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The first European in Rhode Island


navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano
navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano

The first European known to have explored the Rhode Island area was the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano. He sailed into Narragansett Bay in 1524, exploring its coasts and islands and finding large Narragansett and Wampanoag settlements. The Dutch navigator Adriaen Block explored Block Island and the coastal areas of the mainland in 1614, and Dutch fur traders were active in the region. In the next few years, epidemics decimated the Native American people throughout New England; the Wampanoag suffered heavy losses.

In 1635 William Blackstone, an Anglican clergyman, left Boston to seek solitude and settled at the site of Valley Falls, in an area that was then part of the Massachusetts Bay colony. A year later, a Puritan minister, Roger Williams, became the first European to establish an independent, permanent settlement in the Rhode Island region.

Williams had lived in the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, but came into conflict with the Puritan authorities there. An outspoken advocate of religious freedom, he challenged some of the civil and religious restrictions in the colonies. In January 1636 he was forced to flee Massachusetts to avoid deportation to England. He found refuge among the Wampanoag, whose chief, Massasoit, was his friend. Massasoit gave him a tract of land east of the Seekonk River, and Williams, together with friends from Salem, settled at the site of the present-day Rumford, in East Providence. However, the authorities of the Plymouth Colony had jurisdiction over the area and forced the dissenters to move across the river to land controlled by the Narragansett.

The Narragansett sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi, gave Williams a large grant of land, and he established Providence, Rhode Island’s first permanent white settlement, in 1636.

Samuel Gorton
Samuel Gorton

Williams was highly respected by the Native Americans. Unlike many colonists, he viewed them as fellow human beings, not as savages. He learned their language and dealt fairly and honestly with them, insisting that settlers must compensate the native people rather than seize their lands. In turn, the native groups not only accepted the colonists but encouraged settlement. The Wampanoag and Narragansett were traditional rivals, and each tribe viewed the settlers as potential allies against the other. The settlers also created a buffer against the more aggressive colonies in Massachusetts. When war broke out in 1637 between the Pequot and colonists in Connecticut, the Narragansett aided the settlers, and the Pequot were nearly annihilated. In 1638 Williams and 12 other settlers formed the Proprietors’ Company for Providence Plantations to share the land deeded by the Narragansett. Also in 1638, a separate group of colonists, led by John Clarke, William Coddington, and Anne Hutchinson, arrived from Massachusetts. Like Williams, the group had been banished from Massachusetts because of political and religious disputes with the Puritan establishment.

Hutchinson preached a doctrine of salvation that was considered an attack on the moral and legal codes of the Massachusetts colony and led to her exile. Williams helped the group obtain land from the Narragansett at the northern end of Aquidneck Island, where they founded Pocasset, later renamed Portsmouth. Differences arose between factions headed by Hutchinson and Coddington, and in 1639 Coddington’s supporters moved to the southern part of Aquidneck Island, where they established the settlement of Newport. The next year the two island communities united in a federation and chose Coddington as governor. Aquidneck was renamed Rhode Island in 1644.

A fourth independent settlement, Shawomet, was founded in 1642 by Samuel Gorton, a man of radical religious views. Having quarreled with authorities at Boston and Plymouth, he came to the Rhode Island settlements, but also fell into disputes in Portsmouth, Newport, Providence, and the settlement adjoining Providence called Pawtuxet. Gorton and a group of supporters then bought a tract of land south of Providence, the Shawomet Purchase, from Narragansett chiefs. But Pawtuxet settlers and local Narragansett disputed the sale and appealed to Massachusetts authorities. In 1643 Massachusetts sent troops to seize Gorton and his followers, who were tried for blasphemy and other offenses. Narrowly escaping a death sentence, Gorton and several others were imprisoned for several months, then banished from Massachusetts. Gorton went to England to appeal for protection for his settlement, and obtained a guarantee of protection from a parliamentary commission headed by the earl of Warwick. The grateful Gorton returned in 1648 to the settlement, which he renamed Warwick. "Rhode Island" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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