Rhode Island: Providence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Providence, Rhode Island’s state capital, was founded by noted colonial politician Roger Williams. It is the site of Brown University, the nation’s seventh-oldest college, and the first Baptist church in America, as well as many original colonial homes and buildings.

Site Office

Providence Chamber of Commerce

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Providence, RI 02903

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The development of Providence is closely linked with the development of the ideas behind the new American republic’s basic principles of freedom. The city was founded when noted clergyman and policymaker Roger Williams, expelled by the British colonists of Massachusetts, sought a plot of land on which to engage his strong desire for individual expression of worship. A century and a half later, Williams’s ideals were reflected in Rhode Island’s refusal to ratify the U.S. Constitution until the Bill of Rights was added, making the state the thirteenth and last state to do so.

Originally an agrarian center whose colonialera economy lagged behind that of nearby Newport, Providence took its place as Rhode Island’s capital of commerce during the shipping boom of the early nineteenth century and cemented that standing with its subsequent shift to industrialism. Schools of higher learning such as Brown University, Providence College, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute continue to preserve the city’s heritage of educational pursuit, and Providence’s unique neighborhoods retain much of their ethnic character, adding to the city’s eclecticism. Today, a sustained interest in the city’s historic sites contributes to an invigorated tourist industry, and commercial and corporate business thrives.

Early History

The story of Providence begins with the story of Roger Williams, an outspoken and independent-minded Englishman in colonial New England. In 1632 the young man wrote his Treatise denouncing King James’s land grant to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arguing that the Indians had sovereign rights to the soil of the New World. At the time, the British were threatening to revoke the patent for the Massachusetts colony, and dissension of Williams’s sort was unacceptable to the colony’s governor, John Winthrop.

Hired as the teacher of the Salem church, Williams drew further British fire when he asserted that local magistrates should not punish transgressions of the first four Commandments, which he asserted were one’s duty not to public office but to God. The magistrates of Boston’s General Court sought, and expected to receive, a simple retraction from Williams. When he refused to retract his statements, however, the General Court ordered him exiled from Winthrop’s jurisdiction within six weeks.

Before his differences with Winthrop came to a head, Williams had been assigned to inaugurate a trading post in advance of Massachusetts’s proposed expansion into the uncharted Narragansett country to the south. Here the fleeing dissident headed.

Founding of the Town

Records of his trip are vague, but it appears Williams and his servant Thomas Angell met four other Salem men by prearrangement at an Indian site in Plymouth patent. Williams and his companions, joined less by ideological reasons than by the necessity to unite against the elements, waited for winter’s thaw on the site of what is now Rehoboth, Massachusetts. The group then set out across the Seekonk River. In spring 1636, in a now-legendary exchange at Slate Rock (a long-buried site to the northwest of the corner of Providence’s Williams and Gano Streets, today commemorated with a monument), the canoeing travelers were greeted by an Indian on the bank with the cross-cultural salutation “What cheare, Netop [Friend]?” Most likely, Williams’s group continued around Fox Point up the Great Salt (now called Providence) River, to the intersection of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, where they built their initial settlement.

For squatters’ rights to the area of the Indian village known as Mashasuck, Williams negotiated a swap with the Narragansett chieftains Canonicus and Miantunomi (whom he had befriended during previous expeditions), giving the Indians provisions and a sum of money he had obtained when he mortgaged his house in Salem. Williams named the outpost “Providence,” thanking “God’s mercefull providence” for his find. Contrary to popular assumption, Williams’s original intent in settling Providence was to fulfill his own peace of mind, not that of his contemporaries, and he wrote, “It is not true that I . . . desired any to come with me into these parts.” Nonetheless, his ideology professed a self-determination of worship for each man, and from the beginning he chose not to deny applicants who sought the same freedom. Within its first year, Providence was a loosely organized community of approximately thirty inhabitants, governed by simple votes of the eight or so “masters of families.” Williams’s chief priorities were to uphold individual rights and to forge a common bond for the good of the collective, a coupling that would confront the town with many moral dilemmas.

Incorporation

Records show that Providence was officially incorporated as a town on August 20, 1637. In a ceremony on March 24, 1638, the Narragansett chieftains met Williams and other town fathers at Pettaquamscutt Rock to affix their seals to “The Towne Evidence,” a deed securing the transaction. Williams also received grants for the Narragansett Bay islands of Aquidneck and Prudence. In his mind, the contracts with the Indians were binding, but to the Massachusetts patents and their ruling British government, they were without effect–a debate that would take Williams years to resolve.

The Narragansett country wove in and out of channels and coves along Narragansett Bay. Formed by glacial movement, it was a fertile territory previously ignored by European settlers, with a few exceptions: In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano spent two weeks at the site of Newport, and in 1614 the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block drew the first accurate map of the region. A few years before Williams’s arrival, the minister William Blackstone and his family quietly settled in the area; in later years this solitary figure would come to be a familiar one, as he rode into town on the back of a bull to deliver his sermons.

Rejection of Undesirables

Despite Roger Williams’s inclusive idealism, during Providence’s infancy he asked Winthrop whether he could veto the acceptance of undesirable newcomers. Providence would tolerate religious nonconformists, but not men and women inclined toward the disruption of its common good. Although Winthrop’s responding letter is not in existence, he most likely replied against such a veto power, setting the stage for several decades’ worth of agitation from strong-minded people like Samuel Gorton, William Coddington, and Anne Hutchinson. By default, Providence quickly became the destination of social instigators who were unwanted in Boston, giving Providence the nickname “the place where people think otherwise.”

In a plight that paralleled Williams’s, Hutchinson and her followers were expelled from Massachusetts in 1637 for religious views that were unsettling to the authorities. Williams persuaded Canonicus to let Hutchinson’s party move onto Aquidneck Island, where they settled Pocasset (later called Portsmouth, Rhode Island). The rabblerouser Samuel Gorton’s arrival in Pocasset so disturbed the townsfolk that William Coddington and nine others moved to the opposite end of the isle and founded Newport. Gorton then relocated to Providence, where he took sides against William Arnold in a developing furor over the Pawtuxet section of town (incorporated in 1754 as Cranston, Rhode Island). Arnold, in turn, seeking greater plots of land for himself and his followers than Roger Williams had given them, illegally bought the Pawtuxet tract from the rebel Narragansett sachem Saconomoco and aligned it with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who warned Providence not to interfere.

Despite these conflicts, in its first four years Providence grew to number one hundred inhabitants. Most of their houses were lined along Towne (now South and North Main) Street, to the east of the Providence River. To the north lay the Moshassuck, which was dammed for gristmills and sawmills. Later, the town expanded to build neighborhoods on the west side of the river as well.

Church and State

One of Williams’s chief goals was to purify the church by separating its powers from those of the state. He founded the nation’s oldest Baptist congregation in 1638, with policies, including rebaptism of the congregation (excluding infants, whose spiritual fates could not yet be determined), that were the source of heated arguments. By many accounts, Providence’s townspeople had begun to stray from organized religion.

In 1640, the young town officially organized its system of law with the drafting of its combination. At this time, Williams began to work from the wings, preferring to let other elected officers tend to the business at hand, which was often delicate. In 1643, Gorton purchased a strip of Indian land to the south of Providence called Shawomet (later Warwick), ensuring further land disputes with neighboring Pawtuxet. By 1644, a regional government headed by Nicholas Easton that claimed jurisdiction over both the mainland and the island of Aquidneck had to contend with a rival government set up on the island by William Coddington.

While these crises brewed, Williams traveled to England in 1642 or 1643 to secure a patent for the Providence Plantation, in order to ward off the annexation efforts of Massachusetts and Plymouth. On the voyage overseas, Williams wrote his Key into the Language of America, a guide to Indian dialects, which displayed not only his linguistic expertise, but also his political savvy. Despite his opposition to many of England’s actions, Williams’s book bolstered his reputation among influential parliamentarians, who were impressed by his work in Christianizing the Indians. In 1644 he was awarded with the patent, overturning a verdict that ruled in Massachusetts’s favor only three months before.

The Free Charter of Civil Incorporation and Government for the Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay in New England had been secured for a single colony uniting the mainland and island residents. Unknown to Williams, on the day preceding the award of the charter, the Court of Elections in Newport had proclaimed the island an independent body called Rhode Island, an act that set off still more disputation on his return. Before leaving England, Williams released his treatise The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, a separationist manifesto that was immediately ordered burned.

In a gala ceremony, fourteen canoes turned out on the Seekonk River to greet Williams upon his return. Although records are lost, it is likely he was immediately elected “chiefe office” of the patent, a position he held until 1647, when all four towns (Providence, Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick) finally accepted the charter and united as one body.

Providence During the Indian Wars

The Providence Plantation’s isolation from the United Colonies was repeatedly tested during the ongoing Indian wars of the 1640’s. During the course of these conflicts, Boston’s Commissioners broke their treaty obligations by secretly advising the Mohegan Indians to kill Narragansett chieftain Miantunomi, whom the Mohegans had captured in battle and whom the Commissioners viewed as a political threat. Miantunomi’s murder eventually led to a declaration of open war between the Narragansett and the United Colonies. Much to the dismay of the officials in Boston, Providence declared itself neutral and signed a separate pact with their old Indian allies. (The Narragansett would eventually be wiped out by the combined forces of the Mohegan and the English at the Great Swamp Fight of 1675.)

Meanwhile, the Providence Plantation was itself in danger of fragmentation. Plymouth claimed Aquidneck; both Plymouth and Connecticut claimed the “Gortonist’s” Warwick; and Massachusetts, which claimed Pawtuxet, wanted more. On May 18, 1647, however, a delegation consisting of ten representatives from each of the four towns officially accepted the charter and devised a code of laws and a bill of rights. In a broader but equally strategic development, Providence’s evolving process of granting land to settlers began to diffuse the power of the town’s monopolists and set the stage for renewed growth: Poorer, younger newcomers were now given small “quarter rights” to twenty-five-acre plots, provided they relinquished their right to vote until they were admitted as freemen.

Williams, whose term had run out, sought a peaceful existence as an outpost trader but soon was summoned to act as deputy president to quell another uprising, just one year after the adoption of the charter. After a five-year stay in England to begin the process of reconfirming this charter, Williams returned in 1654 to find that Providence, with 250 inhabitants, was still the smallest of the Plantation’s four towns. Lacking an official building, its public meetings were held in a tavern.

When Providence submitted to its citizens an order for mandatory military service, its pacifists were aroused. The incident clearly articulated the town’s (and later the nation’s) biggest question: how to compromise a desire for free will with a need for collective obligation. This incident inspired Williams’s best-known quote on the subject, comparing “human combinations” to “a ship . . . whose weal and woe is common.” No one is obliged to attend the ship’s prayers, he explained, but they must obey the captain’s orders for the good of the whole. Indeed, in 1656 Williams put his ideology into practice as he began to accept the much-maligned Quakers into Providence, provoking the less-tolerant colonies to ridicule the city as the “sewer of New England” and “Rogues’ Island.”

As Williams’s designs lurched toward fruition, many of his detractors began to step aside. In Pawtuxet, William Arnold petitioned Massachusetts to be discharged from their jurisdiction, and the region once again became accountable to what had generally come to be known as Rhode Island. At a General Court session, William Coddington ended years of rebellion by finally acquiescing to Williams. Then in 1663, after a decade and a half of petitions, John Clarke returned from England with a renewed charter for Rhode Island (the original copy of which is currently on display at the Rhode Island State Capitol). Twenty-seven years after the initial settlement, Providence and its affiliated towns could at last claim a unified ambition.

Williams served in public office as one of the assistants of the colony until 1677, when he asked to step down. The year before, Providence had suffered a setback when it was attacked on March 26 by Wampanoag Indian chief Massasoit’s son King Philip, who sought revenge for the Boston Commissioners’ reckless treatment of the various regional tribes. Williams, who had bargained with Massasoit en route to Providence, was treated with respect by King Philip, but this was not enough to prevent the burning of an estimated 80 of 103 Providence houses to the ground, Williams’s among them. Town Clerk John Smith reportedly saved official documents by throwing them out the window of his burning house into a mill brook.

Roughly six years after the burning of his town, Williams died, in 1683. Present-day Providence commemorates the invaluable lifework of its founder at the Roger Williams National Memorial, located at 282 North Main Street.

Providence in the Eighteenth Century

As the eighteenth century began, Providence was looking to finalize its boundaries. By 1714, the thorny Pawtuxet claimants had finally settled for the area spanning modern-day Cranston’s west side and Johnston’s south side. New towns from within Providence’s borders were carved out to appease outlying farmers, for whom the long commute into the center of Providence was a hardship. Between 1723 and 1765, six additional towns were mapped from the area.

Rebuilt after King Philip’s attack in 1676, and with many of its inhabitants’ lingering land disputes coming to settlements, Providence began to focus internally, on its economy, spirituality, and education. In 1713, Providence opposed a paper money proposal that would have benefited traders but hindered farmers, whose income was better stabilized by trading for silver or gold. Eventually, Rhode Island entered into a New England currency pool. In 1728, during the so-called Great Awakening, Congregationalists in Providence were divided between supporters of Josiah Cotton and Joseph Snow, the latter ministering the first Congregational body in Rhode Island not financially supported by Boston’s officials.

By this time, Providence was taking shape as a leader in the commerce of New England. Waterfront lots were granted to those who would build wharves and warehouses, and investors began to see a return on their investment. Access to waterways furnished Providence with the reliable use of waterwheels (as opposed to Newport’s windmills), and its access to acres of timber provided fuel for iron forging and shipyards, as well as for building and heating. Providence’s surrounding Indian villages vanished, and forests fell to make way for churches and meetinghouses, distilleries, tanneries, and ropewalks. Trade with overseas partners brought exotic goods like rum, wine, spices, cocoa, and tropical fruits, all of which contributed to the blooming cosmopolitan atmosphere in the town. Craftspeople engaged in needlework, gadgetry, pickling, and preserving. By 1775 the Market House was completed, providing a center for maritime trade that still stands (now under the care of the Rhode Island School of Design). After the Revolutionary War, during a period of rapid growth, the middle class of shopkeepers and artisans expanded.

Slower in pace was the town’s cultural development. In 1762 the Histrionic Academy was closed by the town sheriff for its public presentation of music, considered an extravagance by the townspeople. That same year, the town’s first newspaper, Providence Gazette and Country Journal, began printing, and by 1768 Providence could even boast the services of an Italian dancing master and an elocution teacher.

The Revolutionary War

According to figures from 1774, Providence was still well behind Newport in terms of size, with respective densities of 1,196 and 239 persons per square mile. The Revolutionary War ravaged Newport; its location in the bay attracted British siege, and Newport’s economy suffered from losses at sea and from wars among the Caribbean nations with whom it did much of its trading. Providence, on the other hand, saw no combat during the Revolution, mainly due to the construction of nine forts (none of which remain) along the Providence River.

Providence’s contributions to the Revolution were largely symbolic, such as the 1772 burning of the Gaspee, a British revenue ship that had run aground off present-day Warwick’s Gaspee Point, and the Tea Party of March 2, 1775, which mirrored Boston’s. On May 4, 1776, two months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Rhode Island Assembly dissolved its ties with Great Britain at the Old State House. Built in 1762, this brick building remains standing at 150 Benefit Street.

After the Revolution, Providence joined Boston in dispatching commercial ships to China, resulting in a lucrative trade in Oriental goods. The versatile and highly successful Brown brothers–John, Joseph, Moses, and Nicholas–were instrumental in directing this and many other ventures crucial to Providence’s growth. Brown University is named for Nicholas, who saved the failing Rhode Island College from bankruptcy after it had moved to Providence in 1770. In 1775, Joseph Brown designed the First Baptist Church at 75 North Main Street for followers of Williams’s Baptist sect. A Georgian church with a 185-feet steeple, the building also hosts Brown University’s commencement activities. In 1786 the architect designed the John Brown House at 52 Power Street. The building, described by John Quincy Adams as the most magnificent he had ever seen, today houses the Rhode Island Historical Society.

The John Brown House rests at the south end of the “Mile of History,” a walking tour of preserved buildings that reflects one hundred fifty years of changing architectural styles beginning around 1750. Some of the other structures of note along the route include the 1816 First Unitarian Church, housing the largest bell cast by Paul Revere and Son; the 1838 Providence Athenaeum, established in 1753 and now one of the world’s oldest lending libraries; and the former state arsenal, housed in a Gothic castle.

In 1815 the “Great Gale” devastated Providence with flooding that cost the town over one million dollars in repairs. Though thirty-five ships were piled up in its cove and Providence was glutted with debris, this catastrophe was not enough to slow the town’s rapid growth. Five years after the storm, Providence’s population had soared from 6,300 to 11,745. In 1828, the nation’s first indoor shopping center, the Greek revival-style Arcade, was built on Weybosset Street, and is now a National Historic Landmark. In 1831, almost two hundred years after Roger Williams’s arrival, Providence incorporated as a city.

After the Civil War, industrialism took root in the city. By 1835, the country’s first factory-mutual insurance system had been established, and Providence’s economy continued to strengthen with its significant output of textile and jewelry, among other goods. Gradually, the Providence River was filled to accommodate railroad tracks. To staff increasing numbers of factories, the city’s immigrant population multiplied, and large communities were formed of Swedes, Portuguese, FrenchCanadians, and most notably, Italians, whose vibrant culture continues to thrive today on the city’s Federal Hill.

Providence in the Twentieth Century

At the turn of the twentieth century, when Providence’s population had grown to 175,000, Rhode Island’s legislative center of government was relocated there and the state capitol was erected on Smith Hill. The imposing State House is topped by one of the world’s three self-supported marble domes, and its outline transformed the appearance of Providence’s skyline. Today, after a period of postindustrial hardship, Providence enjoys a diverse culture and economic base of academia on College Hill. Underneath this resurgence lies an ancestral bedrock of religious and political independence.

For Further Information
  • Federal Writers’ Project. Rhode Island. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1937. Concise with regard to the city’s commercial growth.
  • James, Sydney V. Colonial Rhode Island: A History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. Contains some information on Providence’s role in the state’s history not found elsewhere.
  • Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Master Roger Williams. 1957. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1973. An in-depth biographical portrait of the single most important figure in Providence’s development.
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