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History of Rhode Island facts for kids

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The history of Rhode Island includes the history of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations since pre-colonial times.


King Philip's Seat
King Philip's Seat, an Indian meeting place on Mount Hope, (Rhode Island)

Indian inhabitants occupied most of the area now known as Rhode Island, including the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Niantic tribes. Many Indians were killed by diseases, possibly contracted through contact with European settlers and explorers (though no definitive source has been proven), and through warfare with other tribes and with European settlers. The Narragansett language died out for many years but was partially preserved in Roger Williams's A Key into the Languages of America (1643). In the 21st century, the Narragansett tribe remains a federally recognized entity in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Colony period: 1636–1776

Providence, Rhode Island, Original Deed
The original 1636 deed to Providence, signed by Chief Canonicus

In 1636, Roger Williams settled at the tip of Narragansett Bay after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views, on land granted to him by the Narragansett tribe. He called the site "Providence Plantation" and declared it a place of religious freedom. (It is no accident that the oldest surviving synagogue in North America is the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island.) Critics at the time sometimes referred to it as "Rogue's Island", and Cotton Mather called it "the sewer of New England."

In 1638, Anne Hutchinson, William Coddington, John Clarke, Philip Sherman, and other religious dissidents settled on Aquidneck Island, after conferring with Williams. Aquidneck is the largest island, 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.

Dissident Samuel Gorton purchased the Indian lands at Shawomet in 1642, precipitating a 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. The union of these four towns was strengthened by the Royal 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. William of Orange became King after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and 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. (See History of Massachusetts.)

In 1719, Rhode Island imposed civil restrictions on Catholics.

Colonial relations with Indians

Roger Williams and Narragansetts
Roger Williams meeting with the Narragansetts (not contemporary)

The early relationship between New Englanders and Indians was at times strained, but did not result in any significant 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 in Plymouth 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. (This was in the earliest Colonial days, before Roger Williams founded Providence Plantations.)

Roger Williams 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 formed 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 the Pilgrims became estranged from the colonists, and threat of war began to grow in the New England countryside.

One important and traumatic event in 17th century Rhode Island was King Philip's War, which occurred during 1675–1676. Metacomet, the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, was known as King Philip by the settlers of Portsmouth who had purchased their land from his father Massasoit. King Philip first led attacks around Narragansett Bay, despite Rhode Island's continued neutrality, and 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 Narragansetts also invaded and burned down several of the Rhode Island settlements, including Providence, although they allowed the population to leave first. In one of the final actions of the war, troops from Connecticut led by Captain Benjamin Church hunted down and killed King Philip at Mount Hope.

Revolutionary era 1775-1790

John Greenwood - Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam
Governor Joseph Wanton (being doused with punch and vomit) and other prominent Rhode Island merchants in "Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam," a 1755 painting

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, Rhode Islanders attacked the British warship HMS Gaspee in 1772 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 eventually occupied Newport from 1777 to 1778, causing 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 the war. The following year, the British wanted to concentrate their forces in New York and consequently 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), only doing so after being threatened with 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 July 4 celebration of the state ratifying the Constitution. Civil war was narrowly averted by a compromise limiting the Fourth of July celebration.

Slavery in Rhode Island

North Smithfield
a typical 19th century Rhode Island farm in North Smithfield
Moses Brown by Martin Johnson Heade
Moses Brown. Portrait by Martin Johnson Heade

Rhode Island was heavily involved in the slave trade during the post-Revolution era, prior to industrialization. In 1652, Rhode Island passed the first abolition law in the thirteen colonies, banning African slavery, In 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.

Stephen Hopkins introduced a bill while serving in the Rhode Island Assembly in 1774 that prohibited the importation of slaves into the colony. This became one of the first anti-slavery laws in the 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.

Despite the antislavery laws of 1774, 1784, and 1787, an international slave trade continued. In 1789, an Abolition Society was organized to secure enforcement of existing laws against the trade. Leading merchants continued to engage in the trade even after it became illegal, especially John Brown and George DeWolf. After 1770, slaving was never more than a minor aspect of Rhode Island's overall maritime trade.

Rhode Island manufactured numerous textiles throughout the early 19th century using southern cotton cultivated with slave labor—as did all other American textile manufacturers of the time.


Industrial Revolution

Samuel Slater (1768–1835) popularly called "The Father of the American Industrial Revolution"

In 1790, English immigrant Samuel Slater founded the first textile mill in the United States in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (Slater Mill) and became known as the father of the American industrial revolution. During the 19th 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.

Dorr Rebellion

The Industrial Revolution moved large numbers of workers into cities and attracted large numbers of immigrants from Ireland, and a permanently landless—and therefore voteless—class developed. By 1829, 60% of the state's white men were ineligible to vote. All efforts at reform failed in the face of rural control of the political system. In 1842, Thomas Dorr drafted a liberal constitution which he tried to ratify by popular referendum. However, conservative Governor Samuel Ward King opposed the constitution, leading to the Dorr Rebellion. The Rebellion gained little support and failed, and Dorr went to prison. The conservative elements relented, however, and allowed most American-born men to vote, but the conservative rural towns remained in control of the legislature.

Civil War to Progressive era: 1860–1929

During the American Civil War, Rhode Island furnished 25,236 fighting men to the Union armies, of which 1,685 died. These comprised 12 infantry regiments, three cavalry regiments, and an assortment of artillery and miscellaneous outfits. Rhode Island used its industrial capacity to supply the Union Army with the materials needed to win the war, along with the other northern states. Rhode Island's continued growth and modernization led to the creation of an urban mass transit system and improved health and sanitation programs. 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 19th century, however, most immigrants were from South and Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean. Around the start of the 20th century, Rhode Island had a booming economy, which fed the demand for immigration. 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.

Since 1929

Theodore Francis GREEN
U.S. Senator and Governor, T.F. Green

In 1935, Governor Theodore Francis Green and Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate replaced a Republican dominance that had existed since the middle of the 19th century in what is termed the "Bloodless Revolution." The Rhode Island Democratic Party has dominated state politics ever since. Since then, the Speaker of the House has always been a Democrat and one of the most powerful figures in government.

The Democratic Party presents itself as 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 nominated occasional reform candidates who criticize the state's high taxes and 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 remains among the five highest in the United States, including sales, gasoline, property, cigarette, corporate, and capital gains taxes.

Rhode Islanders have overwhelmingly supported and re-elected Democrats to positions of authority, where issues are promoted involving education, health care, and liberal causes. As of 2010 Rhode Island has heavily Democrat-controlled legislatures; both U.S. Senators and Congressmen, and all statewide offices other than governor are held by Democrats. The state has been carried by Democrat presidential candidates in every election since 1988.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1790 68,825
1800 69,122 0.4%
1810 76,931 11.3%
1820 83,059 8.0%
1830 97,199 17.0%
1840 108,830 12.0%
1850 147,545 35.6%
1860 174,620 18.4%
1870 217,353 24.5%
1880 276,531 27.2%
1890 345,506 24.9%
1900 428,556 24.0%
1910 542,610 26.6%
1920 604,397 11.4%
1930 687,497 13.7%
2010 1,052,567
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