Rhode Island is a rebel and always has been! In 1636, Massachusetts resident Roger Williams faced persecution for his then-radical belief that church and state should be separated. So with land purchased from the native Narragansetts, Williams founded what would become the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island.
Williams established a policy of religious and political freedom in his new settlement. Like-minded advocates such as Anne Hutchinson soon established similar communities along Narragansett Bay. In 1663 King Charles II of England granted them a royal charter, providing 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 and Providence Plantations. Providence and Newport quickly became some of 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 some of the first colonists to take action against British rule. On May 4, 1776, two months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce allegiance to Great Britain. 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 burning at the close of the Revolutionary War. The state was the last of the 13 colonies to ratify the U.S. Constitution, demanding that the Bill of Rights, which guarantees individual liberties, be added.
Beehive of Industry
Following the Revolution, industrial growth sprouted in Rhode Island. In 1793, Samuel Slater's mill in Pawtucket became America's first successful water-powered cotton mill, signaling the start of the Industrial Revolution in America. This innovative streak continued as Nehemiah and Seril Dodge helped make Providence one of the chief industrial cities of New England by 1824 with pioneering technology in the American jewelry industry. Jabez Gorham, jeweler and silversmith, was the forerunner of the world-renowned Gorham Manufacturing Company.
As industrialization increased, Rhode Island's cities expanded and immigrants found a home here, coming from Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, and Canada. Over the years, as these workers assimilated into Rhode Island's industrial structure, a tradition of manufacturing skill and excellence developed that is still a key component for the state's economy today.
To read more about history in Rhode Island, visit the Secretary of State webpage or consider one of many fabulous historic tours.
Historic Faces: Famous Rhode Islanders
- George M Cohan: Born in Providence’s Fox Point, Cohan was a singer, dancer, producer, actor, playwright, and composer - and 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 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.
- H.P. Lovecraft: A writer of the strange and supernatural, Lovecraft pioneered a style now referred to as science fiction or weird fiction. Specializing in the supernatural, he influenced scores of artists including Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro.