The first people to live in what’s now Rhode Island are thought to have arrived at least 30,000 years ago. Thousands of years later, Native American tribes such as the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Niantic lived in the area.
Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano explored the area in 1524. Then in 1636, Roger Williams—a man who’d been banished from the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his religious beliefs—founded the Rhode Island colony. The region would become known as a spot where people of many different religions could practice freely.
In 1776 Rhode Island became the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain. But it was the last of the original thirteen colonies to ratify (or sign) the U.S. Constitution in order to join the Union; Rhode Island’s delegates insisted that the Bill of Rights, which guarantees certain freedoms, be added to the Constitution before they’d sign.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
Experts don’t agree on the source of Rhode Island’s name. One explanation is that explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano compared the land he found to the Greek island of Rhodes, and that inspired colonist Roger Williams to name the colony Rhode Island. Another explanation is that Dutch explorer Adriaen Block called the land Roodt Eylandt, meaning “red island,” because of the red clay at its shore—and the name later evolved into Rhode Island.
Rhode Island is nicknamed the Ocean State because it has more than 400 miles of coastline. Everyone in the state lives within a half-hour drive to the sea!
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
The smallest state in the United States, Rhode Island is only about 48 miles long and 37 miles wide. It’s bordered by Massachusetts in the north and east, the Atlantic Ocean in the south, and Connecticut in the west. It can be divided into two geographical regions.
The Coastal Lowland covers the south and east, and includes the islands of Narragansett Bay and Block Island. The region has lagoons and sandy beaches. It becomes forested west of the bay.
The state’s northwestern corner is the Eastern New England Upland with lakes, ponds, and hills. It contains Rhode Island’s highest point, Jerimoth Hill.
During colonial times many of Rhode Island’s mammals were hunted almost to extinction in the state. But some of those animals have made a comeback. Black bears, beavers, and fishers (a type of weasel) have all returned to the land. Other common mammals are minks, raccoons, and river otters.
The tiny state is also big on birds, especially along the coastline. Green herons, blue-winged warblers, common eiders, loons, and harlequin ducks are among Rhode Island’s many avian residents. Reptiles such as the northern redbelly and eastern smooth green snake live here. And the region is home to amphibians like blue-spotted salamanders and northern leopard frogs.
Eastern white pine, American hornbeam, black tupelo, and red maple (the state tree) are among Rhode Island’s many trees. Wildflowers include bulbous buttercup, black-eyed Susan, oxeye daisy, mountain laurel, and mullein, also known as cowboy toilet paper—so named because of its soft leaves that can come in handy!
Some people consider Narragansett Bay Rhode Island’s most important natural resource, thanks to its plentiful fish, fertile soil, and position as a shipping gateway to the Atlantic Ocean.
—The state rock, Cumberlandite, comes from Cumberland, Rhode Island. Made of iron and titanium, it’s slightly magnetic with a silvery sheen.
—Actress Viola Davis, actor and songwriter George Michael Cohan, and record-setting mountain climber Annie Smith Peck were all Rhode Island residents.
—Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay is famous for its clams. Fried clam cakes, clam chowder, steamers (steamed clams), and stuffed clams are favorite snacks.
—Rhode Island is the smallest state in the United States—only 1,034 square miles.