Rhode Island Colony Primer

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Date: 1630 to 1776
Location: Rhode Island Colonymap
Surname/tag: Rhode_Island
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The Founding of Rhode Island

The land we know today as the State of Rhode Island, was actually founded by four independent groups of colonists between 1636 and 1642, most of whom had been expelled or had left the Massachusetts Bay Colony for disputative reasons. Before that, the territory had been home to an Algonquian American Indian tribe known as the Narragansett,


In 1636, Roger Williams became the first European colonist to settle in Rhode Island, after he was kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Williams stirred up a great deal of controversy for espousing his belief that the religion one chose to practice should be free from any influence of the Church of England or the English King. He also questioned the right of the King to grant land in the New World that did not actually belong to him. While serving as a pastor in Salem, Williams battled with the colonial leaders, because he believed that each church congregation should be autonomous and should not be bound by directions sent down from the leaders. For his radical and divisive views, Williams was banished back to England, but was able to escape to Rhode Island before he could be deported. Initially, Williams lived with the Narragansett until their chief sachem, Canonicus, granted him a parcel of land on which he would establish Providence Plantation in 1638. (In the 17th Century, the term "plantation" was used to mean an agricultural colony.) Williams soon attracted other separatists who also wished to escape the religious rules with which they disagreed. Providence Plantation was established on an egalitarian system which provided for majority rule on civil matters, with "liberty of conscience" on spiritual matters.


In 1637, another group of Massachusetts dissenters was banished for speaking out against the Church and fled to Aquidneck Island, which was then called Rhode Island. This group included Anne and William Hutchinson, William Coddington, and John Clarke, among others. Originally called Pocasset, this settlement would eventually become the town of Portsmouth.


It wasn't long before the colonists at Pocasset began to disagree about how their community should be run, and in 1639, a group led by Coddington and Clarke chose to relocate to nearby Newport, where they established their own settlement called Newport.


Yet another settlement on the mainland was established by Rev. Samuel Gorton in 1643. Groton had originally attempted to establish himself at both Providence and Portsmouth, but his views were consider too extreme even by Rhode Island standards. Thus, he was left little choice but to establish his own settlement, at what was then called Shawomet. So offended by his teaching, however, the Massachusetts Bay authorities laid claim to the territory. After considerable difficulties with the Massachusetts Bay General Court, Gorton traveled to London where he enlist the help of Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, head of the Commission for Foreign Plantations. In 1648, Gorton was able to return to New England with a letter from Rich, ordering Massachusetts to cease molesting him and his people. In gratitude, he changed the name of Shawomet to Warwick.


In order to keep the Massachusetts Bay authorities from intruding in Rhode Island's politics, Roger Williams was sent to England to negotiate an official charter in 1643. The first charter was validated by British Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell 1644 and that became the basis of government in Rhode Island colony in 1647. In 1651, Coddington obtained a separate charter, but protests led to the reinstatement of the original charter in 1653. In 1658, Cromwell died and the charter had to be renegotiated, so in 1663, the Colony sent John Clarke to London to obtain a Royal Charter from the King. The charter Clarke secured, united the four settlements into the newly named "Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations", and would remain in effect, with one brief interruption under Gov. Andros (20 Dec 1686 - 18 Apr 1689), until statehood was achieved in 1776.

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Rhode Island
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