1902 Encyclopedia > Rhode Island

Rhode Island

RHODE ISLAND, one of the six New England States, Plate IV. and the smallest in extent of all the States, is one of the original thirteen which formed the American Union. It has an actual land area of only 1054'6 square miles, the waters of Narragansett Bay, its chief physical feature, comprising an additional area of not far from 360 square miles. It lies between 41° 18' and 42° 3' N. lat., and 71° 6' and 71° 55' W. long., its greatest length from north to south being about 48 miles, and its greatest width from east to west about 35 miles. It is shut in on the east and north by Massachusetts, and on the west by Connecticut, while its southern shores are washed by the Atlantic Ocean.

Physical Characteristics.—The geological formation of the western portion of the State is chiefly that of the Montalban gneiss, which characterizes a great part of southern New England (see geological sketch map of New England, in article NEW HAMPSHIRE, vol. xvii. p. 391), but under the bay and to the east of it is an extensive coal-bearing formation, from which at different times upwards of 750,000 tons of coal have been taken. The only other important deposit is one of magnetic oxide of iron. The climate of Rhode Island, though variable, differs from that of the exposed coast of Massachusetts Bay in the absence of harassing east winds; while the proximity of the southern parts of the State (Newport and vicinity) to the Gulf Stream results in an atmosphere of unusual warmth and moisture, and at the same time comparatively equable. No great extremes, either of heat or of cold, are experienced in the State.

Population.—The earliest authentic estimate of population is that of 7181 in 1708. The War of Independence (1775-83) had the effect of reducing it from 59,707 in 1774 to 52,347 in 1782. The subsequent United States censuses show stead}7 gains, as follows :—1790, 68,825 ; 1800, 69,122; 1810, 77,031 ; 1820, 83,059; 1830, 97,210; 1840, 108,830; 1850, 147,545; 1860, 174,620 ; 1870, 217.353 ; 1880, 276,531 (143,501 males, 133,030 females); while a State census in 1885 (advance returns) gives 304,419. The census of 1880 showed Rhode Island to be surpassed in aggregate population by all except Colorado, Oregon, Delaware, and Nevada, but in density it was surpassed by none (254'9 per square mile, the average for the whole United States being 13'92). By the same census the number of persons of foreign birth was 73,993, or 26'8 percent, no State east of Lake Michigan showing a higher percentage; of these 30,973 (over 41 per cent.) were natives of the United Kingdom or its colonies. About 100,000 of the population are Roman Catholics ; of the remainder, the Baptists (who have been in Rhode Island from its earliest settle-ment) are most numerous, while the communicants of the Protest-ant Episcopal church, with the Congregationalists and Methodists, have also a large representation.

Industries.—No portion of the State can be described as excep-tionally fertile; and only 3 per cent, of the population are engaged in agriculture. The favourable situation of Newport and Provi-dence, at the two extremities of Narragansett Bay, led to the development in the last century of a flourishing trade. This was long ago greatly reduced, and the tonnage of these ports is now chiefly that of a coasting trade. With the final check given to foreign commerce in the war of 1812-14, manufactures gained at once that prominence in the local industries of the State which they have ever since held. The census of 1880 returned the total number of persons in Rhode Island engaged in " gainful and reputable " occupations as 116,979, of whom 66,160, or more than 55 per cent., were classed under the heading "manufactures, mecnanics, and mining." From Samuel Slater's efforts at Providence and Pawtucket Falls, in 1790-93, may in fact be dated the real development of the cotton manufacturing industry in America, Slater, who hail served an apprenticeship in England with a partner of Arkwright, having then been able from memory to set up in Rhode Island the whole set of recently improved spinning machinery. In 1791 only 5858 yards of cotton cloth were made in Providence and vicinity, but in 1810 in Rhode Island 735,319 were made. Two years later, in 1812, there were fifty-three cotton mills within a radius of 30 miles of Providence, nearly three-fifths of them being in Rhode Island. The number of cotton mills in Rhode Island was 33 in 1812, 116 in 1831, and 139 in 1870. Owing to the widespread depression in business the number was greatly reduced throughout the country during the next decade, but even in 1880 the number in Rhode Island was sur-passed by that of no other State except Massachusetts. According to the census of 1880, the amount of capital invested in the manufacture of cotton goods was $24,609,461 ; woollen goods $15,410,450; dyeing and finishing textiles, $6,874,254; foundry and machine-shop products, $6,281,707 ; worsted goods, $6,177,754 ; jewellery, $5,650,133 ; slaughtering and meat-packing, $3,876,740 ; mixed textiles, $2,718,822; rubber and elastic goods, $2,217,000. Thus Rhode Island is second to but one other State—Massa-chusetts—in its aggregate production of cotton goods ; and in the total amount of capital invested in all manufactures it ranks ninth. In each of the five following industries—cotton, woollen, worsted, mixed textiles, and dyeing and finishing—it stands at the head of all the States in amount of production per head of population. In jewellery the yearly product of a single city, Pro-vidence, exceeds that of every other city in the country ($5,444,092 in 18S0). The same city ranks ninth in the value of its foundry and machine-shop products, $4,522,179; Pawtucket, closely adjoining, adds about $1,600,000.

Wealth and Finances.—The assessed valuation of the State was—in 1850, $80,508,794; in 1860, $135,337,588 ; in 1870, $296,965,646; and in 1880, upwards of $420,000,000—a gain of 500 per cent, in thirty years. In aggregate valuation it was surpassed in 1880 by twenty-four States (its population in the same year being exceeded by that of thirty-two States), but in valuation per head it ranked third ($1518'82 in 1880). Notwithstanding the large foreign-born population, the number of persons classed as paupers is very small,—only 553 in 1880, as compared with 15,217 in New York. In 1884 thirty-eight savings banks contained deposits to the amount of $51,079,160-66, with 115,752 depositors (more than 40 per cent, of the entire population). The number of other banks in the State was, in 1883, seventy-three, with a capital of $22,330,579-00. The State tax in 1880 amounted to $383,439-23 ; and in the same year the rate of taxation per head for all purposes ($9 '74) was exceeded only by that of Massachusetts, New York, and California. The debt of the State, held in bonds issued during the war of 1861-65, has for the last few years been steadily diminishing. In 1880 it stood at $2,534,500, and in 1884 at $1,372,000.

Cities and Towns. —The five counties into which Rhode Island is divided contain in all thirty-six towns and cities, of which six lie on the narrow strip bordering the eastern shore of the bay, five on islands in the bay and ocean, and the remaining twenty-five on the mainland, to the west and north-west of the bay. By the State census of 1885 six cities and towns had a population exceed-ing 10,000 :—Providence, 117,607 ; Pawtucket, 22,873 ; Newport, 20,339 ; Lincoln, 17,202 ; Woonsocket, 16,005 ; Warwick, 13,281. Only two of these places, Providence and Newport, have hitherto been organized as cities ; but a third, Pawtucket (the largest in the country under a town government), is also now (1885) about to be organized under a city charter. The quaint old city of Newport, situated at the southern end of the island (Rhode Island) from which the State receives its name,2 has for many years been nearly stationary as regards the development of its population and industries, but is well known on both sides of the Atlantic for its social attractions. In 1880 the "urban" population of Rhode Island constituted 77 per cent, of the total—a percentage surpassed only in the District of Columbia. Yet the growth of manufacturing industries in the State has resulted in building up compact settlements (in not a few instances almost continuous), with little regard to town lines and boundaries. On the Blackstone river are sixteen of these " villages " situated within five different towns; on the Woonas-quatucket river twelve, in four cities and towns ; and on the Pawtuxet river and its branches thirty-two, in five towns. In 1875 there were 186 "villages."

Education.—It was not until 1828 that the present public school system was established ; but, owing largely to the excep-tional organizing ability of the first commissioner of public schools, Henry Barnard, a most efficient system was securely built up. From various causes (including the presence of a large foreign-born element), illiteracy is a serious problem in this State, —the percentage unable to write (11 "2) being in 1880 higher than in any other Northern State. Imperfect attendance is also a serious difficulty in the manufacturing villages. While the number of children registered by the school census of 1880 as of "school age" was 52,273, only 33,504 of these were actually enrolled as pupils in the public schools. Even after counting those who attend private and parochial schools, those "not attending any school" comprise so large a number as 12,279. Under the operation of a newly enacted compulsory law encouraging progress has been made. The public school funds in 1884 amounted to $659,585'50. Educa-tional institutions, other than public, include Brown University, the Friends' School, and various others at Providence. Brown University was founded in 1764, under the name of Rhode Island College, and was the seventh college established in America.

Libraries. —The Redwood Library, at Newport, still in existence, incorporated in 1747, was the fourth public library founded in New England. The Providence Library was founded only a few years later, and is still perpetuated in the Providence Athenamm, an admirably conducted shareholders' library (43,656 volumes in 1884). The Brown University Library, founded 1772, had in June 1885 more than 62,000 volumes, including several special collections of great rarity and value. There were, moreover, in the same year thirty-two "public libraries" in the State (free to all readers), with a total of about 100,000 volumes. The largest of these (31,650 volumes in 1885) is the Providence Public Library.

History and Constitution.—The planting of the three scattered and independent settlements (Providence, 1636 ; Portsmouth, 1638 ; Newport, 1639) by Roger Williams and others whose views of church polity and doctrine had been found unpalatable to the-Massachusetts Puritans, was not in the outset a movement for the-establishmenf of a colony. The need of mutual protection-, however, led to their combination; and the first general union of these three towns (together with a fourth, Warwick), was secured in 1647, under the charter of March 14, 1643-44. The union effected by this instrument was of the very loosest description, but under the pressure of causes which threatened the very existence of the colony a new and much more comprehensive charter was obtained in 1663. This extraordinarily liberal instrument consti-tuted the fundamental law of Rhode Island for the next hundred; and eighty years, through a succession of remarkable vicissitudes. The charters of Massachusetts and other American colonies were withdrawn in 1686, but the efforts of the royal agent were frus-trated in Connecticut and Rhode Island ; and in this colony the government was simply committed temporarily to the separate towns which had constituted the colony, the charter government being peacefully resumed three years later, in 1689. Rhode Island was hardly free, during the next seventy years, from some-form of conflict with the mother country over the question of charter rights ; and in the steps which served to precipitate the-War of Independence (1775-83), as well as in the war itself, it was among the foremost. In the military operations of this wax Nathanael Greene, a Rhode Island officer, ranks easily second to Washington in generalship. Reluctant as Rhode Island was to acknowledge other authority than that of its own colonial charter, even after the close of the war, it did not accede to the constitution of the United States until Juno 1790, more than a twelvemonth after the new government had gone into operation under Washington as president. Nor did it even then follow the example of the other States in framing a State constitution for the govern-ment of its local affairs, but retained its colonial charter of 1663 until almost the middle of the present century. In 1841 and 184-2 the dissatisfaction with this mode of government culminated in a series of revolutionary movements; and a convention called by citizens of the State adopted what was known as the "people's


Thomas Wilson Dorr was chosen governor. Later in the year 1842 a convention called by the regularly constituted authorities adopted the present constitution, under whose provisions the State government was organized in 1843. The governor (chosen annu- ally) has no veto power. The legislative body, known as the General Assembly, comprises a senate and a house of representa- tives, each one of the thirty-six cities and towns choosing a single senator. The General Assembly begins its annual sessions in May at Newport, adjourning, after a few days, for a much more extended session at Providence beginning in the following January. The judicial body consists of one supreme court, with subordinate courts for the respective counties, the justices being chosen by vote of the General Assembly. The suffrage is a limited one, a property qualification being required in certain instances. The State is represented in the national Congress by two senators and two representatives. In the quadrennial election of president, Rhode Island has four votes in the " electoral college." In the Civil War of 1861-65 Rhode Island took an active part, furnishing for the defence of the Union 24,042 men. (W. E. P.)


2 The official name of the State is " the State of Rhode Island and Providence-Plantations."

The above article was written by: William E. Foster, Librarian, Public Library, Providence, R.I.

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