History of Providence, Rhode Island facts for kids

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Providence, Rhode Island, 1858
Providence, harbor view, 1858

The Rhode Island city of Providence has a nearly four hundred-year history integral to that of the United States, including significance in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the American Revolutionary War by providing leadership and fighting strength, quartering troops, and supplying goods to residents by circumventing the blockade of Newport. The city is also noted for the first bloodshed of the American Revolution in the Gaspée Affair. Additionally, Providence is notable for economic shifts, moving from trading to manufacturing; the decline of manufacturing devastated the city during the Great Depression, but the city eventually attained economic recovery through investment of public funds.

Founding and colonial era

Providence, Rhode Island, Original Deed
The original 1636 deed to Providence, signed by Chief Canonicus
Original Providence Rhode Island town layout of homesteads
original 1600s town layout of Providence, many of the street names on the East Side are named after the original homestead strip owners

The area which is now Providence was first settled in June 1636 by prominent Baptist Roger Williams and other religious exiles. It was one of the original Thirteen Colonies of the United States. Williams had been exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his outspoken beliefs concerning distinction of state government and religion.

…all civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.
— Roger Williams, A Plea for Religious Liberty

Williams secured a title from the Narragansett natives around this time and gave the city its present name. He also cultivated Providence Plantation as a refuge for persecuted religious dissenters, especially but not exclusively Baptists, as he himself had been exiled from Massachusetts. Baptist minister Chad Brown was a leading 17th century land owner in Providence and ancestor to the prominent Brown family and Nicholas Brown, Jr. for whom Brown University was named. Providence Plantation was an agricultural and fishing community, though its lands were difficult to farm, and its borders were disputed with Connecticut and Massachusetts. During King Philip's War between Wampanoag leader Metacomet (King Philip) and the English Colonists, the town of Providence was destroyed by a Native American coalition on March 29, 1676. Providence was one of two major English settlements burned to the ground, the other being Springfield, Massachusetts.

After the town was rebuilt, the economy expanded into more industrial and commercial activity. The outer lands of Providence Plantations extending to the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders were incorporated as Scituate, Glocester, and Smithfield in 1731. Later, Cranston, Johnston, and North Providence were also carved out of Providence's municipal territory. By the 1760s, the population of the remaining urban core reached 4,000.


First Baptist Meetinghouse, Providence, RI
Providence's First Baptist Church in America was organized in 1636 and the present building occupied in 1776

In the mid-1770s, the British government levied taxes that impeded Providence's maritime, fishing, and agricultural industries, the mainstays of the city's economy. One example was the Sugar Act, which affected Providence's distilleries and its trade in rum. These taxes caused Providence to join the other colonies in renouncing allegiance to the British Crown. In response to enforcement of unpopular trade laws, Providence residents were among the first to spill blood in the American Revolution in the notorious Gaspée Affair in 1772.

Woonasquatucket River
A historic mill on the Woonasquatucket River

The city escaped enemy occupation during the Revolutionary War, but the British capture of nearby Newport disrupted industry and kept the population on alert. Troops were quartered for various campaigns and Brown University's University Hall was used as a barracks and military hospital. French troops were quartered in the city's Market House.

Following the war, the economy shifted from maritime endeavors to manufacturing, particularly machinery, tools, silverware, jewelry, and textiles. At one time, Providence boasted some of the largest manufacturing plants in the country, including Brown & Sharpe, Nicholson File, and Gorham Silverware. The city's industries attracted many immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, England, Italy, Portugal, Cape Verde, and French Canada. Economic and demographic shifts caused social strife.Hard Scrabble and Snow Town were two African American neighborhoods and were the sites of two riots in 1824 and 1831. In response to these troubles and the economic growth, Providence residents ratified a city charter in 1831 as the population passed 17,000.

Jewelry Industry

Gorham Manufacturing Company 1886
Gorham Manufacturing Company's Works. Canal, Steeple, and North Main Streets, Providence, 1886

The jewelry industry was once the primary industry in Rhode Island. Seril Dodge and his nephew Nehemiah Dodge started the manufacture of jewelry in Providence in 1794. The industry grew slowly during the early 19th century, then more rapidly. Jewelry making, and to a lesser extent silverware, attracted both American and foreign craftsmen to the city as the industry grew in prominence. By 1850, there were 57 firms and 590 workers in the jewelry trade. By 1880, Rhode Island led the United States in the manufacture of jewelry, accounting for more than one quarter of the entire national jewelry production. By 1890, there were more than 200 firms with almost 7,000 workers in Providence.

By the 1960s, jewelry trade magazines referred to Providence as “the jewelry capital of the world.” The industry peaked in 1978 with 32,500 workers, then began a swift decline. By 1996, the number of jewelry workers shrank to 13,500. Numerous former factories were left vacant in the jewelry district. Many of these later became home to offices, residences, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Civil War

During the Civil War, local politics split over slavery as many had ties to Southern cotton. Despite ambivalence concerning the war, the number of military volunteers routinely exceeded quota, and the city's manufacturing proved invaluable to the Union.

Expansion and wealth

Browns & Sharpe Shops, Providence RI, 1896
Browns & Sharpe Shops, Providence RI, 1896

Postwar, horsecar lines covering the city enabled its growth and Providence thrived with waves of immigrants and land annexations bringing the population from 54,595 in 1865 to 175,597 by 1900.

By 1890, Providence's Union Railroad had a network which included over 300 horsecars and 1,515 horses. Two years later, the first electric streetcars were introduced in Providence. The city soon had an electric streetcar network extending from Crescent Park to the south in East Providence to Pawtuxet and Pawtucket in the north.

According to journalist Mike Stanton, "Thanks to immigrant labor, Providence was one of the richest cities in America in the early 1900s."

It [Providence] was the hub of the nation's most industrialized state, an early-day Silicon Valley of cutting-edge technology. The city boasted its "five industrial Wonders of the World" – the largest precision-tool factory (Brown & Sharpe), the largest file factory (Nicholson File), the largest steam-engine factory (Corliss), the largest silverware factory (Gorham), and the largest screw factory (American Screw) – plus the country's biggest textile manufacturer, Fruit of the Loom.


The city began to see a decline by the mid-1920s as industries shut down, notably textiles. The Great Depression hit the city hard, and Providence's downtown was flooded by the New England Hurricane of 1938 soon after. The city saw further decline as a result of the nationwide trends, with the construction of highways and increased suburbanization. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Providence was a notorious bastion of organized crime. The legendary mafia boss Raymond Patriarca ruled a vast criminal enterprise from the city for over three decades, during which murders and kidnappings became commonplace.


New construction in Providence (August 2006): cranes seen for Waterplace Condominium towers, Westin addition, and the GTECH headquarters prior to completion

The city's "Renaissance" began in the 1970s. From 1975 until 1982, $606 million of local and national Community Development funds were invested throughout the city, and the declining population began to stabilize. In the 1990s, Mayor Vincent Cianci, Jr showcased the city's strength in arts and pushed for further revitalization, ultimately resulting in opening up the city's rivers (which had been paved over), relocating a large section of railroad underground, creation of Waterplace Park and river walks along the river's banks, and construction of the Fleet Skating Rink (now the Bank of America Skating Rink) in downtown and the 1.4 million ft2 Providence Place Mall.

New investment was triggered within the city, with new construction filling in the freed space, including numerous condo projects, hotels, and a new office highrise. Despite new investment, poverty remains an entrenched problem, as it does in most post-industrial New England cities. Nearly 30 percent of the city population lives below the poverty line. Recent increases in real estate values further exacerbate problems for those at marginal income levels, as Providence had the highest rise in median housing price of any city in the United States from 2004 to 2005.

Future plans

The city has begun a planning process, due to the recent inundation of proposals in Providence, to decide how to incorporate all projects in a way that promotes future development and capitalizes on the historic nature of the city and waterfront land. Emphasis has been placed on the following:

  • $20 million "Enhanced Bus Circulator" with traffic-light priority and special stations
  • Redevelopment of centrally located land freed up by the relocation of Interstate 195
  • Riverfront improvements on the Woonasquatucket River west of Providence Place, creating pedestrian access to the waterfront
  • Redevelopment of the corridor south of Downcity between the Providence River and Interstate 95.

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