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Indians occupied most of the area comprising Rhode Island, including the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Niantic tribes. Many were killed by diseases, possibly contracted through contact with European explorers (though no definitive source has been proven), and through warfare with other tribes. The Narragansett language eventually died out, although it was partially preserved in Roger Williams's A Key into the Languages of America (1643).
In 1636, Roger Williams settled on land granted to him by the Narragansett tribe at the tip of Narragansett Bay after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views. He called the site "Providence Plantations" and declared it a place of religious freedom.
In 1638, Anne Hutchinson, William Coddington, John Clarke, Philip Sherman, and other religious dissidents settled on Rhode Island after conferring with Williams, forming the settlement of Portsmouth which was governed by the Portsmouth Compact. The southern part of the island became the separate settlement of Newport after disagreements among the founders.
Dissident Samuel Gorton purchased Indian lands at Shawomet in 1642, precipitating a dispute with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1644, Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport united for their common independence as the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, governed by an elected council and president. The King of England granted Gorton a separate charter for his settlement in 1648, and Gorton named the settlement Warwick in honor of the Earl of Warwick who had helped him obtain it. These four settlements were finally united into one colony by the Royal Charter of 1663. Critics at the time sometimes referred to it as "Rogue's Island", and Cotton Mather called it "the sewer of New England" because of the Colony's willingness to accept people who had been banished from Massachusetts Bay.
In 1686, King James II ordered Rhode Island to submit to the Dominion of New England and its appointed governor Edmund Andros. This suspended the Colony's charter, but Rhode Island managed to retain possession of it throughout the brief duration of the Dominion—until Andros was deposed and the Dominion was dissolved. William of Orange became King after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and Rhode Island's independent government resumed under the 1663 charter—and that charter was used as the state constitution until 1842.
In 1693, William III and Mary II issued a patent extending Rhode Island's territory to three miles "east and northeast" of Narragansett Bay, conflicting with the claims of Plymouth Colony. This resulted in several later transfers of territory between Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Early relations were mostly peaceful between New Englanders and Indians. The largest tribes that lived near Rhode Island were the Wampanoags, Pequots, Narragansetts, and Nipmucks. Squanto was a member of the Wampanoag tribe who stayed with the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony and taught them many valuable skills needed to survive in the area.
Roger Williams won the respect of his Colonial neighbors for his skill in keeping the powerful Narragansetts on friendly terms with the Colonists. In 1637, the Narragansetts formed an alliance with Rhode Island during the Pequot War. However, this peace did not last long, as the most traumatic event in 17th century Rhode Island was King Philip's War (1675–76). Metacomet became the chief of the Wampanoags; he was known as King Philip by the settlers of Portsmouth who had purchased their land from his father Massasoit. He led attacks around Narragansett Bay, despite Rhode Island's continued neutrality, and later these spread throughout New England. A force of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth militia under General Josiah Winslow invaded and destroyed the fortified Narragansett Indian village in the Great Swamp in southern Rhode Island on December 19, 1675. The Narragansetts also invaded and burned down several of the Rhode Island settlements, including Providence, although they allowed the population to leave first. In one of the final actions of the war, troops from Connecticut led by Captain Benjamin Church hunted down and killed King Philip at Mount Hope (Rhode Island).
Rhode Island was the first colony in America to declare independence on May 4, 1776, a full two months before the United States Declaration of Independence. Rhode Islanders had attacked the British warship HMS Gaspee in 1772 as one of the first acts of war leading to the American Revolution. British naval forces under Captain James Wallace controlled Narragansett Bay for much of the Revolutionary War, periodically raiding the islands and the mainland. The British raided Prudence Island for livestock and engaged in a skirmish with American forces, losing approximately a dozen soldiers. Newport remained a hotbed for Loyalist sympathizers who assisted the British forces, so the state appointed General William West of Scituate to root them out in the winter of 1775–76. British forces occupied Newport from 1777 to 1778, pushing the Colonial forces to Bristol.
The Battle of Rhode Island was fought during the summer of 1778 and was an unsuccessful attempt to expel the British from Narragansett Bay, although few Colonial casualties occurred. The Marquis de Lafayette called the action the "best fought" of the war. The British were forced to concentrate their forces in New York and consequently left Newport. The French under Rochambeau landed in Newport in 1780, and it became the base of the French forces in the United States for the remainder of the war. The French soldiers behaved themselves so well that, in gratitude, the Rhode Island General Assembly repealed an old law banning Catholics from living in Rhode Island. The first Catholic mass in Rhode Island was said in Newport during this time.
The State of Rhode Island was the last of the 13 states to ratify the United States Constitution (May 29, 1790), only doing so after being threatened with having its exports taxed as a foreign nation. Rural resistance to the Constitution was strong in Rhode Island, and the anti-federalist Country Party controlled the General Assembly from 1786 to 1790. In 1788, anti-federalist politician and Revolutionary War General William West led an armed force of 1,000 men to Providence to oppose a July 4 celebration of the state ratifying the Constitution. Civil war was narrowly averted by a compromise limiting the Fourth of July celebration.
Rhode Island was heavily involved in the slave trade during the post-Revolutionary era prior to industrialization. In 1652, Rhode Island passed the first abolition law in the Thirteen Colonies banning slavery, but the law was not enforced by the end of the 17th century. By 1774, the slave population of Rhode Island was 6.3 percent, nearly twice as high as any other New England colony. In the late 18th century, several Rhode Island merchant families began actively engaging in the triangle trade, most notably the Browns for whom Brown University is named. In the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves. In the 18th century, Rhode Island's economy depended largely upon the triangle trade; Rhode Islanders distilled rum from molasses, sent the rum to Africa to trade for slaves, and then traded the slaves in the West Indies for more molasses.
Stephen Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, introduced a bill while serving in the Rhode Island Assembly in 1774 that prohibited the importation of slaves into the colony, and this became one of the first anti-slavery laws in the United States. In February 1784, the Rhode Island Legislature passed a compromise measure for gradual emancipation of slaves within the state. All children of slaves born after March 1 were to become apprentices, the girls to become free at 18, the boys at 21. By 1840, the census reported only five former Africans enslaved in Rhode Island. However, the international slave trade continued despite the antislavery laws of 1774, 1784, and 1787. In 1789, an Abolition Society was organized to secure enforcement of existing laws against the trade. Leading merchants continued to engage in the trade even after it became illegal, especially John Brown and George DeWolf, but slaving was no more than a minor aspect of Rhode Island's overall maritime trade after 1770. By the mid-19th century, many Rhode Islanders were active in the abolitionist movement, particularly Quakers in Newport and Providence such as Moses Brown. The Free African Union Society was America's first African benevolent society, founded in Newport in 1780. Rhode Island's Constitution finally emancipated all slaves in 1843 in Section 4, "Slavery shall not be permitted in this state."
In 1790, English immigrant Samuel Slater founded the first textile mill in the United States in North Providence, Rhode Island, village of Pawtucket (Slater Mill) and became known as the father of the American Industrial Revolution. During the 19th century, Rhode Island became one of the most industrialized states in America with large numbers of textile factories. The state also had significant machine tool, silverware, and costume jewelry industries.
The Industrial Revolution moved large numbers of workers into cities and attracted large numbers of immigrants from Ireland, and a landless class developed which was ineligible to vote by Rhode Island law. By 1829, 60-percent of the state's men were ineligible to vote. All efforts at reform failed in the face of rural control of the political system. In 1842, Thomas Dorr drafted a liberal constitution which he tried to ratify by popular referendum. However, conservative Governor Samuel Ward King opposed the constitution, leading to the Dorr Rebellion. The rebellion gained little support and failed, and Dorr went to prison. The conservative elements relented, however, and allowed most American-born men to vote, but the conservative rural towns remained in control of the legislature. The new Constitution of Rhode Island took effect in May 1843.
During the American Civil War, Rhode Island furnished 25,236 fighting men to the Union armies, of which 1,685 died. These comprised 12 infantry regiments, three cavalry regiments, and an assortment of artillery and miscellaneous outfits. Rhode Island used its industrial capacity to supply the Union Army with the materials needed to win the war, along with the other northern states. Rhode Island's continued growth and modernization led to the creation of an urban mass transit system and improved health and sanitation programs. In 1866, Rhode Island abolished racial segregation throughout the state. Governor William Sprague IV fought at the First Battle of Bull Run while a sitting governor, and Rhode Island general Ambrose Burnside emerged as one of the major heroes of the war.
The fifty or so years following the Civil War were a time of prosperity and affluence that author William G. McLoughlin called "Rhode Island's halcyon era." Rhode Island was a center of the Gilded Age and provided a home (or summer home) to the many of the country's most prominent robber barons. This was a time of incredible growth in textile mills and manufacturing, and saw a huge influx of immigrants to fill those jobs. The state saw increased population growth and urbanization, even as the state denied the growing urban masses access to political power. In politics, the state was dominated by Republicans allied with their mouthpiece newspaper, The Providence Journal. The Journal's editor Henry B. Anthony and his later protege Nelson Aldrich, along with war hero Ambrose Burnside, all Republicans, dominated politics during this time. Aldrich, as US Senator, became known as the "General Manager of the United States," for his ability to set high tariffs to protect Rhode Island — and American — goods from foreign competition.
In Newport, New York's wealthiest industrialists created a summer haven to socialize and build ostentatious grand mansions. In Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket, thousands of French-Canadian, Italian, Irish, and Portuguese immigrants arrived to fill jobs in the textile and manufacturing mills. In response, the Know Nothing party, allied with the Republicans and the Providence Journal, sought to exclude these newcomers from the political process. The constitution of 1843 denied the vote to the landless poor, and ensured that urban centers were disproportionately underrepresented in the state legislature.
Around the start of the 20th century, Rhode Island had a booming economy, which fed the demand for immigration. During World War I, Rhode Island furnished 28,817 troops, of whom 612 died. After the war, the state was hit hard by the Spanish Influenza.
In the 1920s and 30s, rural Rhode Island saw a surge in Ku Klux Klan membership, largely among the native-born white population, in reaction to the large waves of immigrants moving to the state. The Klan is believed to be responsible for burning the Watchman Industrial School in Scituate, Rhode Island, which was a school for African American children.
In 1935, Governor Theodore Francis Green and Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate replaced a Republican dominance that had existed since the middle of the 19th century in what is termed the "Bloodless Revolution." The Rhode Island Democratic Party has dominated state politics ever since. Since then, the Speaker of the House has always been a Democrat and one of the most powerful figures in government.
The Democratic Party presents itself as a coalition of labor unions, working class immigrants, intellectuals, college students, and the rising ethnic middle class. The Republican Party has been dominant in rural and suburban parts of the state, and has nominated occasional reform candidates who criticize the state's high taxes and excesses of Democratic domination. Cranston Mayors Edward D. DiPrete and Stephen Laffey, Governor Donald Carcieri of East Greenwich, and former Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci of Providence ran as Republican reform candidates.
The state income tax was first enacted in 1971 as a temporary measure. Prior to 1971, there was no income tax in the state, but the temporary income tax soon became permanent. The tax burden in Rhode Island remains among the five highest in the United States, including sales, gasoline, property, cigarette, corporate, and capital gains taxes.
Rhode Islanders have overwhelmingly supported and re-elected Democrats to positions of authority, where issues are promoted involving education, health care, and liberal causes. As of 2014[update] Rhode Island has heavily Democrat-controlled legislatures; both U.S. Senators and Congressmen, and all statewide offices are held by Democrats. The state has been carried by Democrat presidential candidates in every election since 1988.