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The History of Rhode Island
© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 1

Historical Review 1.13   

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Native Americans

           The first people to inhabit Rhode Island arrived over 8,000 years ago. These people, called the Paleo-Indians, settled in Rhode Island after migrating across the land bridge between Asia and North America. The Paleo-Indians were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in an extremely harsh post-Ice Age environment. After a few thousand years, the climate of Rhode Island warmed, allowing for native populations to increase in number. During the thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the Native Americans progressed through many different stages, including the Archaic and Woodland eras. These different eras, separated by time, technological, and cultural achievements, witnessed the change from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a village-based agricultural existence very rich in culture. The Native Americans that greeted the first European explorers were descendents of these cultures.

          The early English settlers quickly found that the land they wanted for settlement was already inhabited by a number of Native American tribes. The Narragansetts, Wampanoags, Nipmucks, and the Niantics all occupied different areas of the land that became Rhode Island. The Naragansetts, part of the Algonquin language family, were the region's dominant tribe. They populated the area along the Narragansett Bay between Warwick and Exeter. The Wampanoags, enemies of the Narragansetts, lived on the eastern shore of the Narragansett Bay. Other tribes of Rhode Island such as the Niantics and the Nipmucks were much smaller in number. The Niantics lived in the present-day Charlestown and Westerly areas, and the Nipmucks inhabited the northwestern part of the state. These tribes sustained themselves through a combination of hunting, fishing, and farming. Living with their families in villages, they maintained a simple and sustainable lifestyle for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

          At the time of European settlement, the combined population of the Narragansett and Niantics was estimated to be around 7,000.(1) Encroachment, disease, and warfare due to European settlement caused the population of Rhode Island's native population to drop to approximately 200 by 1880.(2)

The Explorers of Rhode Island

          Many different people have claimed European discovery of Rhode Island. Some believe that Irish sailors landed in New England during Medieval times, while others believe that the Vikings were the first to sail the waters off the Rhode Island coast. Based on controversial carvings found on the Dighton Rock near the Taunton River, some have speculated that the Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real was the first to reach New England. Despite these claims, the first undisputedly documented explorer to reach Rhode Island was Giovanni Verranzzano. In 1524, under the direction of the French King Francis, Verranzzano made the voyage to the New World in search of the Northwest Passage, which many at the time believed was a channel that led to the Far East. Such a passageway did not exist, but Verranzzano continued his journey northward along the Atlantic coast, landing first in Cape Fear, North Carolina, in search of the fictional route. He sailed to what is now Block Island and named it Luisa. He also described it as about the "bigness of the Isle of Rhodes." Needless to say, that is where Rhode Island eventually got its name. Verranzzano continued sailing up the coast and landed in what is now Newport Harbor. Here, he met with the Wampanoag Indians, who were friendly to his crew. He left the area in May of 1524, continuing his quest to find an easy pass to the east.

          The Northwest Passage was not found near Rhode Island, and ninety years passed before the next European would explore the area. In 1614, the Virginia settler, John Smith, charted the New England coast. He sailed past Luisa Island and renamed it after himself. The next to sail Rhode Island's waters were the Dutch who settled in present-day New York. The Dutchman, Adrien Block, was sent up the coast in search of a good trading ground. He came upon Luisa, also named Smith's Isle, and named it after himself. This time the name stuck. Although the Dutch and English explored the area in 1614, settlement would not ensue for another twenty years.

English Settlement

           English from the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies took frequent forays into present-day Rhode Island for trading purposes during the 1620s, but it wasn't until 1635 that the first white person settled there. William Blackstone, an Anglican clergyman, built a home near present-day Lonsdale near a river that was later named for him. Blackstone was Rhode Island's first settler, but the first settlement did not develop around him, rather further south, at Providence. Roger Williams and his followers, who were seen as religious extremists to the Puritans of Massachusetts, settled Providence. They left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to find religious freedom in the wilderness of Rhode Island. Securing land grants from the Narragansetts, which were easily facilitated by Williams' friendship with the tribe, these settlers went on to found the towns of Providence, Newport, Portsmouth, and Warwick.

I have acknowledged amongst them a heart sensible of kindnesse, and have reaped kindnesse again from many…
- Roger Williams on the Native Americans

          Border disputes were common during this time; conflicts between Indian land grants and royal charters made acquiring land difficult. To secure their land and religious freedom, Rhode Island sent Roger Williams to England in 1643 for a parliamentary patent that united the four original towns into one colony and protected their freedom of worship. Twenty years later, Rhode Island acquired a royal charter from Charles II, who was more than happy to secure Rhode Island's freedom of worship, especially if it angered the Puritans. His hatred towards the Puritans stemmed from the English Civil War, which brought Protestant control to England and led to the execution of his father, Charles I. Once Rhode Island's charter was secured, Quakers and other religious dissenters soon made the colony their home.

          Although religious dissenters were welcome, the towns of Rhode Island grew slowly. It was a rough and uncomfortable frontier of which many were afraid. Trade with the Indians carried on at Smith Castle near Wickford, and wampum was used as currency until 1662.(3) Some settlers desired a higher level of civilization. Others were afraid for their lives due to an unsecured relationship with the Indians; some tribes were friendly towards the settlers while others were not. Indians weren't the only threat to the colonists; during the 1660s, the legislature granted bounties for the killing of wolves and large cats. "It is further ordered, that Newport shall pay four pounds for the killing of a wolf, and Portsmouth twenty shillings." (4)

          Rhode Island's settlements took a big hit during King Philip's War (1675-1676). This war, between the New England Native Americans and the settlers, was brought on by ongoing cultural tensions, disagreement over land claims, and a series of hostile incidents. During this conflict, thousands of Indians and over 600 colonists were killed. Rhode Island attempted to remain neutral during this war, but it was impossible. Some viewed the conflict as a means for the Puritan colonies to gain control of land in Rhode Island, and refused to fight; others joined the troops. The settlements on Rhode Island's mainland were destroyed during the war, ruining the colonists' accomplishments and forcing them to start over.

          Rhode Island did recover, and by the mid-18th century, had become a leader in maritime trade. Agriculture had developed as well; livestock, flax, apples, and onions were all grown in Rhode Island. Agriculture was lucrative, but Rhode Island's economy during this era was dominated by endeavors less morally sound, including pirating and the slave trade. Privateering, a legal form of pirating that went on during wartime, brought Rhode Island a great deal of money during King George's War (1745-1748) and the French and Indian War (1754-1763). However, the slave trade is what would bring Rhode Island more money than any other economic venture of the time. Molasses from the West Indies was shipped to Rhode Island, which was transformed into rum at the distilleries. This rum was used to barter for slaves on the west coast of Africa, who were brought to the West Indies to work on sugar plantations, or to the east coast to work as domestic servants. The sugar trade, slave trade, and fisheries were the three largest industries in Rhode Island during the 18th century.

          The flourishing economy resulted in large population increases. The population grew from 3,500 in 1690, to 50,000 in 1765. The slave population grew from 426 in 1708, to 5,000 in 1765.(5) Also, the number of merchant vessels rose from 24 to more than 500 between 1708 and 1763. Rhode Island's dependency on sugar and maritime trade created a strong backlash against the Sugar Act and other taxes inflicted on the colonies during the 1760s. This retaliation culminated into the American Revolution.

(1) "Rhode Island History,"
(2) William McLoughlin. Rhode Island: A Bicentennial History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978), 45.
(3) McLoughlin, 41.
(4) Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, Vol. 1, 1636-1663, (New York: AMS Press, 1968), 85.
(5) McLoughlin, 58.

By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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