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Looking Goat Island in New Port and West towards the west bay of Newport Harbor


Rhode Island History

In 1650, there were ten thousand Indians living within what is now Rhode Island. The Narragansetts accounted for about 6000. In 1675, the Narragansetts joined with the Wampanoags in a war against the white settlers. By the end of King Philip's War, which lasted over a year, the Indians were decimated during many brutal battles including the Great Swamp. The surviving Indians sought refuge with the Niantics, who had remained neutral in the war. (There are now approximately 2000 Rhode Islanders that claim local Indian ancestry. In 1979, ancestral land in Charlestown was returned to them.)

In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine navigator, became the first European to explore Rhode Island. His comparison of Block Island to the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, unknowingly gave this future state it's name.

In 1635, the cleric William Blackstone was the first to leave the repressive Puritanism of Massachusetts for Rhode Island. He proceeded Roger Williams, the historical founder of the state, by about a year.

Williams was banished from Massachusetts for religious beliefs and made the first settlement in Providence in 1636. He was granted the land by Narragansett Indians, Canonicus and Miantonomi.

In 1638, Anne and William Hutchinson, who also left Massachusetts, founded Pocasset (Portsmouth) with a group led by William Coddington and John Clarke. The following year, Coddington and Clarke moved south to establish Newport after a dispute with the Hutchinson's. A fourth settlement, Warwick, was an offshoot of Providence and founded in 1642 by Samuel Gorton, who was another dissident from Portsmouth.

Since the title to these settlements were with the Indians, neighboring colonies began to covet them. The settlements became united in 1647, however internal differences soon alienated the island towns from the mainland towns. Roger Williams, however, was able to reconcile them, and in 1663 they were chartered by Charles II as the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.This charter was the basis of government until May 1843. Block Island joined the colony in 1664.

Rhode Island's religious freedom invited many persecuted sects. America's first Baptist church was established in Providence, 1639. The Quakers established a meeting on Aquidneck Island in 1657 and quickly became very powerful in politics and business. A Jewish congregation was started in Newport in 1658 and French Huguenots settled in East Greenwich in 1686.

Newport by the end of the 17th century became a prosperous sea port, rich in commerce and the dominant community. The European population now exceeded 6000.

By the middle of the 18th century, Providence began to challenge Newport for it's leadership. A political battle developed over who would control the powerful legislature and secure it's control. During this period, the town of Cumberland and several towns on the East Bay (Bristol) were annexed by Rhode Island. South County's plantations were at the peak of their prominence.

Many residents turned to the sea and commerce for their living. Many ships carried letters of marquee authorizing the capture of vessels belonging to enemies of England, and pirates were as common as merchant men in Newport.

In 1764, England enacted the Sugar Act that restricted trade and greatly strained the relations between Rhode Island and the British Empire. In 1772, a British revenue schooner Gaspee was burned in the waters off Warwick (long before the famous battles Lexington and Concord and the Boston Tea Party). By 1774, there were nearly 60,000 people in Rhode Island.

The only battle on Rhode Island soil, however, was at Butts Fort in Portsmouth, when the British foiled an attempt to drive them from Aquidneck Island. For almost 3 years the British held Newport, effectively trapping the American ships in the port of Providence. The British voluntarily evacuated Newport in October 1779, and in July 1780 the French Army under Rochambeau's command landed. It was from Newport, Providence and other Rhode Island encampments that the march to Yorktown began in 1781.

Famous Rhode Islander patriots include: Esek Hopkins who became the first Commander-and-Chief of the Continental Navy and Nathaniel Greene of the Kentish Guards who became George Washington's second-in-command and chief of the Continental Army in the South.

After the Revolution, laws were passed gradually abolishing slavery (1784) and prohibiting slave trade (1787). The fact that the federal Constitution gave implied assent to slavery, Rhode Island's independent nature, and other factors, delayed its ratification by the powerful Quaker community. The Federal Constitution was ratified on May 29, 1790 only by coercion.

Shortly after the Revolution, Rhode Island would start another revolution, the American Industrial Revolution.

In 1793, Slater Mill established America's first water powered cotton mill in Pawtucket. In 1794, a Providence goldsmith and watch repairer, developed a process for plating base metal with gold. The manufacture of precious metals (gold and silver) for jewelry began. The first power loom in the country went into action in Peacedale, 1814.

Woolen production also grew and the need for textile machinery launched a base-metal industry in Providence. Manufacturing quickly outpaced all other industries. Many foreign workers flocked to the factories. Religious freedom and the business climate also attracted many immigrants. By the late 1820's manufacturing outpaced commerce as the prime industry and the first and largest wave of non-English migrants came from Irish Catholics (still the most sizable ethnic community in the state). Many farms reverted to woodlands and rural town populations decreased. By 1890, rubber became another important industry.

During the Guilded Age (late 19th century), Newport became a place of "summer cottages." Large and majestic mansions were built by such millionaires as the Vanderbilts, Wideners, and Astors.

About the time of World War I (1920's), southern state's competition for cotton textile industry dealt a devastating blow to Rhode Island's economy. This caused Rhode Island to pass to it's third economic phase: trade and service industries from farming and manufacturing.

Today, tourism, finance and insurance, wholesale and retail trade, transportation, private education, health care, and business services dominate the economy. Newport and Providence are prime historic tourism sites and economic centers. Point Judith-Galilee in Narragansett is the center for commercial fishing (lobster, shellfish, cod, herring, flounder, and others).