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A Question of Religion at Rhode Island

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The first European explorer know to have explored the Rhode Island area was Giovanni da Verrazzano. He sailed into the Narragansett Bay in 1524 and finding five Algonquian speaking groups of Native Americans. The Narragansett, the Wampanoag, the Nipmunc, the Niantic, and the Pequot. Through out the next hundred years Dutch fur traders arrived in the Rhode Island region, this caused illnesses and plagues to the Indians who suffered great losses. In 1635 William Blackstone an Anglican clergyman left Boston to seek solitude and settled in Valley Falls, which was then part of the Massachusetts Bay colony. A year later a puritan minister roger Williams a religious rebel became the first European to establish an independent permanent settlement in the Rhode Island region. The establishment of religious freedom in the colony of Rhode Island affected colonial America greatly.

Williams had lived in the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, but got into conflicts with the puritan authorities when he spoke about religious freedom and challenged the civil and religious restrictions in the colonies. In January 1636 he was forced to flee Massachusetts to avoid deportation back to England. He found refuge with the Wampanoag whose chief Massasoit was his friend. Massasoit granted Williams and his friends a piece of land east of the Seekonk River. However this piece of land was controlled by the Plymouth colony and they made them move across the river to where the Narragansett were living. The Narragansett then granted them a large piece of land where they established providence, Rhode islands first permanent white settlement in 1636.

Unlike most Europeans, Native Americans respected Williams and he in return respected them as humans not as savages. Williams believed that the settlers compensate the Native Americans for the land that they have taken. The Native Americans not only accepted Williams settlement but they encouraged it. In 1638 another group of colonists led by john Clarke, William Coddington, and Anne Hutchinson arrived from Massachusetts. Like Williams they too had been banished for political and religious disputes with the puritan establishment. Williams helped the group obtain land from the Narragansett at the northern end of Aquidneck Island, where they founded the town of Pocasset later renamed Portsmouth. Coddington later moved to the south of the island and founded the town of Newport. Later that year the two communities unite and form a federation and rename Aquidneck Rhode Island. A fourth independent settlement led by Samuel Gorton. Having quarreled with authorities at Boston and Plymouth he came to Rhode island and bought a piece of land south of providence this town was later renamed Warwick.

Massachusetts and Plymouth continued to threaten the Rhode Island settlements, because they served as a refuge for the religious rebels from other colonies. To prevent interference in the settlements affairs, Williams obtained a charter in 1644 that provided a legal basis for the settlements existence. In 1663 under the new regime with Charles II in power Rhode Island had their independence reaffirmed. The charter permitted the colonists a large amount of self-government, the governor would be elected not appointed by the king. The charter also guaranteed full liberty in religious concernments. Throughout the colonial period religious sects such as Jews and Quakers who had been persecuted in other colonies enjoyed complete freedom of worship in Rhode Island.

In 1675 Rhode islands peace with the Native Americans was crushed, when land disputes between the Wampanoag and the Massachusetts colonies led to King Philips war. The uprising was led by the Wampanoags chief know as king Philip. The colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut retaliated against not only those involved but also the neutral Narragansett. When the Narragansett gave refuge to some fleeing Wampanoag, the colonists launched a surprise attack on the tribes stronghold in the great swamp near west Kingston, Rhode Island. The village was burned and about 600 Narragansett were killed, mostly women and children. The remaining Narragansett then joined Philips forces and destroyed Rhode Island mainland and other New England settlements. The war ended in 1676 with Philips death, most of the Native Americans that remained were either executed or sold as slaves and their lands were taken over by colonies. The war ruined the native tribes of southern New England and ended resistance to the settlements in this area.

Initially, Rhode islanders farmed and fished to meet their needs. By the early 18th century, Rhode Island farmers were producing surplus livestock and crops. Agricultural produce, lumber, and fish were shipped mainly to the West Indies; smaller amounts were shipped to other colonies, England, and southern Europe. In exchange for their goods Rhode Island received money to spend on English manufactured products. Mostly they received molasses from the West Indies. This was the beginning of the triangular trade that developed between the New England colonies, Africa, and the West Indies. The molasses was made into rum in the colonies and transported to Africa where they received slaves. The slaves were then shipped to the West Indies where the slaves were bought to work on sugar plantations and rum was sent back up to the colonies. This trade flourished during most of the 18th century, providing much of the wealth that made Newport a leading cultural and social center in the colonies.

Beginning in the 1760s Britain passed a series of laws that restricted the trade of sugar and molasses. Rhode islanders who now depended largely on trade for their prosperity responded by smuggling these goods past the British enforcement ships. In 1772 a British customs ship was chasing a ship suspected of smuggling. When the ship sailed up the Narragansett Bay a group of colonists burnt. This was one of the most violent acts committed against the British before the outbreak of the American Revolution.

Within days after the battle at Lexington and concord, Rhode islands general assembly voted to create an army to fight the British. Rhode island was the first colony to renounce its alliance to King George III. On July 18th 1776 Rhode Island ratified the declaration of independence and changed the name to the state of Rhode Island. Although few battles occurred in Rhode Island during the war, British troops seized Aquidneck Island. In 1778 the British held off an attack by a combined force of American and French troops. As the American troops retreated the British forces counterattacked and were defeated at what is known as the battle of Rhode Island. This was the largest military and naval battle fought in New England during the war.

Although Rhode Island was the smallest colony it had many affects on colonial America. It brought in huge amounts of money for the economy through the triangle trade. It was the center or trade. Allowing people to have the right to believe in any religion they wanted to. Rhode island was also usually one of the first colonies to argue about what the puritans said or what the British said, for example they were the first to allow freedom of religion, they were the first to renounce their alliance to King George III, and they were the first to create an army to fight against the British. So in conclusion we see that even though Rhode Island was the smallest colony it still had a huge affect on colonial America

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