Rhode Island is the nation’s smallest state. It measures only slightly over 1,200 square miles, even when the many islands in Narragansett Bay are included. Rhode Island’s nickname as the “Ocean State” is fit; the state has over 400 miles of shoreline. Anywhere you go in Rhode Island, you’re either right on the water or close enough to depend on it for survival. The Ocean State features a variety of undeveloped beaches and coastal land as well as the Narragansett Bay, which begins at the Seekonk River and runs to the mouth of the Rhode Island Sound, bisecting the state.
The sea coast lured the blue-bloods of America to Newport. This harbor town evolved into a haven for the millionaires of the “Gilded Age”. Grand estates, known affectionately as “summer cottages”, were built along the cliffs and ledges overlooking the ocean. Many of these structures still lay in their original form, testifying to Newport’s wealthy past. Even today, though, Newport along with Providence are two of the nation’s leading seaports.
The first European explorer to “discover” Rhode Island was Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano. He was commissioned by the King of France and sailed into the Narragansett Bay in 1524. While the island was called “Aquidneck” by the Indians, Verrazano thought its clear blue waters resembled the Aegean Sea, so he named Rhode Island after the Greek isle of Rhodes.
The first colonists did not arrive until a century later, and they were English, not French. Reverend William Blackstone, a nomadic preacher, was one of these first pioneers. He came to Rhode Island after his lands on the Shawmut Peninsula near Boston were captured by Puritan settlers. Some of the other early colonists included Roger Williams, who founded the Providence Plantations in 1636, who had been forced out of Salem, Massachusetts. Williams believed in religious freedom and tolerance and brought these convictions to his new colony. Ann Hutchinson was another pioneering colonist. She helped found Portsmouth in 1638, but left for Rhode Island along with others to escape the rigors of Boston Puritanism. By the 19th century, large numbers of immigrants were arriving in Rhode Island, seeking new lives and religious freedom, tolerance and liberty. It certainly helped that their new home had rich farmlands and sheltered harbors.
The 18th century was a black mark in Rhode Island’s history. Providence and Newport were the leading seaports and centers of the “Triangle Trade” in North America. Merchants loaded ships with rum headed for Africa where the rum was traded for slaves. The slaves were then sent to the West Indies where they were traded for sugar and molasses, ingredients used to distill more rum. By 1760, Newport was the leading port for slave-trading ships in New England, an incongruous distinction for a colony founded on individual freedom and religious tolerance.
Rhode Island was also a haven for pirates and privateers. The craggy islands, coastline, and coves provided perfect shelter for ships as they hid out before raiding for loot out in the Atlantic. These scoundrels and their crews would then return ashore, living in respectable affluence. Today, the search for legendary pirate treasure continues, believed to be buried somewhere in Jamestown.
In 1772, the resistance of Rhode Islanders to their British rulers became increasingly overt. They even burned the British ship, Gaspee. The colony joined wholeheartedly after the Revolutionary War broke out. The final victory came at Yorktown after many years of struggle for independence.
Still, despite the passion for independence displayed by Rhode Islanders, they were the last of the original 13 colonies to ratify the United State Constitution. In the early years of the new nation, Rhode Island enjoyed rapid growth and prosperity. It quickly became a major industrial center, harboring a large-scale textile industry based out of Pawtucket. By the mid-19th century, the state was producing half the nation’s cloth. At the turn of the 20th century, immigration exploded. Immigrant families made up almost 70 percent of the state’s population. The textile industry waned, however, after World War II, as factories moved south where labor was cheaper. Rhode Island adapted and its economy diversified.
Today, with nearly 950,000 people squeezed into its 1,200 square miles, Rhode Island is a bustling, energetic and popular summer resort states. Its compactness—only 47 miles long, and 38 miles wide — makes it easy for visitors to enjoy its quiet coves and beaches, wildlife-filled salt marshes, open meadows, and big cities.
Bond, Richard. The Insider’s Guide to New England. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc., 1992. ISBN: 1556504551.
 Bond, 191
 Id. at 192