaders in the British settlements in and around Rhode Island were to remain his chief problem. Convinced that the settlements of Rhode Island had to cooperate in order to remain intact, he worked selflessly for a federation of the four main towns. When the formation of the United Colonies of New England in 1643 threatened Rhode Island’s integrity, Williams sailed for England to obtain a charter from the Long Parliament. The patent that he brought back in September, 1644, authorized the union of Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport as “The Incorporation of Providence Plantations.” Warwick was included later.

The political instability caused by the English Civil Wars back home caused a delay in putting the newly authorized government into effect, but in May, 1647, an assembly of freemen met at Portsmouth to organize the government and to draft laws. A federalist system, whereby the towns maintained their individual rights as parts of the larger community, was created. Their code of laws was one of the earliest in the American colonies and was the first to embody in all its parts the precedents set by the English legal system. Law;Rhode Island By 1650, a representative assembly composed of six delegates from each town was operating. The assembly also served as a judicial body, until a separate court for trials was established in 1655. Town courts preserved the local peace.

Coddington continued to deal underhandedly in an attempt to separate Aquidneck from the union. In 1651, he succeeded in obtaining a lifetime appointment as governor of Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands from the Council of State. However, the residents of the islands supported Williams’s successful mission to England, which resulted in the annulment of Coddington’s patent in 1652. Distrust of central government and antagonism between the mainland and the islands persisted until 1654, when Williams, with the support of Oliver Cromwell, restored the atmosphere of cooperation between the towns.

The 1660 restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England imperiled the validity of Rhode Island’s charter of 1644. As a result, John Clarke, Clarke, John the colony’s agent in London, petitioned the Crown for confirmation. Meanwhile, Charles II Charles II (king of England);Connecticut and confirmed Connecticut’s grant, including half of Rhode Island’s territory, so it became necessary to submit the matter to arbitration. The arbitration was decided in Rhode Island’s favor, and the new colonial charter of July 18, 1663, also confirmed the colony’s policy of complete liberty of conscience. It was the only colonial charter to do so.


Rhode Island was one of several colonies founded in a search for religious toleration and freedom. Other such colonies included Maryland, primarily a haven for Catholics, and Pennsylvania, which was founded by Quakers. Rhode Island, however, included the right to freedom of conscience in its charter, becoming the first colony to codify in its core document what would ultimately become a core principle of the United States. Moreover, Rhode Island was founded not by colonists fleeing persecution in the Old World, but by those fleeing a new kind of persecution in the New World. By breaking off from the theocratic Puritan government of Massachusetts Bay, Roger Williams and others successfully prevented that government from controlling the fate of New England as a whole.

Although Williams advocated and fought primarily for religious freedom, his ideas were relevant to political freedom as well, and his legacy helped to shape the debates that would ultimately drive the colonies to rebel against the English crown in the eighteenth century. Williams espoused such values as “soul liberty,” political freedom, and economic equality: He not only presaged the American Revolution but also created a community in which his prescient philosophy could but put into practice, win adherents, and flourish.

Further Reading

  • Andrews, Charles M. Our Earliest Colonial Settlements: Their Diversities of Origin and Later Characteristics. New York: New York University Press, 1933. Chapter 4 details the political turmoil of the early years and the lives of the colony’s principal leaders.
  • Andrews, Charles M. The Settlements. Vol. 2 in The Colonial Period of American History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Chapters 1 and 2 present a detailed overall account of Rhode Island’s founding.
  • Greene, Theodore P., ed. Roger Williams and the Massachusetts Magistrates. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1964. This collection of readings presents disparate views from the seventeenth century to the present on the question of Williams’s banishment.
  • Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Native American Studies Center, 1991. Includes a chapter on Williams’s founding of Rhode Island and his use of Native American aid and ideas about political society.
  • James, Sydney V. The Colonial Metamorphoses in Rhode Island: A Study of Institutions in Change. Edited by Sheila L. Skemp and Bruce C. Daniels. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2000. Examines how the founders of Rhode Island created the local institutions that shaped their lives. Based upon extensive archival research, the book details the development of town and colony governments, the courts, and land companies from Rhode Island’s founding until the American Revolution.
  • LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004. LaPlante, an eleventh-generation granddaughter of Hutchinson, examines Hutchinson’s life, including her move to Rhode Island and her role in founding the colony.
  • Miller, Perry. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition. New York: Atheneum, 1962. Liberally interspersed with selections from Williams’s writings, Miller’s study contends that Williams was concerned basically with theology, not democratic political reforms.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Roger Williams: The Church and the State. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1967. Concentrating upon the thought of Roger Williams as presented in his writings, Morgan seeks “to expose the symmetry of the ideas that lay behind the polemics.”
  • Williams, Roger. The Complete Writings of Roger Williams. 7 vols. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963. The most complete collection of Williams’s writings on the founding of Rhode Island.
  • Williams, Roger. A Key into the Language of America. 5th ed. Reprint. Providence, R.I.: Tercentenary Committee, 1936. Williams’s views on religion, politics, and society are presented in the context of a guide to Native American languages.

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Canonicus; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; Anne Hutchinson; Massasoit; Roger Williams. Rhode Island
Colonization;England of Rhode Island