Rhode Island Colony was one of the 13 Colonies that declared independence from Great Britain. The colony started in 1636 and established Religious Freedom and the Separation of Church and State.
Rhode Island, One of the Original 13 Colonies
The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was an English colony in North America that became one of the 13 Original Colonies that voted to declare independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. On May 4, 1776, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to break ties with Great Britain and became the first independent state in North America. Two months later, the Rhode Island delegates to the Second Continental Congress voted to support the Lee Resolution, which confirmed the independence of all 13 American Colonies from Great Britain.
This illustration depicts Roger Williams returning to Rhode Island in 1644 with the Patent granted to him by Parliament. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Quick Facts About Rhode Island Colony
- Region: The colonies are generally divided into three regions — New England, Middle, and Southern. Rhode Island was one of the New England Colonies.
- First Settlement: The first permanent settlement in Rhode Island was Providence Plantations.
- First Settlement Established: Providence Plantations was established in 1636.
- Purpose: The first settlements in Rhode Island were founded for the purpose of establishing towns that provided Religious Freedom and the Separation of Church and State.
- Charter: Rhode Island received a Royal Charter from King Charles II on July 15, 1663.
Rhode Island Colony History
The Four Settlements of Rhode Island
From 1636 to 1644, four primary settlements were established in what became Rhode Island.
- Providence Plantations
Providence and Warwick were on the mainland, while Portsmouth and Newport were both located on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay.
Roger Williams and the Establishment of Providence Plantations
Rhode Island began in 1636, when Roger Williams purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and established a settlement, which he called Providence Plantations, on the east bank of the Moshassuck River, on Narragansett Bay.
Religious Freedom and Separation of Church and State
Williams was a Separatist minister, who was banished from Massachusetts in 1635 for his religious beliefs and criticism of Puritan leaders and the King. Williams was an advocate of Religious Freedom and Separation of Church and State, and those views — seen as extreme in Massachusetts — made Rhode Island a refuge for people that had religious disputes with the Puritans. Over time, that would include Jews, Catholics, Baptists, Quakers, and others.
“The Banishment of Roger Williams” by Peter F. Rothermel, circa 1850. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Williams implemented a system where church leaders were only responsible for enforcing religious laws and public officials were responsible for enforcing civic laws. This was completely different than Massachusetts, where there was no separation. Rhode Island became a haven for religious freedom and set the standard for the Separation of Church and State that is found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Providence Civil Compact
On August 20, 1637, the citizens of Providence agreed to the Providence Civil Compact. The compact said:
“We, whose names are hereunder, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves in active or passive obedience to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of our body, in an orderly way, by the major assent of the present inhabitants, master of families, incorporated together into a town fellowship, and others whom they shall admit unto them only in civil things.”
This agreement established two important things:
- It established the Majority Rule — the laws of Providence would be determined by the assent of the majority. In other words.
- It established the Separation of Church and State — the laws that dealt with civil matters would be enforced by town officials and not church officials.
Anne Hutchinson and the Establishment of Portsmouth
In 1637, another group of religious dissidents — followers of Anne Hutchinson — prepared to leave Massachusetts. Like Williams, Hutchinson disagreed with Puritan leaders. As a result, she was tried and convicted of heresy and banished. Around 60 of her followers — known as Antinomians — were forced to give up their weapons and ammunition.
On March 7, 1638, some of Hutchinson’s followers and supporters, including William Coddington and John Clarke, met at Coddington’s home in Boston. They agreed to leave Boston and 23 men signed an agreement, which is known as the Portsmouth Compact. The compact organized the men into a Christian government, under the leadership of Coddington. The compact said:
“We whose names are underwritten do hereby solemnly in the presence of Jehovah incorporate ourselves into a Bodie Politick and as He shall help, will submit our persons, lives and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His given in His Holy Word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.”
Some of them, including Coddington, traveled to Providence and visited Williams, who helped them buy land from the Narragansetts on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay where they established Pocasset. Later on, the town would be renamed Portsmouth and the island would be renamed Rhode Island.
This illustration depicts the Trial of Anne Hutchinson. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Anne Hutchinson arrived in Providence in April and then took boats to the settlement on the island, where she became the first woman to play a role in founding a town in the American Colonies.
Establishment of Newport
Less than a year later, in 1639, there was a disagreement between the leaders of Portsmouth. Coddington and others left and moved to the southern tip of the island, where they established Newport.
On March 16, 1641, Coddington — who had the land title to the entire island — convinced the two island towns to merge together under a single government, with him as governor. The new government was a democracy and guaranteed Religious Freedom.
At the same time, Coddington started working toward the development of his own colony, separate from Providence.
The Rhode Island Patent of 1644
In the early years, the Rhode Island settlements were faced with two significant issues.
- There were disagreements between the settlements due to the lack of a cohesive government.
- The land owned by the settlements had been purchased from the Indian tribes, but the titles were not recognized by English courts.
In order to resolve those issues, Williams went to England in 1643 and secured a patent from Parliament that united Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport into a confederation called “Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay.”
The patent was granted to Williams on March 14, 1644, by Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick, and the Commission on Foreign Plantations, also legalized their claims to the land under the name “Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay in New England.”
It gave the towns the authority to govern themselves and make their own laws as long as they were “comfortable to the laws of England.” It also confirmed that the deeds Williams and others purchased from the Indians were legal in English courts.
Williams returned to Rhode Island in September 1644.
Establishment of Warwick
While Williams was in England securing the patent, Samuel Gorton purchased land from the Indians on the mainland for the purpose of establishing a new settlement. The land he bought is known as the Shawomet Purchase and the settlement was called Shawomet. As Shawomet grew, it was renamed, Warwick.
Portsmouth Assembly of 1647 and the Acts and Orders of 1647
Under the patent, Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport were legal, however, it took nearly three years for them to come to an agreement on a government and laws. In May 1647, they finally agreed to organize a new government and draft laws for their confederation, known as the Acts and Orders of 1647.
The Acts and Orders set up a democratic government, with rights based on the Magna Cara. One of the important things it did was to provide for a right to trial by a jury of peers. This right would be stripped away from Rhode Islanders and all Americans more than 100 years later when Parliament passed the Sugar Act and allowed trials to be conducted by the Vice-Admiralty Courts.
The Acts and Orders included Warwick in the new government, and officers were selected.
- John Coggeshall was chosen as the President of the colony.
- Roger Williams was selected to represent Providence.
- John Samford was selected for Portsmouth.
- William Coddington was selected for Newport
- Randall Holden was selected for Warwick.
Despite the agreement, Coddington and Williams were rivals, and Coddington wanted to keep the island towns separate from the ones on the mainland. In 1651, Coddington went to England and secured a commission that allowed him to be the governor of Aquidneck Island and Conanicut Island — for life.
Williams responded by sailing to England with John Clarke, and William Dyer in November 1651 to have Coddington’s commission revoked. They also hoped to secure a Charter that would confirm the Parliamentary Patent. They were successful in having Coddington’s commission revoked, but were unable to secure a Charter. Dyer and Williams returned to Rhode Island and Clarke stayed in England and continued to work on securing a Charter.
Dyer was the one who announced to Rhode Island that the previous government was restored, and new elections were held in 1654. In September 1654, Williams was elected President and held the position for three years.
Royal Charter of 1663
In 1660, King Charles II returned from exile, which united the kingdoms of Scotland and England. The period of the Protectorate ended and the Interregnum started. On July 15, 1663, Dyer was finally able to secure a Royal Charter for Rhode Island, when King Charles II granted the Charter of “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”
The charter allowed the inhabitants of Rhode Island to govern themselves and it also guaranteed Religious Freedom. It said that a “flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments.”
The Royal Charter of 1663 served as the basis of Rhode Island law from then until 1843.
Interesting Facts About Rhode Island
William Blackstone — The First Settler in Rhode Island
One of the first settlers in the territory that became Rhode Island was William Blackstone — sometimes spelled Blaxton. Blackstone left England in 1623 as part of the Gorges Expedition that failed to create a permanent settlement at Wessagusset. Afterward, most of the colonists returned to England, however, Blackstone stayed and settled what is present-day Beacon Hill in Boston, making him the first settler in Boston. When the Puritans arrived, Blackstone disagreed with their religious views. He moved roughly 35 miles south of Boston and settled on the bend of a river — present-day Blackstone River in Rhode Island. He called his settlement Study Hill. Roger Williams arrived two years later and settled a few miles away from Blackstone. Although they disagreed on religious issues, they became friends. They also agreed on the idea of Religious Freedom, which played an important part in the development of Rhode Island.
When William first moved into the area, the land he chose for his settlement, which was called Rehoboth, was within the boundaries of the territory granted to Plymouth Colony. In order to keep the peace with Plymouth, Williams and his group moved to the mouth of the Mooshansic River and established Providence. Williams and 12 of the settlers formed the Proprietors’ Company for Providence Plantations.
First Baptist Church in America
In 1638, Williams and others established the First Baptist Church in Providence, the oldest Baptist congregation in America.
Common Burying Ground for All Inhabitants
In 1640, Newport established a Common Burying Ground for all residents — regardless of religion, race, or social status. The land was donated by Dr. John Clarke, who helped secure the Royal Charter in 1663.
Origin of the Names Aquidneck and Rhode Island
The land was originally called Aquidneck which came from the Narragansett word for “Isle of Peace.” In 1644, Aquidneck Island was renamed Rhode Island. The name came from Dutch explorer, Adrian Block, who called the area “Roodt Eylandt” meaning “red island” as a reference to the red clay that lined the shore.
Significance of the Establishment of Rhode Island Colony
The establishment of the Rhode Island Colony is important to the history of the United States because it implemented two important rights that are framed in the Constitution:
- Religious Freedom
- Separation of Church and State
This article is the first in a series of planned articles about the Rhode Island Colony. The focus is on the establishment of the settlements, acquisition of the Royal Charter, formation of the government, and other related facts from 1636 to 1663. It is not intended to provide a comprehensive look at the Colony and other important topics, such as Native American Indian Tribes, European Exploration, Indian Wars, or Slavery.