In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazano happened upon a small island off the northern coast of America. The long somewhat triangular shape reminded Verrazano of the Island of Rhodes off the coast of Greece. He named it Luisa in honor of France’s Queen Mother. In 1614, Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer renamed Luisa Island after himself, Block Island, the name it holds today. A century later, other explorers thought Verrazano was referring to Aquidneck Island and renamed it Rhode Island after Verrazano’s description.
In 1635, the first European settlement was established in Rhode Island, but it consisted mostly of the local Narragansett Indians.
In 1636, Roger Williams established the first white European settlement of Providence.
In 1663, Williams and other local leaders obtained a royal charter for the colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Planation from King Charles II.
By the mid-1700s, the tiny colony of Rhode Island was prospering more than most of the other colonies. The ports at Providence and Newport were doing a booming business in what was called the triangle-business. They purchased molasses from the West Indies. The distilleries in Rhode Island made rum from the molasses, which they sold to slave traders in West Africa for slaves. They shipped the slaves to the West Indies in exchange for more molasses and the process was repeated over and over.
The ports of Providence and Newport were also homes to privateers and smugglers who helped contribute to the thriving economy.
When Great Britain enacted the Sugar Act of 1764, the merchants in Rhode Island were quite upset. The Sugar Act placed a tax not only on sugar being imported from the West Indies, but it also placed a tax on imported molasses. Due to the proximity to Boston, a number of Rhode Island merchants joined in the Boston protests against the British.
In 1769, angry Rhode Islanders attacked and burned 2 British customs ships, the HMS St. John and HMS Liberty.
In 1772, The Gaspee, a British customs boat that patrolled the waters around Providence, ran aground. A number of Rhode Island merchants and others boarded the Gaspee and destroyed the ship by burning it.
At the same time that Rhode Island was protesting British taxation, they were also proving to be a thorn in the side of the colonial American government. Just as they didn’t like paying import taxes to the British, they also didn’t like paying similar import duties to colonial America. After all, Rhode Island was prospering and believed that they could stand on their own as an independent entity.
On April 19, 1775, the Revolutionary War between the American colonies and Great Britain started in Lexington, Massachusetts, located a mere 50 miles north of Providence. The Continental Congress was talking about declaring independence from Great Britain.
On this day, May 4, 1776, the colonial leaders of Rhode Island decided not to wait for the Continental Congress and formally declared their own independence from Great Britain. When the Continental Congress did declare independence on July 4, 1776, Rhode Island was still not sure if they wanted to be part of the new American nation or go it on their own. Financially, they were in great shape to go it alone, but others in the colony wanted to be part of America. The conflict between independence and statehood carried on for over a decade. Eventually statehood in the new United States prevailed and Rhode Island, the first colony to declare independence was the last colony to ratify the Constitution of the United States in 1790.
Sources for the above includes: Rhode Island declares independence; Full Text of “The Rhode Island Declaration of Independence”; Rhode Island Colony; Rhode Island Colony; May 4, 1776: Rhode Island Independence Day; Rhode Island History.