History & Famous Rhode Islanders

History

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 Great Britain and declare independence. 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 Commodore Esek Hopkins, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy, distinguished themselves as military leaders and heroes. The first Black regiment to fight for America made a gallant stand against the British in the Battle of Rhode Island.

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, demanding that the Bill of Rights, which guarantees individual liberties, be added.

Following the Revolution, industrial growth began in Rhode Island. In 1793, 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.

Historic Places: National Register

There's so much history here, that Rhode Island is virtually a living museum. For one so small, the state boasts one of the nation's largest concentrations of historic landmarks. The most famous, of course, are our palatial Gilded Age Newport mansions that were once the summer "cottages" of New York's wealthiest families.

Just how many? It's interesting to find out. Try using the interactive map of Rhode Island's historic places on the National Register at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission website.

Historic Faces: Famous Rhode Islanders

  • George M Cohan: Singer, dancer, producer, actor, playwright, and composer - the first artist/entertainer to be honored by Congress. In 1936, he received a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition for his patriotic songs "Over There" and "A Grand Old Flag."
  • Gilbert Stuart: Foremost painter of portraits of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. The state capitol houses the historic painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart which appears on the $1 dollar bill.
  • Nathanael Greene: Revolutionary War general, second-in-command to George Washington.
  • Esek Hopkins: First Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy.
  • Anne Hutchinson: The first woman to establish a town in America - Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
  • Nap Lajoie: The American League's first batting champion and an inductee in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
  • Oliver Hazard Perry: Hero of the Battle of Lake Erie (1813).
  • Samuel Slater: Father of the American Textile Industry.