Act of Renunciation background image state house dusk background image library ceiling background image rotunda across background image state house ornimental ceiling background image

Rhode Island History

The first mention of the name Rhode Island or any of its variations in connection with Narragansett Bay is in the letter of Giovanni da Verrazzano, the explorer, dated July 8, 1524, in which he refers to an island near the mouth of Narragansett Bay, and likens the island to the Island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea.

The name was first officially applied to the island on March 13, 1644 in these words: “Aquethneck shall be henceforth called the Ile of Rods or Rhod-Island.” The name “Isle of Rodes” is found used in a legal document as late as 1646. In 1663 the name “Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” was adopted in the Royal Charter granted by King Charles II of England.

A few interesting facts concerning Rhode Island government
  • Rhode Island was the first of the thirteen colonies to renounce its allegiance to the the British Crown.
  • Rhode Island was governed under a Royal Charter, granted by King Charles II in 1663, for 180 years. Rhode has been governed under its Constitution since 1843.
  • Rhode Island is the only state that still celebrates Victory Day (the end of WWII) as an official state holiday.
  • The metal from which the Independent Man atop the Rhode Island State House was cast came from the breaking up of a statue of Simon Bolivar, which once stood in New York's Central Park.
  • Rhode Island Governor Benedict Arnold, the first Governor elected under the Royal Charter in November, 1663, was the great grandfather of the infamous Revolutionary War figure, Benedict Arnold.

Rhode Island State Map-1936

+ Early History

Indigenous people, mistakenly named "Indians" by Columbus, were the first inhabitants of present-day Rhode Island. European contacts with Rhode Island and its coastline have been claimed for several explorers, including medieval Irish adventurers, Norsemen, Portuguese navigator Miguel Corte-Real, and Italian navigator Giovanni Verrazano.

Sailing to Rhode Island in 1524, Verrazano "discovered an island in the form of a triangle, distant from the mainland ten leagues, about the bigness of the (Greek) Island of Rhodes," which he named Luisa after the Queen Mother of France. This was Block Island. Roger Williams and other early settlers thought that Verrazano was referring to Aquidneck Island and changed that island's native name to Rhode Island. In this way, Verrazano inadvertently gave the state part of its official name.

No other significant recorded visits were made to Rhode Island until 1614, when English explorer John Smith charted the New England coast and Dutch mariner Adriaen Block visited Block Island, naming it for himself. Beginning in 1620, settlers from Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay ventured into the region to trade with native tribes.

In 1635, Rhode Island's first European settler, an eccentric Anglican clergyman named William Blackstone, arrived and built a home near Lonsdale on the banks of the Blackstone River. At the time, Rhode Island was inhabited by several native tribes. The largest of these were the Narragansetts, occupying an area along Narragansett Bay from Warwick to South Kingstown. Their population - including ; the Niantics, a related tribe - has been estimated at about seven thousand when the first Europeans arrived.

The northwest comer of the state was home to the Nipmucks, while the Wampanoags held territory within Providence and Warwick and may have held islands in Narragansett Bay. Two sub-tribes also lived in the Warwick area, the Cowesetts and the Shawomets. Niantics populated much of the towns of Charlestown and Westerly. The Pequots, a Connecticut tribe, arrived in 1632 to battle the Narragansetts for control of an area east of the Pawcatuck River in Westerly and Hopkinton.

These people subsisted on farming, fishing, and hunting and lived in compact villages composed of families who shared a kin relationship. These villages were led by sub-sachems or petty sachems. Ultimate governmental authority for the Narragansetts rested in two chief sachems, Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi, both of whom reigned when Roger Williams founded the town of Providence.

Roger Williams founded the first permanent white settlement in Rhode Island at Providence in 1636 on land purchased from the Narragansett Indians. Forced to flee Massachusetts because of persecution, Williams established a policy of religious and political freedom in his new settlement. Other leaders advocating freedom of worship soon established similar communities on either side of . Narragansett Bay. These communities united, and in 1663 King Charles II of England granted them a royal charter, providing for a greater degree of self-government than any other colony in the New World and authorizing the continuation of freedom of religion.

The early 1700s was a period of prosperity for Rhode Island. Farming and sea trading became profitable businesses. Providence and Newport were among the busiest ports in the New World. Despite making profits from the slave trade, Rhode Island was the first colony to prohibit the importation of slaves. Also, Rhode Islanders were among the first colonists to take action against British rule when they attacked and burned the British revenue vessel, the sloop Liberty, in Newport on July 19, 1769.

On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce allegiance to Great Britain’s King George III and declare independence by official legislative act. The passage of the Act of Renunciation by the Rhode Island General Assembly took place at the Old State House on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island. This Act officially ended the colony’s allegiance to Great Britain. The original Act is in the keeping of the office of the Rhode Island Secretary of State and is at the State Archives. Within weeks after the passage of the Act, the Assembly ratified the Declaration of Independence on July 18, 1776.

In regard to the Revolutionary War, although no major battles took place in the state, Rhode Island regiments participated in every major campaign of the war.  Rhode Islanders   such   as   General   Nathanael Greene, (second-in-command to General George Washington and head of the Continental Army in the south) and Commodore Esek Hopkins, (the first Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy – a force which Rhode Island helped create), distinguished themselves as military leaders and heroes.

Rhode Island furnished its share of men, ships, and money to the cause of independence. Rhode Island's independent spirit was still in evidence at the close of the Revolutionary War. The Revolution did not alter Rhode Island's governmental structure (the royal charter from 1663 remained intact). In 1778 the state had quickly ratified the Articles of Confederation, with its weak central government, but when the movement to strengthen that government developed in the mid-1780's, Rhode Island was not in agreement. The state's individualism, its democratic localism, and its tradition of autonomy caused it to resist the centralizing tendencies of the federal Constitution. It was the last of the thirteen original colonies to ratify the United States Constitution, demanding that the Bill of Rights, which guarantees individual liberties, be added.

Following the Revolutionary War period, industrial growth began in Rhode Island. In 1793, Samuel Slater's mill in Pawtucket became the first successful water-powered cotton textile mill in North America. From this success, the Industrial Revolution in America began. In addition, the founding of the American jewelry industry by Nehemiah and Seril Dodge helped make Providence one of the chief industrial cities of New England by 1824. Jabez  Gorham, jeweler and silversmith, was the forerunner of the world renowned Gorham Manufacturing Company. Though this was a turbulent time in the nation’s history, Rhode Island had remarkable commercial and industrial advances during the early national period.

+ The Origin of the Name Rhode Island

In 1524, the Italian navigator Giovanni Verrazano made the first verifiable visit to Rhode Island by a European adventurer. It is from Verrazano 's descriptions of the Rhode Island coastline and islands that the state derives the first part of its name. Verrazano 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 landfall 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 that bears  his name.  

From there, according to a letter written by Verrazano, dated July 8, 1524, 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.Verrazano’s letter describing his visit to Rhode Island was known in England for it had been printed in English long before the Pilgrims came to New England. This letter was printed in Italian in 1556 and in English in 1582, and again in 1600, so that it may be considered to be easily accessible to the early settlers before they left England.

Today, we believe that Verrazano was describing Block Island (named in 1614 by Dutch mariner Adriaen Block) but Roger Williams and his followers thought that he was referring to Aquidneck Island, so they renamed it “Rode Island.” The earliest recorded use of the name by the English colonists is in 1637 when Roger Williams wrote “at Aquednetick called by us Rode Island.” It may be well to note that the Italian text is “isola di Rhode,” while the English text is “Ilande of the Rodes.” Williams still spelled the name without the “h” in 1666 when he explained “Rode Island (in the Greek language) is an Ile of Roses.

The name was first officially applied to the island on March 13,1644 in these words: Aquethneck shall be henceforth called the Ile of Rods or Rhod-Island.” The name “Isle of Rodes” is found used in a legal document as late as 1646. In 1663 the name “Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”  was adopted in the Royal Charter granted by King Charles II of England.

Rhode Island’s first permanent settlement (Providence Plantations) 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. Other non-conformists followed Williams to the Narragansett Bay area and founded the towns of Portsmouth (1638), Newport (1639) and Warwick (1642). Because titles to these lands rested only on Indian 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.

+ Roger Williams – The Founder Of Rhode Island

Roger Williams was an English clergyman who, in 1636, left the repressive atmosphere fostered by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to found the first permanent European settlement in Rhode Island. This settlement, called "Providence Plantations" was the ·first organized colony in America to be founded on the principles of freedom of thought and worship. The official name of Rhode Island is "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations". It can be traced in this form back to the Royal Charter of 1663, granted to the Rhode Island colonists by King Charles II of England. In  the  Charter, it is the "Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations".

Born in England on December 21, 1603, Roger Williams came to America on February 5, 1631 with his wife Mary. First arriving in Boston, Williams was offered a position as a pastor. However, he refused this position, reasoning that the church restricted freedom of choice and pastors or high-church officials did not have the authority to punish their congregations for breaking of the Ten Commandments and other offenses. While acting as a teacher at a Plymouth church, Williams began friendly relations with Native Americans in the area. Learning to speak their native language, Williams was eventually called upon to negotiate for peace with some of the surrounding tribes.
During his tenure as both teacher and negotiator, Williams developed strong views on the role of the Church of England. He believed it was blasphemous for the Church to declare itself Christian and refused Communion from such an institution.
Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on October 9, 1635. Upon hearing threats that he would be returned to England, Williams and a few devout followers in search of freedom of choice and religion , set out to what we now know as the State of Rhode Island.
Williams and his followers were given land at present-day Providence by Narragansett Indian Sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi. They provided Williams with food, clothing and shelter and taught him their customs and language. Roger Williams learned their language so well that he was able to develop a “Native American to English” dictionary.

In 1643 he voyaged to England to gain a charter for Rhode Island, a state built on the foundation of tolerance and diversity.After a life spent pioneering religious freedom and the right to free speech and thought, Roger Williams died in 1683. He was originally buried in the rear lot of his home; now the Sullivan Dorr Estate at 109 Benefit Street in Providence. Years later, Williams' remains, which had almost been forgotten, were relocated to a steel chest to wait for the construction of a proper memorial to honor Rhode Island's founder.
In 1850, the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers began to raise money to pay for the cost of a suitable monument. In 1865, Stephen Randall, a direct descendent, deposited his own money to serve as the core of a memorial fund. Randall had strict conditions for the size and type of the monument but unfortunately  he died before the monument ws constructed.

It was not until the early 1930s  that the General Assembly carried out the stipulations of Randall 's will. Although many of his conditions were impossible to satisfy, his wish that the monument be on Prospect Terrace and be visible from a distance were carried out. Ralph T. Walker of New York, an architect and Rhode Islander by birth, designed the memorial that stands today. Dedicated in June of 1939, the memorial is a fourteen-foot statue of Westerly granite and portrays Williams as standing on the bow of a canoe, blessing the city. His remains were ultimately moved to their final resting place at the base of the monument behind his statue.

Giovanni da Verrazano

Giovanni da Verrazano