Colonial America – The Founding of Rhode Island

Roger Williams meeting with the Narragansetts

In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazzano became the first documented European to land on the shores of Rhode Island. He inadvertently gave the future colony its name by describing the island on which he landed to be “about the bigness of the Island of Rhodes”. He named this island Luisa, after the Queen Mother of France, under whose flag he sailed. Around 1614, Dutch explorer Adriaen Block visited this same island en route to the Hudson and named it after himself.

When the first white settlers arrived in Rhode Island, they found the land inhabited by Native Americans, the largest tribe being the Narrangansetts. The Narrangansetts and other area tribes were part of the Algonquin nation, which stretched south to North Carolina. Smaller tribes inhabiting the colony were: the Wampanoags, the Nipmucks, the Cowesetts, the Shawomets, and the Niantics. The Algonquin population in Rhode Island has been estimated at 7,000 persons at the time of European contact in the 17th century. Each village was governed by a leader who answered to the chief sachems, who, at the time of settlement in Rhode Island, were Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi.


Although William Blackstone founded a settlement in 1635, Roger Williams is credited with establishing the first permanent settlement in 1636. Williams, who had maintained friendly terms with the Narrangansett Indians, turned to them for aide when he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the winter of 1636. The Indians trusted Williams due to his firm belief that the Indians were created as equally as the English and they were not “Savages”. He was also one of the few colonists who bothered to learn their language.

Williams and his followers were granted land from the Indians on the northern end of Narrangansett Bay. However, his group was scorned by the other English settlements since it did not have a charter from the king and internal disagreements over how the colony should be governed caused trouble in Providence for many years. Despite the absence of a formal government, Williams and the settlers maintained an agreement that “no man should be molested for his conscience”. Under Williams, the first Baptist Church was founded in 1639 but Williams soon questioned the doctrine and became a “Seeker”, never joining another church.

Until 1640, Providence governed itself through town meetings and justice was meted out by posses, a la Wild West. Disputes over how the original land grant should be divided arose, particularly over a grant of land along the Pawtuxet River. Let by William Arnold (father of Benedict) and William Harris, they formed a group that pledged allegiance with Massachusetts and the Pawtuxet settlement was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


Using his influence with the Narrangansetts, Williams procured a tract of land for the Hutchisonians, who were leaving Boston to seek religious freedom. In Boston, Anne Hutchison has taught a form of Calvinism that focused on the spiritual communion with God. This was labeled “Antinomianism” and was actually quite similar to the Quaker’s faith. In the spring of 1638, Anne and her followers were banished from Boston and established a settlement on Aquidneck Island, on land granted by the Indians. William Coddington was chosen to lead the group and they settled near Pocasset, changing the name to Portsmouth in 1643. The settlers in Portsmouth set up a society that was more cohesive than that in Providence and established the principal of modern laissez-faire economy.

In 1642, William Hutchison died and Anne moved to New York with her family, settling in the Dutch Colony of Pelham Bay. In 1643, there was an Indian uprising in the settlement and Anne and all but the youngest of her children were killed.


In 1639, William Coddington and other men in his faction had decided to move south down the Island. The reasons for the split have never been made clear but, whatever the reason, the result was the founding of Newport that same year. The population grew quickly and, under Coddington’s leadership, both farming and maritime trade grew rapidly. With it’s success as one of the largest ports came the infamy of also being one of the prime ports for the slave trade. As early as 1649 there are accounts of slaves being traded at Newport. Although a law was passed in the 1650’s outlawing hereditary black slavery, it soon fell by the wayside when the Narrangansett Bay settlements united and the Aquidneck communities refused to recognize the law.


Further adding to the confusion of the early settlements was a man named Samuel Gorton. Gorton was a pious man, expounding his beliefs although no one could pinpoint just what exactly they were. He arrived in Boston in 1637 and moved to Plymouth. From there, he moved to Pocasset Plantation in the spring of 1638 but was again banished over his rebellion against the established authority. He arrived in Providence and immediately challenged its political system. Not finding any acceptance there, he bought land in Pawtuxet but ran into problems with William Arnold. Finally, Gorton bought land from the Indians at Shawomet but the Pawtuxet settlement appealed to Massachusetts to get rid of the Gortonists. Finally, the colonists decided to appeal to authorities and, at the end, was banished from Shawomet and Providence. Gorton eventually founded the town now known as Warwick.

Political development

Throughout the early years, none of the Rhode Island Settlements had any “legal” claim to their lands, meaning none of the lands had been granted through an English Charter. Reacting to pressure from the four main New England colonies, Roger Williams obtained the first official patent for Rhode Island in 1643. This patent intentionally omitted any mention of religious liberty and united, for the first time, all of the towns in Rhode Island into one political body.

In 1660, the Stuarts were restored to the English throne and John Clarke was sent to obtain a royal charter for the colony. He was surprisingly successful in his endeavor and obtained a charter continuing the principles upon which Williams had established the colony. In July 1663, the new charter created “the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation”.

This charter remained the fundamental law in Rhode Island until 1843. In fact, the residents of Rhode Island maintained an annual ceremony. Each year, the governor would assemble all of the freeman at the beginning of his term. He would unroll the charter and read it aloud, before committing it back to its box for safekeeping for another year.

King Philip’s War

Under the guidance of Roger Williams, the colony had managed to avoid conflicts with the Native Americans until the outbreak of King Philips War in 1675. The first battle, the Great Swamp Fight, was actually fought in Rhode Island. In March 1676, a group of Narrangansetts and Wampanoags advanced on Providence. Seventy-year-old Williams was in Providence in a barricaded house. Although the Indians recognized his friendship and promised not to harm him, they burned Providence to the ground. Rhode Island would rebuild, but not in Williams’ lifetime. His life was spared but he watched four decades of work go up in flame.