Rhode Island History


Native American inhabitants, including the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Niantic tribes, occupied most of the area now known as Rhode Island. Most of the Native Americans were killed by European diseases and warfare with the Europeans. The Narragansett language died out for many years but was partially preserved in Roger Williams’ the A Key into the Languages of America (1643). In the twenty-first century, the Narragansett tribe remains a federally recognized entity in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Colony period: 1636–1776

In 1636, Roger Williams, after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views, settled at the tip of Narragansett Bay, on land granted to him by the Narragansett tribe. He called the site “Providence” and declared it a place of religious freedom. Detractors of the idea of liberty of conscience sometimes referred to it as “Rogue’s Island”.

In 1638, after conferring with Williams, Anne Hutchinson, William Coddington, John Clarke, Philip Sherman, and other religious dissidents settled on Aquidneck Island (then known as Rhode Island), which was purchased from the local natives, who called it Pocasset. The settlement of Portsmouth was governed by the Portsmouth Compact. The southern part of the island became the separate settlement of Newport after disagreements among the founders.

Another dissident, Samuel Gorton, purchased the Indian lands at Shawomet in 1642, precipitating a military dispute with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1644, Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport united for their common independence as the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, governed by an elected council and “president”. Gorton received a separate charter for his settlement in 1648, which he named Warwick after his patron. These allied colonies were united in the charter of 1663.

In 1686, King James II ordered Rhode Island to submit to the Dominion of New England and its appointed governor Edmund Andros. This suspended the colony’s charter but Rhode Island still managed to retain possession of it until Andros was deposed and the Dominion was dissolved. When William of Orange became King after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Rhode Island’s independent government resumed under the 1663 charter, which was used as the state constitution until 1842.

In 1693, the throne of William and Mary issued a patent extending Rhode Island’s territory to three miles “east and northeast” of Narragansett Bay, conflicting with the claims of Plymouth Colony. This resulted in several later transfers of territory between Rhode Island from Massachusetts.

Colonial relations with Native Americans

The relationship between the New Englanders and the Native Americans was at first strained, but did not result in much bloodshed. The largest tribes that lived near Rhode Island were the Wampanoag, Pequots, Narragansett, and Nipmuck. One native named Squanto, from the Wampanoag tribe, stayed with the pilgrims and taught them many valuable skills needed to survive in the area. He also helped greatly with the eventual peace between the colonists and the natives.

Roger Williams had won the respect of his colonial neighbors for his skill in keeping the powerful Narragansetts on friendly terms with local white settlers. In 1637, the Narragansetts were even persuaded to form an alliance with the English in carrying out an attack that nearly extinguished the Pequots. However, this peace did not last long. By 1670, even the friendly tribes who had greeted Williams and the Pilgrims became estranged from the colonists, and smell of war began to cover the New England countryside.

The most important and traumatic event in 17th century Rhode Island was King Philip’s War, which occurred during 1675–1676. King Philip (his British nickname, his real name was Metacomet) was the chief of the Wampanoag Indians. The settlers of Portsmouth had purchased their land from his father, Massasoit. King Philip first led attacks around Narragansett Bay, despite Rhode Island’s continued neutrality, but later these spread throughout New England. A force of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Plymouth militia under General Josiah Winslow invaded and destroyed the fortified Narragansett Indian village in the Great Swamp in southern Rhode Island, on December 19, 1675. The Narragansett also invaded, and burnt down several of the cities of Rhode Island, including Providence, although they allowed the population to leave first. Also in one of the final actions of the war, troops from Connecticut led by Captain Benjamin Church hunted down and killed “King Philip”, as they called the Narragansett war-leader Metacom, at Mount Hope, which is on Rhode Island’s territory.

Revolutionary era 1775-1790

Rhode Island was the first British colony in America to formally declare its independence, doing so on May 4, 1776, a full two months before the national Declaration of Independence. Previously, in 1772 Rhode Islanders attacked the British warship the Gaspee as one of the first overt acts of rebellion in America. British naval forces under Captain James Wallace controlled Narragansett Bay for much of the Revolution, periodically raiding the islands and the mainland. The British raided Prudence Island for livestock and engaged in a skirmish with American forces, losing approximately a dozen soldiers. Newport remained a hotbed for Tory or Loyalist sympathizers who assisted the British forces. The state appointed General William West of Scituate to root out Tories in the winter of 1775-76. British forces evenutally occupied Newport from 1777 to 1778 forcing the colonial forces to flee to Bristol.

The Battle of Rhode Island was fought during the summer of 1778 and was an unsuccessful attempt to expel the British from Narragansett Bay although few colonial casualties occurred. The Marquis de Lafayette called the action the “best fought” of War. The following year, the British, wanting to concentrate their forces in New York, abandoned Newport.

In 1780, the French under Rochambeau landed in Newport and for the rest of the war Newport was the base of the French forces in the United States. The French soldiers behaved themselves so well that in gratitude, the Rhode Island General Assembly repealed an old law banning Catholics from living in Rhode Island. The first Catholic mass in Rhode Island was said in Newport during this time.

Rhode Island was the last of the original 13 states to ratify the United States Constitution (May 29, 1790)—doing so after being threatened of having its exports taxed as a foreign nation. Rural resistance to the Constitution was strong in Rhode Island, and the anti-federalist Country Party controlled the General Assembly from 1786 to 1790. In 1788 anti-federalist politician and revolutionary general, William West, led an armed force of 1,000 men to Providence to oppose a 4th of July celebration of the 9th state ratifying the Constitution. Civil war was narrowly averted by a compromise limiting the Fourth of July celebration.

Industrial Revolution and Dorr’s reforms 1790-1860

In 1790 English immigrant, Samuel Slater founded the first textile mill in the United States in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (Slater Mill), and Slater became known as the father of the American industrial revolution. During the nineteenth century Rhode Island became one of the most industrialized states in the United States with large numbers of textile factories. The state also had significant machine tool, silverware, and costume jewelry industries.

As the Industrial Revolution moved large numbers of workers into the cities, a permanently landless, and therefore voteless class developed. By 1829, 60% of the state’s free white males were ineligible to vote.

Several attempts had been made to address this problem, but none passed. In 1842 Thomas Dorr drafted a liberal constitution which was passed by popular referendum. However the conservative sitting governor, Samuel Ward King, opposed the constitution, leading to the Dorr Rebellion. Although this collapsed, a modified version of the constitution was passed in November, which allowed any white male 21 or older to vote that owned land or could pay a $1 poll tax.

Slavery and abolition in Rhode Island 1652-1863

Prior to industrialization, Rhode Island was heavily involved in the slave trade during the post-Revolution era. Slavery was extant in RI as early as the 1600s. In 1652 Rhode Island passed the first abolition law in the thirteen colonies, banning African slavery. The law was not enforced by the end of the century. By 1774, the slave population of RI was 6.3%, nearly twice as high as any other New England colony. In the late eighteenth century, several Rhode Island merchant families (most notably the Browns, for whom Brown University is named) began actively engaging in the triangle slave trade. In the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves. The 18th century Rhode Island’s economy depended largely upon the triangle trade, where Rhode Islanders distilled rum from molasses, sent the rum to Africa to trade for slaves, and then traded the slaves in the West Indies for more molasses.

While serving in the Rhode Island Assembly in 1774, Stephen Hopkins introduced a bill that prohibited the importation of slaves into the colony. This became one of the first anti-slavery laws in the new United States. In February 1784 the Rhode Island Legislature passed a compromise measure for gradual emancipation of slaves within Rhode Island. All children of slaves born after March 1 were to be “apprentices,” the girls to become free at 18, the boys at 21. By 1840, the census reported only five African Americans enslaved in Rhode Island. Using southern cotton Rhode Island manufactured numerous textiles used in the southern slavery throughout the early nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, many Rhode Islanders were active in the abolitionist movement, particularly Quakers in Newport and Providence such as Moses Brown.

Civil War to Progressive era: 1860–1929

During the American Civil War, Rhode Island was one of the Union states. Rhode Island furnished 25,236 fighting men, of which 1,685 died. On the home front, Rhode Island, along with the other northern states, used its industrial capacity to supply the Union Army with the materials it needed to win the war. Rhode Island’s continued growth and modernization led to the creation of an urban mass transit system, and improved health and sanitation programs. After the war, in 1866, Rhode Island abolished racial segregation throughout the state. Post-war immigration increased the population. From the 1860s to the 1880s, most of the immigrants were from England, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and Quebec. Towards the end of the century however, most immigrants were from South and Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean. At the turn of the century, Rhode Island had a booming economy, which fed the demand for immigration. In the years that lead up to World War I, Rhode Island’s constitution remained reactionary, in contrast to the more progressive reforms that were occurring in the rest of the country. During World War I, Rhode Island furnished 28,817 troops, of whom 612 died. After the war, the state was hit hard by the Spanish Influenza.

In the 1920s and 30s, rural Rhode Island saw a surge in Ku Klux Klan membership largely among the native-born white population in reaction to the large waves of immigrants moving to the state. The Klan is believed to be responsible for burning the Watchman Industrial School in Scituate, Rhode Island, which was a school for African American children.

Great Depression to present: 1929–2010

Since the 1935 “Bloodless Revolution” in which Governor Theodore Francis Green and Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate replaced a Yankee Republican dominance that had existed since the middle of the 19th century, the Rhode Island Democratic Party has dominated state politics. Since then, the Speaker of the House, always a Democrat, has been one of the most powerful figures in government. The Democratic Party represented a coalition of labor unions, working class immigrants, intellectuals, college students, and the rising ethnic middle class. The Republican Party has been dominant in rural and suburban parts of the state, and has elected occasional “good government” reform candidates who criticize the state’s high taxes and the excesses of Democratic domination. Cranston Mayors Edward D. DiPrete and Stephen Laffey, Governor Donald Carcieri of East Greenwich, and former Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci of Providence ran as Republican reform candidates.

The state income tax was first enacted in 1971 as a temporary measure. Prior to 1971 there was no income tax in the state, but the temporary income tax soon became permanent. The tax burden in Rhode Island, including sales, gasoline, property, cigarette, corporate, and capital gains taxes, remains among the five highest in the United States.

Rhode Islanders have overwhelmingly supported and re-elected Democrats to positions of authority, where issues involving education, health care, and liberal causes are promoted. As of 2010 Rhode Island has heavily Democratic controlled legislatures, and both U.S. Senators and Congressman, and all statewide offices other than governor are held by Democrats.