Rhode Island History

Nobody really knows exactly how Rhode Island got its name. Some people say that an explorer named Giovanni da Verrazzano came to the area in 1524 and used the name when comparing the Mediterranean island of Rhodes with Block Island. Other people claim that the name comes from Dutch navigator Adriaen Block who called Aquidneck Island “Roodt Eylandt” which meant “Red Island.” He did so because the island had red clay along its shore. The first person officially on record as calling Aquidneck Island “Rhode Island” was the English Puritan Roger Williams. The colony officially became Rhode Island in 1663. The state is sometimes called “Little Rhody” because of its small size and it also has the nickname “Ocean State.”

Initially, Rhode Island’s prosperity came from its sea trade. Pirates, privateers, merchants and slave ships all found safe harbor in Narragansett Bay. Then, in the 1790s, sea commerce was replaced by manufacturing industries. Those included jewelry, metals, silverware, machinery and textiles. Eventually, that led the state or Rhode Island to become almost like one giant city. Luckily, though, the salt marshes, lagoons, inlets and islands are still home to a lot of natural beauty and wildlife. Block Island is also home to a lot of rolling hills and natural settings.

Rhode Island was settled in 1636 by Roger Williams. He was fleeing Massachusetts because of religious conflicts with its Puritan colonists. Since the time it was founded, Rhode Island has been known as a colony (and later a state) with great religious tolerance.

When Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies sent those who went against their Puritan religious views into exile, those exiled people, including Roger Williams, fled to Rhode Island. It was he who first referred to Aquidneck Island as “the Isle of Roses” and later as “Rhode Island.” Williams had no choice but to flee to the south in 1636. He sought total religious freedom and found it in Rhode Island, where he bought land from the Native Americans. The following year, that land became known as the Providence Plantations. The next year, 1638, was when a group that included Anne Hutchinson bought Aquidneck Island and chose to rename it “Rhode Island.” That area included what are now Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth. Without the sea trade, the settlements probably would have failed. After all, there weren’t many natural resources in the area. That’s why some of the wealthier farmers and traders took advantage of the sea trade. That led to fruit, rum, slave and sugar imports, as well as several different exports. All of the trading in Rhode Island has made it a very diverse and prosperous state. In fact, many people traveled to the area in and around Newport from other New England states.

The general assembly granted freemen status to Jewish immigrants from Portugal and Spain, as well as English Quakers who settled in the area, acquiring lands from the Native Americans who inhabited the area. In 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out, major battles were fought in Province Plantations and Rhode Island, even though the area had tried to stay neutral. After the war ended, Rhode Island and Massachusetts colonies got into several disputes over land that was purchased from Native American tribes.

Each Rhode Island town was quite different from the rest. However, they all coexisted fairly peacefully as separate entities. It wasn’t until the 1700s that county government was established and that was mainly only for the purpose of handling court cases and disputes. Generally, colonial matters were handled in each county by the general court and the general assembly.

When the Revolutionary War took place, the British captured Aquidneck Island. They then used Narragansett Bay to their full advantage as a strategic harbor during the war. Today, the U.S. Navy does the same thing.

During the 1600s and 1700s, African slaves, Portuguese, Jews, and French settlers all came to the Narragansett Bay area. In the 1800s, French-Canadians and Irish came to Providence. Then, in the 1900s, Poles, Russians, Italians, and Germans all came to the area.

Rhode Island Ethnic Group Research

Native Americans – The earliest Rhode Island settlements were a result of outcasts from Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies traveling to Rhode Island. Once they were there, they purchased land from the Native Americans. Most New England Native American tribes became slaves or died as a result of King Philip’s War. However, several members of the Narragansett tribe survived. Records relating to those tribe members and their descendants can be found at the Rhode Island State Archives.

Many of the state records refer to Native Americans as “Indians.” Also, many Native American slaves are listed according to the names of their owners. That’s why genealogical research on the subject requires that researchers look into the white families who owned the slaves.

African Americans – The Rhode Island economy relied heavily on the triangle of slave trading with the Caribbean and the South. The Revolutionary War made slave trading much less popular, though. That led to Rhode Island enacting one of the first laws against slavery. Many of Rhode Island’s various public records contain information about free African American citizens and slaves. There were also many African-American soldiers that participated in the Revolutionary War, and those records are on file at the Rhode Island State Archives. There are also many different African American records on file at the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Other Ethnic Group Records: Early residents of Rhode Island included the Portuguese, Jewish and French. There are quite a few Jewish records available at Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society. It also publishes query columns and historical notes.

Several French-Canadian immigrants came to Rhode Island in the 1800s. They were mostly involved in mill work. Many of those records can be found at the American-French Genealogical Society. For a small fee, the society will reply to all inquiries. Its membership is open to French and French-Canadian researchers.