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 Verrazzano.
Sailing to Rhode Island in 1524, Verrazzano "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 Verrazzano was referring to Aquidneck Island and changed that island's native name to Rhode Island. This is one theory on how the state got 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 corner 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.
At the start of the Revolutionary War, Rhode Islanders were among the first colonists to take action against British rule by attacking British vessels. On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce allegiance to King George the III of England. 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 General John Sullivan, distinguished themselves as military leaders. The first Black regiment to fight for America made a gallant stand against the British at the Battle of Rhode Island, fought on August 29, 1778. Rhode Island's independent spirit was still in evidence at the close of the Revolutionary War. It was the last of the 13 original colonies to ratify the U.S. Constitution. The Country party, backed by Rhode Island's farmers, controlled Rhode Island government in the late 1780's. The Country party opposed a strong central government and eleven times rejected calls to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Finally, in May of 1790, ratification was approved at a convention by two votes.
Following the Revolution, industrial growth began in Rhode Island. In 1790, Samuel Slater's mill in Pawtucket became America's first successful water-powered cotton mill. 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.
As industrialization increased, Rhode Island's cities expanded with immigration. New citizens looking for job opportunities came from a score of countries, mainly Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, and French Canada. Over the years, as these workers became assimilated into Rhode Island's industrial structure, a tradition of manufacturing skill and excellence developed that is still an important asset for the state's economy.
Sources: Rhode Island: A History, McLoughlin, William G., W. W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1986. Rhode Island, The Ocean State: An Illustrated History, Kellner, George H., & Lemons, J. Stanley, American Historical Press, Sun Valley, California, 2004.