Rhode Island History

As with all states, the history of Rhode Island begins with its Native American peoples. Three main tribes inhabited the region. Chief among them was the Narragansett, today a federally-recognized tribe in the state. They controlled a large region centered around Narragansett Bay that spread into what is now Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the northern end of Long Island, New York. Rhode Island history shows that their main settlements were located from what is now Warwick, south along the great bay to what is now South Kingstown and Exeter. Their chief rivals were the Wampanoag, whose territories overlapped that of the Narragansett. The smaller tribe, the Niantic people, were close allies of the Naragansett.

When Italian navigator Giovanni Verrazzano arrived at what is now Block Island in 1524, he described it as approximately the size of the Greek Island of Rhodes. Thus, the state got its name, and European Rhode Island history began. Verrazzano sailed into Narragansett Bay and the harbor of Newport detailing other facts about Rhode Island in his search for the elusive Northwest Passage. Most Europeans who landed here for the next 90 years also were searching for the Northwest Passage. It wasn't until 1620 that colonists from the Massachusetts Plymouth Colony began arriving in the state to trade with the Native Americans, and the little state did not have its first white settler until 1635. The first permanent settlement was established at Providence in 1636. Portsmouth was established in 1638; Newport in 1639; and Warwick in 1642.

Unlike the rest of New England, facts about Rhode Island include a quite violent conflict between whites and Native Americans called King Philip's War (1675-1676). The Narragansett were conclusively defeated and were also heavily impacted by diseases brought to the New World by Europeans. Peace reigned for the next century or so. Treaties with England and the neighboring colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut established the basis of the state's present borders, and the little colony thrived, with large farm plantations along the coast and beaches of South County. The ports of Providence, Newport, and Pawtucket maintained brisk trade ties with Europe, Africa, and the West Indies. One of the more shameful facts about Rhode Island was its participation in the slave trade, and the state was a leader in this trade and had more slaves than any other colony. Later (1774), one of the first anti-slavery laws would be introduced here.

Rhode Island history has this little colony as the first of the original thirteen colonies to declare its independence from England, and during the Revolutionary War, allied forces from France were garrisoned in Newport. In 1790, Slater Mill was established in Pawtucket. This was the first textile mill in the United States. Its founder, Samuel Slater, became known as the Father of the American Industrial Revolution, and the Blackstone River Valley from Pawtucket to Worcester in Massachusetts was the center. This industrial history in Rhode Island is today one of the state's major attractions. Old mills in the Blackstone Valley have been preserved as museums, and today this region is a center for Rhode Island vacations and tourism.

The Industrial Revolution changed the course of the history of Rhode Island as well as the entire country and the world. Across the globe, economies transformed from farm to factory. Great industrial barons and wealthy magnates were created. An interesting by-product of this wealth creation, known as the Gilded Age, was the building of elaborate summer "cottages" along the coast in Newport. Many of these mansions, former Vanderbilt, Auchincloss, Astor residences, are now National Historic Landmarks open to the public for tours, weddings, and other events. Some of the less grand mansions are today Newport hotels, golfing country clubs, yacht clubs, and bed and breakfast inns.

Everywhere you go in the state, the history of Rhode Island is prominent. Even on the beaches, you can tour historic lighthouses. The port cities all offer historic Revolutionary War forts. Some of the old plantation farms are now wineries. Benefit Street in Providence provides a "mile of history" with its cobblestone streets and the nation's highest concentration of Colonial architecture. You can't help but explore some aspect of history in Rhode Island when you visit.

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