How Rhode Island Colony Was Founded

A statue of Roger Williams silhouetted by the sunset in Providence, Rhode Island
A statue of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island. Kenneth C. Zirkel / Getty Images

Rhode Island was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. Originally called "Roodt Eylandt" by Adrian Block, who had explored that area for the Netherlands, the name means 'red island' due to the red clay that he found there.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams had grown up in England, only leaving in 1630 with his wife Mary Barnard when it the persecution of Puritans and Separatists began increasing. He moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and worked from 1631 to 1635 as a pastor and a farmer. However, many in the colony saw his views as quite radical. However, he felt it extremely important that the religion he practiced be free from any influence of the Church of England and the English king. In addition, he even questioned the right of the King to grant land to individuals in the New World. 

While serving as a pastor in Salem, he had a major fight with the colonial leaders. He felt that each church congregation should be autonomous and would not follow directions sent down from the leaders. 

Founding of Rhode Island

In 1635, Williams was banished to England by the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his beliefs in separation of church and state and freedom of religion. He fled and lived with the Narragansett Indians in what would become Providence. Providence, formed in 1636, attracted other separatists who wished to flee from colonial religious rules of which they did not agree. One such separatist was Anne Hutchinson. She was also banished for speaking out against the Church in Massachusetts Bay. She moved to the area but did not settle in Providence. Instead, she helped formed Portsmouth. 

Over time, the settlements continued to grow. Two other settlements arose, and all four joined together. In 1643, Williams went to England and gained permission to form Providence Plantations from Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport. This was later changed to Rhode Island. Williams would continue to serve in the government of Rhode Island as president of its general assembly from 1654 to 1657. 

The American Revolution

Rhode Island was a prosperous colony by the time of the American Revolution with its fertile soil and ample harbors. However, its harbors also meant that after the French and Indian War, Rhode Island was severely impacted by British import and export regulations and taxes. The colony was a frontrunner in the movement towards independence. It severed ties before the Declaration of Independence. Although not a lot of actual fighting occurred on Rhode Island soil, except for the British seizure and occupation of Newport until October 1779. 

After the war, Rhode Island continued to show its independence. In fact, it did not agree with the federalists in ratifying the U.S. Constitution and only did so once it had gone into effect. 

Significant Events

  • This colony was the first to guarantee all its citizens' freedom of worship.
  • The colony was founded on separation of church and state.
  • Rhode Island is known for its fierce independence.
  • The colony was the last to ratify the U.S. Constitution—after it had already gone into effect, and the government had been established.