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Rhode Island State History

History | Symbols | Interesting Facts | Famous People


1524—Giovanni da Verrazano sails into Narragansett Bay

1614—Dutchman Adriaen Block lands on Block Island

1636—Roger Williams founds the town of Providence

1647—Four towns combine into the Rhode Island colony

1675—King Philip’s War; many towns in Rhode Island burned

1764—Rhode Island College, later named Brown University, is founded

1774—Law passes prohibiting the importation of slaves

1776—Rhode Island declares independence from Great Britain

1790—Rhode Island becomes the 13th state

1791—Samuel Slater builds the first water-powered textile mill at Pawtucket

1835—Rhode Island’s first railroad begins operation

1842—The Dorr Rebellion

1882—Public schools become mandatory

1883—U.S. Navy opens Newport Naval Station

1938— Hurricane kills 258 and causes $100 million in damage

1969—Newport Bridge opens; Interstate 95 is completed

1991—Hurricane Bob causes $115 million in damage

When Giovanni da Verrazano explored the Narragansett Bay for France in 1524, several groups of Native Americans inhabited the area.  The largest of these groups was the Narragansett.

In the 1630s, Puritan leaders in Massachusetts forced all to leave who did not practice their faith.  Roger Williams, a minister who believed in religious freedom, left in 1636.  He purchased land from the Indians and founded Providence, Rhode Island’s first permanent white settlement, with a policy of religious and political freedom.

Several others were also forced to leave Massachusetts.  They purchased land from the Indians and founded settlements in Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick.  In 1647, England joined these three settlements with Providence to form the Rhode Island Colony.

In 1662, King Philip became chief of the Wampanoag Indian tribe when his father died.  He feared white men and disliked that some settlers were taking land without paying for it.  In 1675, a series of battles were fought between the colonists and the Wampanoag tribe.  Troops from Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut defeated the Indians in the Great Swamp Fight near Kingston, Rhode Island.  The war ended in southern New England that year, but continued in Maine and New Hampshire until King Philips death in 1676.

Most colonists in Rhode Island were farmers.  Many owned large plantations along Narragansett Bay where slaves raised crops and cared for cattle.  Even though slavery was important to its economy, Rhode Island was the first colony to prohibit the importation of slaves in 1774.

During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), many great leaders were from Rhode Island and were among the top organizers of the Continental Navy.  Britain occupied Newport for a time and raided other settlements, but there were no major battles in Rhode Island.   

In May of 1776, Rhode Island became the first colony to declare its independence from Great Britain.  However in fear of the larger states, Rhode Island was the last of the original thirteen colonies to become a state on May 29, 1790.  Rhode Island waited for the Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution that limited federal government and guarantied individual rights.  

In the late 1700s, textile manufacturing grew to become the leading industry in Rhode Island.  Spinning machines were first built in 1790 by Samuel Slater.  These machines, plenty of waterpower, nearby markets in Boston and New York City, and excellent transportation allowed the textile industry to grow rapidly.  The jewelry and fishing industries were also important businesses in Rhode Island at this time.

During the early 1800s, Rhode Island laws did not change to meet the needs of the growing city population.  Many people were not given the right to vote, giving rural areas greater representation in government that the larger cities.  The Dorr Rebellion was an attempt by Thomas Dorr and his followers to form their own government.  The revolt failed, but led to a new constitution in 1843 that increased voting rights to native-born Rhode Island men of legal age or those that served in the militia.

About 25,000 Rhode Islanders fought for the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War (1861-1865).  After the war, Newport became an important military center.  In 1883, the Newport Naval Station was built; the following year, the Naval War College established.  Prosperity continued and the industries developed worldwide markets.

The textile industry declined during the 1920s.  Many factories moved south for lower labor and transportation costs.  To compensate, industries increased production of machinery, tools, and metal products.  During World War II (1939-1945), the U.S. Navy built a base at Quonset Point creating many jobs.  

After the war, the economy fell again and unemployment rose to 17% in Rhode Island.  By the end of the 1960s, a diversified economy with electronic, chemical, and plastic industries dropped the unemployment to 3%.  The University of Rhode Island began development of a scientific research center in Saunderstown where many laboratories and the nation’s first state-owned nuclear reactor can be found.

Tourism also increased with construction of new roads and bridges.  In 1969, the Newport Bridge was completed, linking Newport with Jamestown.  That same year, Highway 95 connected Rhode Island to Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Recently, Rhode Island has received many military contracts to develop submarines and submarine weapons for the government.  Tourism has also continued to grow.  However, many industries are threatened by foreign competition and most of the state’s textile mills have closed.