Geography and Landforms:

Because Rhode Island is comprised of a small crescent of land and a large number of islands, the sea has always been important to its development. Natural forces have also shaped its history. In particular, hurricanes like Carol in 1954, Diane in 1955, and Gloria in 1985 have caused millions of dollars of damage to coastal areas.

On the other hand, cool ocean breezes even during the hottest months of the summer have long made Rhode Island a place for the wealthy to escape the unpleasant weather elsewhere. Newport became the playground of America's most wealthy during the 1890s and the "Gilded Age." Industrialists like Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad, built fabulously extravagant mansions that were used for only six weeks in the summer.


There are legends that the first non-natives to visit Rhode Island were medieval Irish explorers in boats made of animal skins. Later, it is believed that Vikings also briefly explored the area. However, the first explorer we can be sure visited Rhode Island was Giovanni Verrazzano who, in 1524, was looking for a way to China by discovering a water route through North America. After landing in North Carolina, he sailed up the East Coast, and eventually came to an island he described as being "in the form of a triangle, distant from the mainland ten leagues, and about the bigness of the Island of Rhodes." He named the island Luisa after the Queen Mother of France. Today this island is known as Block Island after another explorer, Dutch sailor Adriaen Block, renamed the land for himself.

In 1614, John Smith, best known for helping settle the Jamestown colony in Virginia, also explored and charted the area, and after 1620, settlers from the nearby Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies came to the area to trade with the Narragansett Indians.

The first settler in the area was William Blackstone, an Anglican minister who built a home on a river that eventually was named for him. In 1636, Roger Williams established a settlement he called Providence Plantations. Williams and a small group of followers had left the Massachusetts Bay colony because they wanted more freedom to worship in their own way. The two Narragansett Indian chiefs, Canonicus and Miantonomi, gave Williams a large area of land for his settlement, and other settlers who did not agree with the strict religious views of the Puritans in Massachusetts soon followed. The town of Portsmouth was established in 1638, the town of Newport in 1639, and the town of Warwick in 1642, all begun by men who wanted to worship in a way not accepted by others.

The land for the first settlements was bought from the native Narragansett, largely because of Roger Williams' good relationship with the Indians. Williams wrote "nature knows no difference between European and American (Indian) in blood, birth, bodies..." and did not believe the Indians to be "savages." He traded easily with the Indians because he took the time to learn their language. However, Williams worried that people from other colonies would try and seize land in the area, so he asked for a royal charter from King Charles II of England to assure that the land would be safe from other Europeans. The charter of 1663 was unusual because it guaranteed complete religious liberty, and established a completely autonomous self-governing colony. At that time, the colony received the name it still has today: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Ironically, the state with the smallest area of land has the longest name!

The fact that Rhode Island guaranteed religious freedom led many others with unpopular religious views to settle. The first Baptist church in North America was formed in Providence in 1639, the Quakers established a meeting house in 1657, the first Jewish congregation in the colonies was founded in Newport in 1658, and French Huguenots (later called Calvinists) settled in 1686.

In time, the increasing number of white settlers in the area led to conflict with the Indians. The nearby Plymouth colony was aggressive in its attempts to settle more land, eventually leading to a conflict called King Philip's (the European name given to the Narragansett chief Metacom) War. This conflict affected the colony of Rhode Island as well and lives were lost on both sides. By 1676, however, when King Philip was killed, the war came to an end. Famine and disease had so greatly decreased the number of Indians in the area that European interests dominated from that point forward.

European settlements grew in the area, and by 1774, there were nearly 60,000 residents living in 29 different settlements. Large farms, using both Indian and black slaves, grew in the area. The settlers planted apple orchards, and forests provided lumber. The Atlantic Ocean gave the settlers fish for food and fertilizer, and the beginning of the whaling trade which would become much more important in the 19th century.

As colonial America grew, Rhode Island's stance as an independent colony brought it into conflict with the British, and residents became the first to openly defy England by burning The Gaspee, a British ship in Narragansett Bay in 1772. On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island was the first colony to declare itself independent from Great Britain. Following the war, however, Rhode Island was the last of the thirteen colonies to ratify the new US Constitution. In keeping with its history of independence, delegates were concerned that the new Constitution did not adequately protect individual rights.


Early in its history, Rhode Island took the lead in bringing the United States into the Industrial Revolution when Samuel Slater built the first successful cotton mill in Pawtucket in 1793. The importance of textile manufacturing to Rhode Island led to a greater need for machinery to run the mills, launching a strong base-metal industry. Both Rhode Island's reputation for religious freedom and a strong business climate attracted large numbers of immigrant workers to the busy mills in the area. By the 1820s, manufacturing was the state's prime industry, and Irish-Catholics remain the largest ethnic community in the state today.

During the Civil War, Rhode Island textile mills supplied Union troops with uniforms and blankets, and metal factories made guns, sabers and musket parts. After the War, the manufacture of cotton, metals, and rubber thrived in Rhode Island. However, by the 1920s, southern states' strong competition for the cotton industry led to the decline of textile manufacturing, and the state began a transition to an economy dominated by service industries and tourism, due to the miles of beaches and pleasant weather.

First Inhabitants:

Native people occupied Rhode Island for thousands of years before explorers and settlers from Europe came to North America. The Narragansett tribe was the largest and occupied the greatest area of land. The Narragansett were part of a loosely organized confederation of tribes called the Algonquin, with settlements up and down the East coast of North America. Other groups of Algonquin, some allied with the Narragansett, and some enemies, also lived in the area that would become Rhode Island.

Other tribal people who lived on many of the islands in the bay, including the Wampanoag, the Cowesett, the Shawoment, the Nipmuck, the Niantic, and the Pequot, also lived in the area.

Experts believe that around 7,000 Narragansett Indians lived in the area at the time the first European settlers arrived. The native tribes farmed the land and also fished and hunted. Women were responsible for planting, harvesting, preparing the food, gathering shellfish, and the building of the bark huts the people lived in. Men, on the other hand, spent much of their time in recreational activities, and assisted the women with fishing and hunting. Men called "sachems" led small villages of Indians who lived in family groups. Each village owed allegiance to two chief sachems who inherited their positions.

Soon after the arrival of European settlers, famine and diseases brought by the new settlers greatly reduced the number of native people in the area. In 1676, the killing of Metacom, the Wampanoag chief, by an Indian allied with white settlers, ended the worst of the conflicts between European settlers and native people. The remaining tribes banded together and eventually came to use the tribal name Narragansett.

Books Related To Rhode Island

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle - NA Avi
(978-0380728855) , Fiction
Interest level: 5-9, Lexile: 740, ESL level: 3
A young woman with a taste for adventure discovers dangerous information about a murdering captain as she travels alone across the seas.

Black Duck - Janet Taylor Lisle
(399-239634) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-12, Lexile: 790, ESL level: 3
The families of two good friends get involved in anti-liquor smuggling in several violent confrontations.

Born to Fly - Michael Ferrari
(385-737157) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-7, Lexile: 670, ESL level: 2 - 3
Bird's dreams of becoming a pilot like her father are turned upside down by WWII and the prejudice the villagers feel about two Japanese citizens.

R is for Rhode Island Red: A Rhode Island Alphabet - Mark Allio
(978-1585361496) , Non-fiction
Interest level: 0-2, ESL level: 1 - 2
This book features all the things that are special about the state of Rhode Island.

Rules to Rock By - Josh Farrar
(080-272079X) , Fiction
Interest level: 2-6, Lexile: 760, ESL level: 3
Annabella tries to adjust to her new middle school by starting a rock band, but bullying by other band members frustrates her attempts to fit in.

Spotting for Nellie - Pamela Lowell
(978-0761455837) , Fiction
Interest level: 6-12, Lexile: 610, ESL level: 3
Claire's pressures to do well in gymnastics have increased since her sister, another gymnastic star, was injured in a car accident and is recovering from brain damage.

Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl's Story - Pegi Deitz Shea
(978-0618247486) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-9, Lexile: 630, ESL level: 3
A young Hmong teen travels from Thailand with her traditional grandmother to Rhode Island to start a new life, but she finds the American customs she wants to adopt conflict with the values of her family.

Whisper in the Dark - Joseph Bruchac
(605-80879) , Fiction
Interest level: 3-8, Lexile: 870, ESL level: 3
A teen running champion relives a Narrangansett legend after she makes a remarkable recovery after her parents are killed in a car accident and continues to run well.

Famous Citizens:

George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan was an actor and musical theatre performer born in Providence, Rhode Island. He was also the composer of several famous songs, including Yankee Doodle Dandy and Give My Regards to Broadway.

Jabez Gorham
Jabez Gorham was a silversmith born in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1831, he founded a family silver business that represents one of the most respected makers of silver today. The business is still based in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Samuel Slater
Born in the United Kingdom, Samuel Slater built the first successful water-powered cotton mill near Pawtucket in 1793. His accomplishment led the growth of the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

Gilbert Stuart
Born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, Gilbert Stuart was a famous portrait artist who painted the well-known, but unfinished, portrait of George Washington that appears on the one dollar bill.

Roger Williams
Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, was born in London, England around 1602, one of four children of a merchant. He took religious orders in the Church of England in 1629. Banished from Massachusetts because of his religious beliefs, he founded a settlement he called Providence. His last years were spent as a community leader; he served as town clerk for many years. He died sometime during the winter of 1682.

Capital: Providence
Entered Union: May 29, 1790
Population: 1,055,073
Area 1,545
Bird Rhode Island Red
Flower Violet
Nickname: Ocean State, Plantation State
Governor Gina Raimondo

Places to Visit in Rhode Island: (Click the links to learn more.)

The Old Slater Mill - Pawtucket
Old Slater Mill, constructed in 1793, and sometimes referred to as the Birthplace of American Industry, was the first factory in America to successfully produce cotton yarn with water-powered machines. The mill now houses operating machinery used to illustrate the process of converting raw cotton to finished cloth. The historical treasure also includes the Sylvanus Brown House (1758) and the Wilkinson Mill (1810). A reconstructed 16,000 pound water wheel is still in operation.

International Tennis Hall of Fame - Newport
For tennis lovers, the oldest grass courts in America, and the only ones open for public play, can be found at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, located in the historic Newport Casino. The Hall of Fame brings world-class tennis competition to Newport each year. In addition, the Tennis Hall of Fame Museum features displays, artifacts and exhibits covering over a century of tennis history.

Touro Synagogue - Newport
Touro Synagogue, begun in 1759 and the oldest synagogue in America, was established by a Jewish community in Newport that may date as far back as the 1620s. Designed by Peter Harrison, the structure still hosts regular services. There is an adjacent visitors center and a colonial-era Jewish Burial Ground.

Newport Mansions - Newport
These fabled mansions, the extravagant "summer cottages" of America's Gilded Age portray the opulence of a bygone era. Six of these palatial estates are owned, maintained and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Privately owned mansions include: The Astors' Beechwood, where costumed actors recreate the fabulous 1890's lifestyle and Belcourt Castle, summer residence of Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont.

Cliff Walk - Newport
This 3.5 mile public access trail takes you along the rugged Eastern coastline of Aquidneck Island and includes both breath-taking views of the ocean, and glimpses of Newport's legendary Gilded Age "summer cottages." Much of the Walk is fairly easily accessed along a paved trail, but a portion is best tackled by more experienced hikers.