Rhode Island - History and Heritage

Rhode Island - History and Heritage

In 1636, Massachusetts dissident Roger Williams founded the town of Providence—now Rhode Island's state capital—on land purchased from the Narragansett Indians. Unlike the Massachusetts Puritans, Williams believed in separation between church and state and freedom of religion, and he helped other people who had been expelled from the colony for religious reasons to settle in Rhode Island. The outspoken preacher Anne Hutchinson and her followers arrived in 1638, and Rhode Island grew into a colony of individualists.

Remnants of Rhode Island's colonial period include the Governor Stephen Hopkins House, which dates to 1708. Hopkins, a colonial governor who signed the Declaration of Independence, bought the original Providence home in 1743 and added to it. The building is typical of colonial houses, and it has been stocked with furniture and objects from the period, including items that belonged the governor himself.

By the mid-18th century, Rhode Island's promise of religious freedom had attracted Jewish merchants, who helped to establish Rhode Island's shipping industry. Dating to 1763, the Touro Synagogue in Newport is the oldest in the country, and it still serves as a house of worship. The congregation was founded in 1658 by Sephardic Jews who founded religious tolerance in Rhode Island after escaping the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

By the 1770s, free-spirited Rhode Islanders were eager to gain independence from Britain. In 1772, a year before the more famous Boston Tea Party, a group of tax-hating colonists attacked and burned a British customs ship, the Gaspee. Today, the town of Warwick celebrates Gaspee Days every summer with fireworks and historical reenactments.

In the late 18th and 19th century, Rhode Island was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. British textile worker Samuel Slater brought water-powered mills to Rhode Island, and a mill he built in 1793 still stands at Slater Mill Historic Site. The mill is now a museum, exhibiting historic machinery and documenting the history of an important New England industry.

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