State History...

Rhode Island History...
This information came from the Rhode Island State Website.

Indians And Explorers

Primitive people of Asiatic origin, mistakenly named "Indians" by Columbus, were the first inhabitants of present-day Rhode Island. Archaeological evidence indicates their presence in this area more than eight thousand years ago.

European contacts with Rhode Island and its coastline have been claimed for several explorers, including medieval Irish adventurers sailing in skin-boats called currachs, Norsemen or Vikings (who were once thought to be builders of the Newport Tower), and the daring Portuguese navigator Miguel Corte-Real, who allegedly carved his name and a series of symbols into Dighton Rock in the nearby Taunton River. None of these visitations has been substantiated beyond reasonable doubt, though each has its scholarly supporters. Therefore, the 1524 voyage of Italian navigator Giovanni Verrazzano stands as the first verifiable visit to Rhode Island by a European adventurer.

Verrazzano made his famous trip, searching for an all-water route through North America to China, in the employ of the French king Francis 1 and several Italian promoters. After land-fall at Cape Fear, North Carolina, about March 1, 1524, he proceeded up the coast to the present site of New York City to anchor in the Narrows, now spanned by the giant bridge which bears his name. From there, according to his own account, he sailed in an easterly direction until he " discovered an island in the form of a triangle, distant from the mainland ten leagues, about the bigness of the Island of Rhodes " which he named Luisa after the Queen Mother of France. This was Block Island, but Roger Williams and other early settlers mistakenly thought that Verrazzano had been referring to Aquidneck Island. Thus they changes that Indian name to Rhode Island, and Verrazzano inadvertently and indirectly gave the state its name.

Natives who paddled out to his ship off Point Judith were so friendly that Verrazzano sailed with their guidance into Narragansett Bay to a second anchorage in what is now Newport harbor. He remained for two weeks while his crew surveyed the bay and the surrounding mainland, noting the fertile soil, the woods of oak and walnut, and such game as lynx and deer. Their observations on the dress and customs of their hosts, the Wampanoags, were also most revealing. In early May 1524 Verrazzano departed to press on in vain search for a Northwest Passage to the Orient.

For ninety years following Verrazzano's visit, most European voyagers to North America unsuccessfully sought that elusive Northwest Passage or productively fished the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. In either case, their travels kept them far off to the north of the Rhode Island coast. Not until 1614 were other significant visitations to Rhode Island made and recorded. In that year John Smith of Virginia fame explored and charted the New England coast and bestowed upon this region its name, while Dutch mariner Adriaen Block, en route to the Hudson River, visited Block Island and immodestly named it for himself.

From 1620 onward, settlers from nearby Plymouth Colony and the colony of Massachusetts Bay (established 1628) ventured into the Narragansett region to trade with Indian tribes. Finally, in 1635, Rhode Island got its first white settler - William Blackstone, an eccentric Anglican clergyman who built a home near Lonsdale on the banks of the river which came to bear his name.

Blackstone and others who followed him found the area inhabited by several Indian tribes. The largest of these was the Narragansetts. These natives were part of the Algonquin family of Indian nations, a loose network of related peoples whose habitat stretched from what is now southern Canada to present-day North Carolina. Before the establishment of the permanent white settlements in New England, the Narragansetts occupied the area of Rhode Island from Warwick southward along Narragansett Bay to the present towns of South Kingstown and Exeter. The rest of Rhode Island was populated by other Algonquins, some friendly, some bitter enemies of the Narragansetts.

The Wampanoags may have held many of the islands in the bay as well as territory within the present bounds of Providence and Warwick. The Nipmucks, a weak tribe by comparison with the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags, maintained a tenuous foothold on the northwesterly corner of the state. Initially tributaries of the Wampanoags, the Nipmucks by 1630 came under the yoke of the expanding Narragansetts, a fate that also befell two subtribes in the Warwick area, the Cowesetts and the Shawomets.

On the southern coast the Niantics populated much of what is now the towns of Charlestown and Westerly,. It appears that they were driven out of Connecticut by the warlike Pequots sometime late in the sixteenth century. The Pequots - who took their name from an Algonquin word meaning destroyer - continued their expansion eastward, and in 1632 they engaged in a bitter war with the Narragansetts for control of the area just east of the Pawcatuck River in Westerly and Hopkinton.

Anthropologists have estimated the Narragansett Population at about seven thousand persons when the first white settlers arrived. This estimate also includes the Niantics, who were related to the Narragansetts by marriage and shared the same customs and language. These Indians subsisted on farming, fishing, and hunting. Roles were strictly defined in Algonquin society, and women decidedly had the worst of it. Besides childbearing, females were responsible for planting, harvesting, toting of material possessions when the village moved on a seasonal basis, preparation of food, shellfishing, utensil manufacture, and the erection of wigwams (the bark huts of the Indians). Men, on the other hand, performed the far less strenuous duties fishing and hunting, and they spent a good deal of time in recreational activities.

The Narragansetts and Niantics lived in compact villages that were composed of families who shared a kin relationship. Village leaders, sometimes called subsachems or petty sachems, answered to a higher authority. For the Narragansetts, the ultimate governmental leadership rested in the hands of two men, called chief sachems, who claimed an exalted status by virtue of royal blood. When Roger Williams founded the town of Providence, Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi reigned as the two chief sachems of the Narragansetts.

The Colonial Era

Rhode Island's first permanent settlement was established at Providence in 1636 by English clergyman Roger Williams and a small band of followers who had left the repressive atmosphere of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to seek freedom of worship. Canonicus and Miantonomi granted Williams a sizable tract of land for his new village. Other nonconformists followed Williams to the bay region, including Anne and William Hutchinson and William Coddington, all of whom founded Portsmouth in 1638 as a haven for Antinomians, a religious sect whose beliefs resembled those a Quakerism. A short-lived dispute sent Coddington to the southern tip of Aquidneck Island (also purchased from the Narragansetts), where he established Newport in 1639. The fourth original town, Warwick, was settled in 1642 by Samuel Gorton, another dissident from Portsmouth. During this initial decade two other outposts were established: Wickford (1637), by Richard Smith, and Pawtuxet (1638), by William Harris and the Arnold family.

Because titles to these lands rested only on Indians deeds, neighboring colonies began to covet them. To meet this threat, Roger Williams journeyed to England and secured a parliamentary patent in March 1643-44 uniting the four towns into a single colony and confirming his fellow settlers' land claims. This legislative document served adequately as a basic law until the Stuart Restoration of 1660 made it wise to seek a royal charter.

Dr. John Clarke was commissioned to secure a document from the new king, Charles II, that would both be consistent with the religious principles upon which the tiny colony was founded and also safeguard Rhode Island lands from encroachment by speculators and greedy neighbors. He succeeded admirably. The royal charter of 1663 guaranteed complete religious liberty, established a self-governing colony with total autonomy, and strengthened Rhode Island's territorial claims. It was the most liberal chart er to be issued by the mother country during the entire colonial era, a fact that enabled it to serve as Rhode Island's basic law until May 1843.

The religious freedom which prevailed in early Rhode Island made it a refuge for several persecuted sect. America's first Baptist church was formed in Providence in 1639; Quakers, who merged with the Antinomians, established a meeting house on Aquidneck in 1657 and soon became a powerful force in the colony's political and economic life; a Jewish congregation came to Newport in 1658; and French Huguenots (Calvinists) settled in East Greenwich in 1686.

The most important and traumatic event in seventeenth-century Rhode Island was King Philip's War (1675-76), the culmination of a four-decade decline in Indian-white relations. Roger Williams had won the grudging respect of his colonial neighbors for his diplomatic skill in keeping the powerful Narragansetts on friendly terms with local white settlers. The Narragansetts in 1637 were even persuaded to form an alliance with the English in carrying out a punitive expedition that nearly extinguished the warlike Pequots. But by 1670 even the friendly tribes who had greeted Williams and the Pilgrims became estranged from the white colonists, and the storm clouds of war began to darken the New England countryside.

Clashes in culture, the appropriation by whites of Indian land for their exclusive ownership, and a series of hostile incidents between the Wampanoag chief King Philip (Metacom) and the aggressive government of Plymouth Colony resulted in the terrible colonial conflict called King Philip's War. This futile struggle to rid New England of the white man consumed the lives of several thousand Indians and more than six hundred whites and resulted in enormous property damage.

The Narragansetts, at first neutral, joined forced with the Wanpanoags after a Plymouth force staged a sneak attack on the Narragansett's principal village in the Great Swamp (South Kingstown) in December 1675. The Great Swamp Fight cost the lives of three hundred braves and almost four hundred women and children. The Narragansetts regrouped and launched a vengeful offensive the following spring. On March 26 a large war party led by chief sachem Canonchet massacred a company of approximately sixty-five Englishmen and twenty friendly Indians led by Captain Michael Pierce on the banks of the Blackstone in present-day Central Falls. Three days later the victorious Narrangansetts descended upon defenseless Providence, burning most of the buildings in the town. For Williams, who witnessed the event, it represented the destruction of four decades of hard-earned progress.

But famine, disease, and wartime casualties soon decimated the ranks of the Narrangansetts and their Wampanoag allies. The killing of King Philip in August 1676 by an Indian allied with the whites effectively ended the war. Remnants of the Narrangansetts, Wampanoags, and Pequots sought refuge with the peaceful Niantics, who had remained neutral. This aggregate of remnant groups became the foundation of a new Indian community in Rhode Island that ultimately assumed the name Narragansett.

Other important seventeenth-century developments included the interruption in government caused by James II's abortive Dominion for New England (1686-89). which was a vain effort to consolidate the northern colonies under royal governor Edmond Andros, and the beginning of the intermittent colonial wars between England and France (1689-1763), a seventy-five year struggle for empire that frequently involved Rhode Island men, money, and ships. By the end of the seventeenth century, Newport - unscathed by King Philip's War - had emerged as a prosperous port and the colony's dominant community, nine towns had been incorporated and the population exceeded six thousand inhabitants.

The first quarter of the eighteenth century was marked by the long and able governorship of Samuel Cranston (1698-1727), who established internal unity and brought his colony into a better working relationship with the imperial government in London.

The middle decades of this century were characterized by significant growth. Newport continued to prosper commercially, but Providence now began to challenge for supremacy. This rivalry assumed political dimension, and by the 1740s a system of two-party politics developed. Opposing groups, one headed by Samuel Ward and the other by Stephen Hopkins, were organized with sectional overtones. Generally speaking (though there were notable exceptions), the merchants and farmers of Newport and South County (Ward's Faction) battled with their counterparts from Providence and its environs (led by Hopkins) to secure control of the powerful legislature for the vast patronage at the disposal of that body.

A major boundary dispute with Connecticut was resolved in 1726-27, and a very favorable settlement with Massachusetts in 1746-47 resulted in the annexation of Cumberland and Several East Bay towns, including Tiverton, Little Compton, Warren (which then embraced Barrington), and the port of Bristol. The spread of agriculture on the mainland resulted in the subdivision of Providence and other early towns. By 1774 the colony had 59,707 residents, who lived in twenty-nine incorporated municipalities.

By mid-eighteenth century the spacious farm plantations of South County, utilizing the labor of black and Indian slaves, reached the peak of their prosperity. Here and in the rolling fields of the island towns, colonial farmers raised livestock (especially sheep and a renowned carriage horse aptly named the Narragansett pacer) and cultivated such commodities as apples, onions, flax and dairy products. The virgin forests yielded lumber for boards, planks, timber, and barrels, and the sea provided whales an d an abundance of fish for food and fertilizer. Most of these items soon became valuable exports for Rhode Island's ever-expanding trade network.

By the end of the colonial era, Rhode Island had developed a brisk commerce with the entire Atlantic community, including England, the Portuguese islands, Africa, South America, the West Indies, and other British mainland colonies. Though agriculture was far and away the dominant occupation, commercial activities flourished in Newport, Providence, and Bristol and in lesser ports like Pawtuxet, Wickford, East Greenwich, Warren and Westerly. The most lucrative and nefarious aspect of this commerce was the s lave trade, in which Rhode Island merchants outdid those of any other mainland colony. This traffic formed one leg of a triangular route which brought molasses from the West Indies to Rhode Island, whose distilleries transformed it to rum. This liquor was bartered along the African coast for slaves, who were carried in crowed, pest-ridden vessels to the West Indies, the Southern colonies, or back home for domestic service in the mansions of the merchants or on the plantations of South County.

Roger Williams departed Salem, Massachusetts in the midst of a gloomy, winter landscape, just as the sun was setting. Snow carpeted the forest floor, and a cruel wind whipped through the dark and forbidding trees: Thus a 19th Century artist (1) set about portraying the banishment of Roger Williams.

This episode marked the start of a journey which led to the founding of a civil government permitting unlimited toleration of religions and where no one could be punished for following the dictates of conscience. In 1636 his small settlement on the Narragansett Bay at the Seekonk and Providence Rivers created the force which within a short period of time became the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Williams the puritan minister, banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his belief in Liberty of Conscience, could now demonstrate that his settlement, with HOPE IN THE DIVINE, was able to stand its ground against external dangers and internal confusion. While he was living in Massachusetts he had cultivated an acquaintance with the Indians and before he left that colony he had met Canonicus and Massasoit. This friendship with the Indians was the key to how Williams was able to plan his new settlement within the very center of Indian Territory.

In the fall of 1635, Williams had denounced the rules of Massachusetts. He was summoned to court to answer charges on his denunciation of the "freeman's oath" which he saw as a transfer of allegiance from King Charles I to the government of Massachusetts. His refusal to obey that summons caused him to flee through the wilderness to the Mount Hope Bay and the kingdom of Massasoit. This great Wampanoag sachem granted Williams a tract of land on the Seekonk River. There he was joined by friends from Salem and they began to build; however in order to avoid any complication with the Plymouth Colony they crossed the Seekonk and moved to the site of Providence where they made their first permanent settlement in June, 1636.

Williams' friendship with the Indians, and their respect from him, derived from his firm belief that "nature knows no difference between European and American (Indian) in blood, birth, bodies.." He did not share the contempt of the English for the"Savage". Williams traded and preached with the Indian, taking the trouble to learn their language.

The new settlements within the Narragansett Bay area provided a unique opportunity for religious liberty and it also gave many enterprising individuals an opportunity to succeed in business. In 1643, these loosely knit settlements in the Narragansett Bay area recognized the need for some form of central government. That following year Williams was able to arrange for a patent or legal document which gave political sovereignty to these settlements and for the first time the inhabitants of the region were joined together into a single body politic.

Roger Williams, founder, led the development of political and religious liberty, and practical democracy. We must not forget his friends Massasoit, Canonicus, Miantonomi and the Wampanoag and Narragansett Nations.


Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, the first real democracy, was born in London, England about 1602. This is an estimated date based on rather vague references made by him in later years ragarding his age. The parish records of St. Sepulchre's Church where he was christened were destroyed in the Great London Fire in 1666, so the exact date can not be determined. He was one of the four children of James Williams, Merchant Taylor, and his wife Alice, the daughter of Robert and Catherine (Stokes) Pemberton of St. Albans, Hertfordshire.

He took orders in the Church of England and in 1629 accepted the post of chaplain to Sir William Masham at his manor house at Otes in Essex. His courtship of Jane Whalley was brought to an abrupt termination by the disapproval of her aunt, Lady Barrington. Stung by the rejection, the young clergyman became ill of a fever and was nursed back to health by Mary Barnard, a member of Lady Masham's household. She is believed to have been the daughter of the Reverend Richard Bernard (or Barnard) of Works hop in Nottinghamshire. Roger Williams and Mary Barnard were married at High Laver Church in Essex on December 15, 1629.

Roger Williams' last years were spent in service to the community. He held the office of town clerk for many years. The precise date of his death is unknown, but it occurred sometime between January 16 and March 16, 1682-83. His funeral was attended with such honors as the town could provide and a salute of guns was fired over his grave. He was buried in the orchard in the rear of his homestead lot. Many years later, his remains were disinterred and placed in the tomb of a descendant in the North Burial Ground. In 1936 they were sealed within a bronze container and set into the base of the monument erected to his memory on Prospect Terrace. His statue gazes out over the city where his principles of freedom of thought and worship, separation of Church and State, and equality for all men, regardless of race or creed were first put into practice. He left no great estate of worldly goods, but this was his immortal legacy to the freedom of loving peoples of all the world.