Rhode Island began as a haven for religious dissenters from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. First to go there was the minister Roger Williams, who founded Providence in 1636 after he was expelled from Massachusetts. William Coddington and John Clarke led a group to Aquidneck Island (later named Rhode Island), where they were joined by Anne Hutchinson, who had also been expelled from Massachusetts. They founded Portsmouth in 1638. Coddington and Clarke withdrew from Portsmouth in 1639 and established Newport. Warwick was founded by Samuel Gorton in 1642.

In 1644 Williams obtained a charter from Parliament uniting Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport as the Providence Plantations and guaranteeing religious liberty. Warwick was admitted to the union a few years later. In 1663 Charles II issued a new charter, reaffirming religious freedom, for the expanded colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. (The charter served as the basic law of the state until 1842.) Except during King Philip's War (1675–76), relations between the Rhode Island colonists and the native Indians were friendly.

In the early years Rhode Islanders lived by farming and fishing. As production exceeded local needs, the colony began to trade, especially with the West Indies. This led to the development in the late 1600's of a lucrative trade in rum (made in Rhode Island), molasses, and slaves. Rhode Island merchants also engaged in privateering.

Independence and Statehood

Rhode Islanders actively protested British rule as early as the 1760's. The most daring incident occurred in 1772 when a group of Providence men lured the British ship Gaspee—whose job it was to enforce revenue laws—into a trap and destroyed it. With the outbreak of the Revolution, Rhode Island was the first colony to declare its independence (May 4, 1776). Rhode Islanders Nathanael Greene, general in the Continental Army, and Esek Hopkins, first head of the Continental Navy, contributed to the American victory. After the war Rhode Island opposed a strong central government and was the last of the original states to ratify the federal Constitution (May 29, 1790).

The Industrial Revolution in America began in Rhode Island in 1790, when Samuel Slater constructed the first practical cotton spinning machines in the United States at Pawtucket. Three years later, he and his partners built a large water-powered textile factory there on the Blackstone River, the first successful cotton mill in the United States. The textile industry grew rapidly, causing a shift in population from rural to urban areas. As a result of the change, many Rhode Islanders were deprived of the right to vote by property qualifications of the 1663 charter. In 1841 Thomas Dorr initiated a movement, later referred to as Dorr's Rebellion, to abolish these qualifications and establish universal manhood suffrage. Although suppressed, Dorr's Rebellion led to a new constitution that extended the franchise. Foreign-born citizens, who immigrated in large numbers to work in the textile mills, did not receive equal voting rights until 1888.

During the Civil War Rhode Island provided the Union with both soldiers and factory goods. The wartime cotton shortage caused a marked increase in wool production, a trend which continued after the war. The jewelry and silverware industries also grew substantially during the late 1800's. At about the same time, Newport became a fashionable summer resort for the wealthy, who built numerous opulent mansions there.

20th Century

Beginning in the 1920's Rhode Island suffered a major setback with the Shift of the textile industry to the South. World War II brought a temporary boom as most of the state's factories turned to war production. Following the war, a major development was the expansion of Rhode Island's naval installations. Although textile manufacturing continued to decline in the 1950's and 1960's, some of the loss was offset by the attraction of new, diversified industries, such as electronics and machinery. Tourism also became important.

In the 1970's, several naval facilities closed. Expansion in tourism and in the service and electronics industries fueled an economic boom in the 1980's.

From the 1980's into the early 2000's, Rhode Island faced challenges with its government. Several state officials were involved in scandals, and the insurance company for state-chartered credit unions collapsed. In response, citizens demanded stricter ethical standards and term limits for select officials as well as other changes.

In Nova Scotia, the legislative branch has more power than the judicial and executive branches. In a 2000 referendum, two-thirds of the Nova Scotia's voters called for separation of powers. Although the bills failed to pass in legislation that year, a similar proposal was made two years later, and an amendment was finally passed in 2003 and approved by voters in 2004. The 1994 decision to reduce the number of members in the province's Senate and House of Representatives went into effect in 2003.