Rhode Island History

Get to Know Rhode Island

Some say that the explorer Verrazano may have dropped by this area in the early 1500s and 100 years later Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer may have scrutinized some parts of the area as well. However, recorded history starts with the establishment and naming of a settlement by Roger Williams.

Roger Williams was born in London, England in 1603 and became an Anglican clergyman in 1627. He arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony four years later. Reverend Williams became a teacher and then a minister and was an outspoken advocate of religious freedom in spite of his opposition to Puritanism.

Leaders of the colony allowed him freedom of speech until he began mixing politics with his religious beliefs. They were alarmed at some of his radical positions and the General Court ordered him to leave the colony in 1635. This resulted from his expression of doubt concerning the legality of the colony’s charter, his advice to the Puritan population to come clean and admit that they were not part of the Church of England and his declaration that the colony leaders had no right or power to control actions based on conscience.

Land purchased from the Narragansett Indians became the settlement known as Providence founded by the Reverend Williams in 1636. Early settlers came from England having been drawn to the colony by the assurance of complete religious freedom. Some Jewish settlers came to Newport. Large numbers of Quakers soon followed. There was a steady flow of exiles from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and 12 other settlements which had sprung up in this New World.


Four settlements were established around Narragansett Bay by 1643. Puritan exiles bought Aquidneck Island from the Narragansett tribe and established a settlement called Portsmouth. Newport was founded by an oppositional group who settled on the southwest side of the island. It took awhile and some politiking, but the two towns finally agreed to share a common government. This arrangement lasted almost seven years. In 1642, a settlement on the west shore of Narragansett Bay became large enough to be recognized and named Warwick.

Williams made several trips back to England over a period of eleven years in order to secure a patent joining the four settlements of Portsmouth, Newport, Warwick and Providence into a recognized colony. Thus the colony of Rhode Island was secured, formed and recognized. Any newcomers who wished to own land purchased that land from the Native Americans, following Williams’ practice and leadership.

His success with the negotiations in England pleased the settlers of this new colony so much that they elected Roger Williams as the president of the colony
when he returned in 1654. He was re-elected two more times, thus serving three terms. During this time, his trusted dealings with the Native Americans brought peaceful co-existence and mutual respect to the indians and the settlers.

Reverend Roger Williams was the author of many writings which manifested his humanitarian and democratic dreams and beliefs. Fortunately, his charismatic personality and proven integrity endeared him to many who were opposed to his liberal attitude and ideas. As his actions became more political, he shunned the existing churches whilst still remaining a Christian.

Following the other colonies, Rhode Island voiced their objections to British trade policies and taxes, violating the Molasses Act and the Navigation Acts consistently. The Patriots burned the British revenue ship (Gaspee) to protest enforcement of these acts and taxes which, if honored, would require them to declare all revenue including that obtained from smugglers. Narragansett Bay was known as a smuggler’s haven.

On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island declared an end to its allegiance to the crown of England, George III. The colonists gained the upper hand in their bid for independence from Britain and Rhode Island interpreted this as a release from the payment of taxes to any ruling authority. Based upon this interpretation, they refused to agree to a national import duty which would provide income to the new, independent national government.

Rhode Island also refused to send any representative to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the federal government had to threaten to stop commercial transactions with this state in order to encourage their leaders to ratify the Constitution in 1790.

Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America

The Industrial Revolution embraced Rhode Island quickly. Towns grew in size and Providence soon became the commercial center of Rhode Island. Economy stabilized and manufacturing took the lead in the economic arena.

English, Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in boatloads during the first half of the 1800s, followed by French Canadians around the time of the Civil War. From the end of the 1800s and into the beginning of the 1900s, Rhode Island experienced a surge of Polish, Italian and Portuguese immigrants.

The modern history of Rhode Island centers on the maneuverings between government, politics, education and the economy. However, Rhode Island is still very independent, tends to mind its own business and seems satisfied to remain in the shadows and do its own thing.