Rhode Island Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Though the smallest state in the Union in area, Rhode Island has the longest name: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

History of Rhode Island

Though the smallest state in the Union in area, Rhode Island has the longest name: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Rhode Island, though it is only 48 miles long and 37 miles wide, has 384 miles of coastline, which earned for it the nickname the Ocean State. The state is practically divided by Narragansett Bay, which extends twenty-eight miles into the interior. As a result, every town in Rhode Island is no more than twenty-five miles from water. The state’s geography played a major role in its development, with fishing, boatbuilding, and international trade being its early major industries. The numerous and swift rivers running through the state also shaped industry, being harnessed for power to the nation’s first mills. Due to its small size, Rhode Island has always been intimately linked to its neighbors, Connecticut on the west and Massachusetts on the east and north.

Native American Presence

Archaeological evidence shows that Rhode Island has been inhabited for at least eight thousand years. During the 1600’s, the area of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts was inhabited by about thirty thousand American Indians of the Algonquian family, roughly split into five tribes: Narragansetts, Wampanoags, Niantics, Nipmucs, and Pequots. They farmed the land for corn, squash, beans, and tobacco.

The first European settlers of the state in the 1630’s lived peaceably among the Native Americans; Indians even gave portions of their land to the English. Eventually, however, discord among the groups arose, when whites began taking American Indian land. In the 1637 Pequot War, Pequots unsuccessfully tried to drive out the colonists who had taken over their land. The continued disintegration of ties led to King Philip’s War in 1675. The Wampanoags, their leader Philip, and their violent behavior provoked Connecticut and Massachusetts to declare war against them. The Rhode Island Narragansetts joined with the Wampanoags eventually, but the Native Americans were defeated, with thousands of Indians and more than six hundred whites killed and most of the city of Providence burned. After the war, Indians were shipped to the South or to the West Indies as slaves. Most eventually left the state, and by the year 2000, Native Americans made up less than 0.5 percent of Rhode Island’s population.

Discovery and Colonization

Rhode Island may have been visited by Norwegian Vikings as early as 1000 c.e. In 1524 the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, sailing for France, found Narragansett Bay. He may have named the state, comparing it to the Greek island of Rhodes. The state’s name is also often attributed to Dutch trader Adriaen Block, who visited the region in 1614 and called it roodt eylandt (red island).

Rhode Island was first settled by Europeans in 1636, when the city of Providence was founded by religious dissenter Roger Williams. Williams was about to be exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to England due to his unpopular views that religion and state should be separate. He escaped, and his Native American friends, the Narragansetts, gave him land that he named Providence. He declared the region “a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.”

In 1638 Anne Hutchinson was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for preaching against the established church. She settled in Portsmouth, at the north end of Aquidneck Island. A year later William Coddington broke from Hutchinson’s group and founded Newport. After Warwick was founded by Samuel Gorton in 1643, the four towns received a charter from England to become one colony, with freedom of religion guaranteed to all. Soon all those seeking asylum from persecution–Quakers, Jews, Congregationalists, Baptists–made their homes there, and the region became known for its tolerance. Because of its open-mindedness, the colony was considered by outsiders a haven for misfits and was thus scorned.

Although the first antislavery law in the Union was signed in Rhode Island in 1652, Rhode Island, especially Newport and Bristol, was a hub of the so-called “triangle trade” in the 1700’s. Rum, which Rhode Islanders manufactured, was traded in Africa for slaves, who were traded in the West Indies for molasses, which was used in New England to make more rum. Slavery was abolished in 1784, and the triangle trade ended by 1800.

Steps to Revolution

By 1750 the main industries in Rhode Island were fishing, rum manufacture, and rum trade. After Great Britain imposed taxes on trade, Rhode Islanders became smugglers to maintain their livelihoods. In 1764 they fired on a British ship, one of the first acts of aggression and rebellion against England. In 1772 the British ship Gaspee was burned by Providence residents, in an act thought to be the first of the Revolution.

Always progressive, Rhode Island’s general assembly voted to end allegiance to Britain on May 4, 1776–two months before the rest of the colonies. Rhode Island played an active part in the fighting; the Battle of Rhode Island took place in Newport in 1778. A company of freed slaves, known as the Black Regiment, fought with the colonists, becoming the first such regiment to fight in America. After winning independence, Rhode Island was the last of the original thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution, in 1790, refusing to sign until the Bill of Rights was added. Desiring a balance of power, until 1854 Rhode Island had five capital cities: Providence, Newport, East Greenwich, Bristol, and South Kingstown. From 1854 to 1900, Providence and Newport shared capital status, and in 1900 Providence became the sole capital.


The American Industrial Revolution began in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1790. Harnessing the power of the mighty Blackstone River, resident Samuel Slater built the first water-powered cotton mill in the Union. Later, in 1827, Slater erected the first steam-powered cotton mill. Rhode Island thrived during the 1800’s due to the prosperity of its mills. Though the state’s land was arable, by 1860 about 50 percent of Rhode Islanders worked in industrial jobs, while only 10 percent were farmers.

Production remained steady during the Civil War, and after the war the state’s industry shifted from production of textiles to that of metals and jewelry. By the second half of the twentieth century an estimated 85 percent of U.S. costume jewelry was produced in Providence, though many factories faced difficulties when low-cost imports from Asia threatened to bankrupt them. Rhode Island is also home to Hasbro, the second-largest toy manufacturer in the world. The three largest employers in the state are industry, tourism, and health care.

Political Makeup

Rhode Island expanded its trend of tolerance into the political arena. In 1842 Thomas Dorr founded the People’s Party to try to give all citizens the right to vote. After illegitimately claiming governorship during what is known as Dorr’s Rebellion, he was suppressed. However, because of his work, all adult males were given the right to vote, regardless of color. Rhode Island was the only state before the Civil War in which blacks and whites voted as equals.

Until the 1900’s, the majority of Rhode Island voters were Republicans. Democrats came into power, however, when diverse immigrants began arriving in the early part of the century. Democrats dominated politics beginning in 1935, never losing control of the General Assembly throughout the century.

During the 1980’s, Rhode Island became known as a hotbed of political corruption. After 1986, two mayors in the state were convicted on corruption charges, two chief justices of the state supreme court resigned in disgrace, and a superior court judge was arrested for taking bribes. Possible reasons for the state’s scandals include the longtime dominance of one political party, the small size of the state, and the fact that Rhode Island is considered the New England headquarters of the Mafia. Residents hoping for a turn for the better elected Patrick Kennedy to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988. Although Kennedy was just a twenty-one-year-old attending Providence College, he proved himself worthy of reelection twice.

Ethnic and Religious Heritage

Italian Americans make up a large percentage of the Rhode Island population, second only to Irish Americans. Irish and Italian immigrants helped make Roman Catholicism the prevalent religion in the state. Rhode Island is about 70 percent Catholic, making it the state with the most Catholics.

Revitalization of Providence

Though at the turn of the twentieth century Providence was one of the nation’s richest and most thriving cities, after 1925 residents began fleeing to suburban and rural areas. Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr., was mostly responsible for bringing the city back to life beginning in the 1970’s. In the 1990’s the two downtown rivers that had been covered by pavement were uncovered, and bridges, walkways, and an amphitheater highlighted the center of the city, replacing unused train tracks and freight yards. Providence became a haven for artists and attracted multitudes with the building of new hotels, a convention center, a giant mall, and an outdoor ice rink. The city experienced a 40 percent drop in crime in the early 1990’s, providing more reason for residents to return to the onceempty downtown area.

Categories: History