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Colonial America | Colonies | Rhode Island (Est. 1636)

Learn more about the
Narragansett Indians,
the original inhabitants
of present-day Rhode
Island.

Long before European explorers arrived, four Algonquian-speaking groups of Native Americans inhabited the area now known as Rhode Island. The Narragansett Indians, the largest and most powerful group, occupied most of the region. In an area east of the Narragansett Bay lived the Wampanoag, who also resided in Massachusetts. The Niantic inhabited southwestern Rhode Island and coastal areas of Connecticut. The Nipmuc lived in northern Rhode Island and neighboring areas of Connecticut and Massachusetts.

DID YOU KNOW?
Rhode Island is actually comprised
of more than 30 small islands, most
of which sit in Narragansett Bay.
Click to see a map and read a brief
description
of 22 of those islands.

The Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano was the first European to explore Rhode Island. In 1524 he sailed into Narragansett Bay, exploring its coasts and islands. He compared one island to the Isle of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea. The first colonists, aware of Verrazano's reports, thought he was referring to Aquidneck Island and promptly renamed it Rhode Island. Verrazano had actually been describing Block Island, which was later named after the Dutch navigator Adrian Block, who explored the area in 1614. Nevertheless, Verrazano's description contributed to the naming of Rhode Island.

William Blackstone

Click to learn more about
William Blackstone, the
first European settler in
Boston, as well as Rhode
Island.

William Blackstone, an eccentric Anglican clergyman, was the first European to live in the Boston area, arriving there in 1623. When the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony arrived in 1630 and found him living on land for which they had a patent, they drove him out and ordered his house burned to the ground. Blackstone, a loner who liked to read books and plant trees, moved to Cumberland, where he became the first European resident of Rhode Island in 1635. There he remained until his death 40 years later.

Roger Williams

Read a biography of minister
and Rhode Island founder
Roger Williams.


View the marble statue of
Roger Williams that stands in
the U.S. Capitol Building.

William Blackstone became well acquainted with Roger Williams who migrated to the same area a few years later after experiencing persecution in Massachusetts. Roger Williams had lived in the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, but he came into conflict with the Puritan authorities for publicly proclaiming that their charter was invalid, since the king had no right to give away lands belonging to the American Indians. An outspoken advocate of religious freedom, he challenged some of the civil and religious restrictions in the colonies and denounced them for forcing religious uniformity upon the colonists.

In October 1635, the General Court of Massachusetts passed a sentence of banishment against Roger Williams, granting him six weeks in which to put his affairs in order and prepare himself and his family for the required departure. In January 1636, the General Court summoned him again. When the Court's emissaries arrived at the family home, he was no longer there.

Exposed to the bitter cold of winter, frost, and snow, Williams made his way on foot out of Massachusetts. After 14 weeks he arrived at the headwaters of the Narragansett Bay and decided to stop. There he met with his friend, Massasoit, who was sachem, or chief, of the Wampanoag tribe. Massasoit granted him a large section of land just east of the Seekonk River, and Williams, along with a few loyal friends from Salem, settled there at the site of present-day Rumford, in East Providence.

After building shelters and sowing seeds in the spring, the settlers were advised by Plymouth Colony authorities that Plymouth had jurisdiction over the area in which they had settled. Edward Winslow, the leader of the Plymouth Colony at the time, did not want to anger the more powerful Massachusetts Bay Colony by allowing Williams to remain. Thus, Roger Williams and his friends were forced to move across the river onto land controlled by the Narragansett. Two Narragansett sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi, granted generous land deeds to the wandering colonists. In 1636 Roger Williams established the first permanent settlement in the new colony of Rhode Island. He named the settlement Providence Plantations, "for God's merciful Providence unto me in my distress."

Williams was held in high regard by the Native American community, and he, in turn, respected them. He dealt fairly and honestly with them, insisting that settlers compensate the native people rather than seize their lands. Soon, the native groups not only came to accept the colonists but encouraged settlement. The Wampanoag and Narragansett were traditional adversaries, and each tribe felt the colonists could serve as allies during potential conflicts against rival nations. The settlers also functioned as a safeguard against the less tolerant colonists in Massachusetts.

In 1637, war broke out between the Pequot Indians and the colonists in Connecticut. English fears multiplied when rumors spread that the Pequot were forming an alliance with the Narragansett, thus uniting two powerful tribes against colonization in New England. Officials representing the Massachusetts Bay Colony approached Williams, asking him to intercede in an effort to prevent this coalition. Williams agreed to do so.

Roger Williams wrote of this service in later years: "Three days and nights my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequot ambassadors, whose hands and arms reeked with the blood of my countrymen, murdered and massacred by them on Connecticut River..." Williams was successful. The Narragansett entered the war on the side of the colonists, and the Pequot were nearly wiped out.

Among Roger Williams' many other accomplishments was America's first Baptist church that Williams formed with himself as its first pastor, though he withdrew from this group within a few months. Still, the establishment of this church helped open the door for many other religious groups in Rhode Island in the coming years.

Anne Hutchinson

Learn more about one of
Portsmouth's original founders,
Anne Hutchinson.

In 1638, Rhode Island welcomed another group of nonconformists who had come from Massachusetts. This group of more than 60 people included Anne Hutchinson, William Coddington, John Clarke, Thomas Savage, and Phillip Shearman. Like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson had been banished from Massachusetts as a result of her political and religious disagreements with the Puritan establishment. Hutchinson preached a doctrine of salvation that was seen as an attack on the legal and moral codes of the Massachusetts colony.

Roger Williams welcomed the group and even led negotiations with Narragansett sachem Miantonomi on their behalf for a piece of land at the northern end of Aquidneck Island. It was acquired from the Narragansett for "forty fathoms of white peage [wampum], ten coats and twenty hoes for the resident Indians, and five fathoms of wampum to the local sachem." There the group founded the town of Pocasset, later renamed Portsmouth.

Differences in religious belief soon arose between supporters of Anne Hutchinson and William Coddington, and in 1639 Coddington and a small group of townspeople moved from Portsmouth to the southern part of Aquidneck Island. Once again purchasing land from the Narragansett, Coddington established the settlement of Newport. The following year, the two island communities of Portsmouth and Newport united and elected Coddington as governor of the new federation.

The fourth major settlement in Rhode Island was Shawomet, settled in 1642 by Samuel Gorton, another dissident from Portsmouth. Gorton held unconventional religious beliefs and had been cast out of both Boston and Plymouth. Residents of Portsmouth, most of whom had been driven out of Massachusetts for similar reasons, welcomed Gorton at first. He soon created discord, however, not only in Portsmouth, but also in Newport, Providence, and Pawtuxet, a small settlement adjoining Providence. Gorton created trouble by denying all power in the magistrates. He and a group of supporters purchased a tract of land south of Providence from Narragansett chiefs, but Pawtuxet residents and the local Narragansett group disapproved of the sale and filed a complaint with Massachusetts authorities.

In response, Massachusetts officials sent forces to arrest Gorton and his followers on charges of blasphemy, among other offenses. Gorton managed to avoid a death sentence, but he was imprisoned for several months and then banished from Massachusetts. Believing this treatment to be grossly unfair, Gorton traveled to England and presented his case to a parliamentary commission headed by Robert Rich, the Second Earl of Warwick, the Governor in Chief and Lord High Admiral of the English Plantations in America. The commission sided with Gorton and gave him a guarantee of protection.

In 1648, Gorton returned to the Shawomet settlement, which he renamed Warwick because of the Earl of Warwick's involvement in the successful conclusion of Gorton's case in England. There he was finally able to preach without interference. His followers called themselves "Gortonites" for many decades after his death.

Read the biographies of notable
Rhode Island personalities, including
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith
Wharton,
artist Gilbert Stuart—whose
portrait of George Washington
appears on the $1 bill, and poet
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who
wrote "The Song of Hiawatha."

For many years, the four towns of Providence, Warwick, Portsmouth, and Newport constituted the municipal divisions of the colony. Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colony were a threat to them partly because title to the lands was authorized solely by Native American deeds. To eliminate the threat of interference in Rhode Island's affairs, Roger Williams traveled to England in 1644 to obtain a charter from Parliament. He returned with legal documentation that defended the colony's existence and land claims. Under the terms of the document, Providence, Newport, and Portsmouth were incorporated as Providence Plantations. Although Warwick was not included in the charter, its residents participated in the first recorded meeting of the colony's general assembly at Portsmouth in May 1647.

Rhode Island continued to be a safe haven for religious refugees, which was one reason why the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies constantly threatened the settlement. No one was refused admittance because of his or her religious beliefs. Antinomians, a religious sect similar to the Quakers, arrived in 1638; Quakers came to the settlement in 1657 and would soon gain much power; Jews arrived in Newport in 1658; and French Huguenots (Calvinists) arrived in the last two decades of the 17th century.

DID YOU KNOW?
Rhode Island is the smallest
state in size in the United States.
It measures 48 miles from north
to south and 37 miles from east
to west. Click to read more Rhode
Island Fast Facts and Trivia.

After a long civil war in England, Britain's monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II assumed the throne. Rhode Islanders quickly sent Dr. John Clarke to England to ask the new king for a royal charter. Issued three years later, the charter incorporated the mainland and island of Rhode Island (Aquidneck) as "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." The most liberal of all colonial charters, it allowed the colonists a large measure of self-government, including the power to elect government leaders, rather than have them appointed by the king. The colonists were also guaranteed "full liberty in religious concernments," continuing the practice of religious freedom that had initially brought about the Rhode Island settlements. The 1663 Royal Charter granted rights and privileges so extensive that it remained in effect almost continuously until 1843, long after the colony severed it ties with England.

Despite Roger Williams' efforts to avoid it, arguments over land between the Wampanoag and the Massachusetts colonies led to King Philip's War in 1675. Although Rhode Island did not officially join the war against the Native Americans, it permitted the other colonies to move about freely in their territory. When the Narragansett allowed refuge to fleeing Wampanoag Indians, colonists attacked the tribe near West Kingston, Rhode Island. The fortified Narragansett village was burned, and nearly 600 men, women, and children were killed. The surviving Narragansett then joined Philip's forces in destroying Rhode Island's mainland settlements. Even Providence, which for years had been spared harm because of Williams' presence, was burned.

Despite the damage and losses incurred during King Philip's War, Rhode Island rebuilt and by the early 1700s, Rhode Island farmers were producing surplus crops and livestock. Leading agricultural products included corn, wool, and cheese. Horses were important to the economy, especially the famous crossbreed known as the Narragansett pacer. Much of the agricultural produce, lumber, and fish was shipped to the West Indies and exchanged for molasses. This brought Rhode Island into the "triangular trade" among the New England colonies, Africa, and the West Indies. The molasses was used to make rum in Newport then transported to Africa, where it was exchanged for African slaves. The Africans were then taken to the West Indies, where labor was needed on large sugar plantations. The slaves were exchanged for molasses, which was brought back to Rhode Island to be made into more rum.

Discover more about the
history of Rhode Island
from its early inhabitants
to the present day.

The molasses and rum trade provided much of Newport's wealth, transforming it into a thriving social and cultural center. Newport also served as a major slave trading center until 1774, when Rhode Island endorsed a partial ban on the importation of slaves. An emancipation act passed in 1784 gave freedom to children born to enslaved women after that date. By the time Congress banned the foreign slave trade in 1808, most African Americans in Rhode Island had already been emancipated.

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