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.