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History of Providence

Roger Williams - from a drypoint etching, 1936, by Arthur W. Heintzelman.
One of the oldest cities in the United States, Providence was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 after he was banished from the Massachusetts colony for his religious views.

Born in London around 1603 into a merchant tailor's family, Roger Williams studied law and theology at Cambridge University. As a young minister, his opposition to the established church led him to leave England in 1631 and travel to the new world. He settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony where he continued to challenge the religious order. In the winter of 1635, he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his dissident beliefs. Williams founded Providence on a site at the tip of Narragansett Bay near the Mashassuck River where the farmland was rich and fertile.

By 1643, settlements existed in Providence, Newport, Portsmouth and Warwick. Faced with encroachments from Massachusetts and Connecticut, Williams sailed to England to obtain a charter for the new Rhode Island colony. The charter he received granted independence "comfortable to the laws of England and liberty of the conscience". When efforts were made by other colonies to revoke this charter, Williams returned to England to have it confirmed. King Charles II granted Rhode Island a favorable new charter "to hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty of religious concernments".

Providence around 1800
Providence around 1800
Because of his policy of complete religious toleration, Rhode Island became a haven for refugees from bigotry. Most notable among these were the Quakers from Boston. In 1680, a wharf was built to facilitate trade and Providence's days of prosperity began. As a port in the 1700's, fortunes were made in shipbuilding, whaling, trade with China and the thriving triangle of trade in Molasses, Rum and Slaves.

When the British occupied Newport during the Revolutionary War, many Newport merchants fled to Providence and established themselves in trade there. Foremost among them was the Brown family that brought wealth and fame to the city. John Brown, a merchant and shipbuilder, opened trade with China. Joseph, an architect, designed many of the city's finest buildings. Nicholas donated land and money to establish the university that bears the family name. Moses began the American industrial revolution by financing the first water powered spinning mill built by Samuel Slater.

Today, Providence is the largest city in Rhode Island and the third largest in New England after Boston and Worcester. It is among the region's leaders in the production of machinery, jewelry and silver and is a major port and financial center.

This page utilizes information from:

  • History You Can See by Hadassah Davis and Natalie Robinson and published by the League of Rhode Island Historical Societies, Providence, Rhode Island, 1986.
  • Rhode Island - An Explorer's Guide by Phyllis Meras and Tom Gannon and published by The Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont, 1995.

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