History of Providence, Rhode Island

Edgewood Manor & Newhall House

Local History

The port of Providence looks much like it did in colonial times: the downtown waterfront sculpted into paths and promenades with boat rides down the winding Providence River. You can imagine the Indians paddling their canoes on that same stretch of river, stopping to hunt for game from the inland forests and fields.

Five tribes of the Algonquin Indian family were the first peoples to call Rhode Island home. The Niantic, Nipmuc, Pequot, Narragansett and Wampanoag were peace-loving farmers who supplemented their plantings with fish caught along the coastlands, pheasants fluttering in the bushes, rabbits, and running deer.

In 1511, Miguel Corte-Real, a fierce Portuguese navigator, carved his name on a rock in the Dighton River in nearby Tauton. Some thirteen years later, the Italian explorer Verrazano sailed under the French flag into Naragansett Bay. He wrote that the land he saw resembled the Isle of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea. Ninety years later when the Dutch voyager, Adrian Block laid eyes on the clay cliffs of what is now called Block Island, he named it Roodt Eylandt or Red Island. These explorers contributed to the naming of Rhode Island, although it is Roger Williams who selected the name of Providence, meaning God’s merciful providence, after purchasing the land from two Narragansett chiefs.

Roger Williams was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 because he did not agree with the strict limitations the Colony had placed on religion and politics. By 1639, Baptists, Quakers, Calvinists, and Jews had established congregations in Providence and surrounding areas.

Williams won the respect of both the Indians and settlers by keeping the peace between the Narragansetts and colonists. Aggression by the colony for Indian land, disputes over boundaries and culture and a sneak attack on the Narragansetts by Plymouth forces, caused the friendly tribe to join with the Wampanoag in the infamous King Philip’s War. Thousands of Indians and colonists were killed including women and children. The land was destroyed and four decades of progress were wiped out.

The colonists had to start over from scratch, farming their land and plying wares in trade and business. They accomplished much from hard work and whatever tools and knowledge they could garner from various sources. Their labor produced businesses in manufacturing and textiles that thrive today in Providence factories and surrounding vicinities.

In 1776 Rhode Island became one of the thirteen colonies to declare its independence from Great Britain. On July 18, the Rhode Island General Assembly ratified the Declaration of Independence. After the American Revolution, the port of Providence saw a decline in shipping, but around 1790 Samuel Slater built the first cotton textile mill at Blackstone Falls, which later became known as Pawtucket. It was this water power that led to a rapid rise in manufacturing, making Providence a meeting place for society, business and culture.

By the late 1820’s the processing of cotton at textile mills became the backbone of Rhode Island economy. A need for textile machinery birthed a base-metals business in Providence, the center for businessmen who funded the humming economy. The manufacturing of precious metals, gold and silver, thrived for the next century while agriculture and the early farms declined, reverting to forestlands.

Urbanization increased in Providence, along with immigration from outlying areas such as Newport, and an influx of immigrants from such countries as Ireland, Italy, and Portugal, immigrants seeking work in manufacturing and on railroads. In 1847 the Providence Gas Company lighted the streets, and the first train ran over the Providence line. The Providence Depot, today known as the Providence Train Station, was built in 1848.

Industrial Providence and the need for personalization birthed the development of facilities for the disadvantaged and sick, and the thirst for knowledge saw the advent of colleges and universities. Butler Hospital, on the east side of Providence, was founded to help the feeble. It is known today for the treatment of substance abuse and family problems. Ivy-league Brown University, just beyond the Benefit Street colonial mansions, was initially called “Rhode Island College.” Rhode Island College, in the Mount Pleasant area of Providence, founded as a teacher’s college, now offers a full curriculum of studies in the arts and the humanities.

At the turn of the century Providence became a center for performing and visual arts. Theatres such as the Avon and the Strand date from this era. Entertainment not only in the form of Vaudeville and the talkies were popular at this time, but also shopping expeditions to big department stores like Gladding’s, Shepard’s and the Outlet, rivals in size and quality of merchandise. Shepard’s Tea Room, with its black and white block floor and round marble-topped tables, was a likely spot to find a little girl squirming in her seat, while her white-gloved grandmother taught her how to be a lady. Gladding’s is one of the few stores of this kind left in downtown Providence, found at the Arcade on Weybosset Street.

After World War II, the city of Providence saw a mass exodus to the suburbs. Older city housing, crowded conditions and a rise in crime caused citizens to settle in outlying areas, such as Warwick, establishing small farms and neighborhoods.

In recent years the legislators of the city of Providence devised a “Providence Beautiful” campaign, restoring historic buildings, cleaning up downtown areas and the waterfront to resemble earlier days, making Providence an attractive place to visit, conduct business, and to live. The diversity of yesterday is found in the city of today, founded on tolerance and respect for freedom, principles alive and well in the culture and climate of present day Providence.

By Sheila Coyle (taken from Providence Area Guides)