Rhode Island: History, Facts & Government

Instructor: Ian Aebel

Ian Aebel is a historian, researcher, educator, and writer with a Ph.D. in History and M.S.T. in College Teaching.

The smallest state in the United States was founded by refugees from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, fleeing religious persecution. Industrialized by the end of the eighteenth-century, Rhode Island has a rich history and a modern progressive culture.


While Rhode Island tends to get its share of grief from many of the larger states for its small size, Rhode Island is one of the oldest and most historically interesting states in America. Rhode Island, or the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, was settled by a group of refugees from the Massachusetts Bay Colony led by Roger Williams in 1636. Like other New England colonies, the early economy was primarily based on fishing and merchant activities, with farming limited to food crops such as corn and squash. Rhode Island played an important role in King Philip's War (1675-76), a highly destructive conflict between colonists and Native Americans that nearly ended English settlement in New England. The Wampanoag leader Metacomet, aka 'King Philip' was killed near present day Bristol, Rhode Island, effectively ending the war.

King Philip
Philip, King of Mount Hope (1772)

During the eighteenth century, Rhode Island diversified its economy and became the only New England colony to develop plantation-style slave societies within its borders. A number of Rhode Island families became very active in the slave trade during this period. One of the more prominent families, the Browns, would make their fortune financing slave voyages, but would later become important champions of abolition.

A Progressive State

Rhode Islanders quickly developed a reputation of being fiercely independent, and would play important roles in the movement for American independence. Indeed, they declared their own independence two months prior to the United States' more famous declaration! Of course, Rhode Island would be the final original state to ratify the Constitution, having waited until after the first presidential election to do so!

The state was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, when Samuel Slater and Moses Brown opened one of the first water-powered textile mills in Pawtucket. Rhode Island subsequently became highly industrialized, and because many of the workers could not vote because of land ownership requirements, the state became an important center in the fight for voting rights.

Slater Mill
Slater Mill, Pawtucket, RI

Rhode Island was a leader in the push for racial equality after the Civil War, desegregating portions of the state as early as 1866. They also abolished the death penalty in almost all situations by 1852. Immigration brought a great number of Europeans to the state in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, diversifying Rhode Island from its primarily British origins. There was a great deal of political warfare between Democrats and Republicans in the state, which intensified during the Great Depression. By 1945, Democrats controlled much of the state government, and this has continued to the present.

Today, more individuals from Latin America and South Asia have been settling in Rhode Island, and after a period of economic stagnation during the 1970s, the economy has started to grow again in the twenty-first century.


While Rhode Island is the smallest state in the United States, covering only 1,214 square miles, it is the second most densely populated, packing more than a million people into its borders. In spite of its small size, which is 37 miles wide and 48 miles long at its largest points, it has more than 400 miles of coastline, making it an excellent place for visiting beaches along the ocean. This accounts for its nickname, the Ocean State. It shares land borders with Massachusetts and Connecticut, and a water border with New York.

Rhode Island State Flag
Rhode Island State Flag

The state's official name, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, is the longest of all the state names. The state got its name from the early Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who thought the area was similar to Rhodes, a Greek Island.

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