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Book Chapter


Published as a chapter in PRE-STATEHOOD LEGAL RESEARCH: A GUIDE TO THE 50 STATES (Haworth Press 2004) (


Roger Williams is generally recognized as the founder of Rhode Island. Although his settlement of Providence in 1636 was not the first or only settlement in the area, he was able to open the whole region to English settlement. Due to his friendship with local Indians and knowledge of their language he obtained land from the Indians and assisted other settlers in doing the same. When Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 because of his rejection of Puritanism, his friend, Governor John Winthrop, suggested that he start a new settlement at Narragansett Bay. Founders of other early settlements also migrated from the Massachusetts colony seeking religious freedom. Rhode Island began as four separate towns, which were not incorporated until a joint government was formed in 1647, under the “Incorporation of Providence Plantations,” or Charter of 1644. Until the granting of that charter, Rhode Island had no authority to exist as an English colony.

The official name of the state remains today “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Rhode Island refers to Aquidneck Island, the location of the present-day towns of Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport. According to Howard Chapin’s Documentary History of Rhode Island, “the earliest appearance of the name Rhode Island as the designation of the island of Aquidneck is in a letter from Roger Williams to Deputy Governor John Winthrop ... which from its context was evidently written in the spring of 1637.” As described below, the Island was one of the first areas in the Colony to be settled. Providence Plantations refers to early settlements at the northern end of the Narragansett Bay, in Providence and the surrounding area. The word plantation has the meaning of a settlement in a new country or region: colony.

Parts II, III, and IV of this paper consist of bibliographic essays covering three main periods in the early development of the Colonial government and legal institutions of Rhode Island: 1636-1647, the formation of the four original towns and their consolidation under a Parliamentary Patent, or Charter; 1647-1663, government under the Code of 1647 and the issuance of a Royal Charter; and 1663-1776, governance under the Royal Charter and the deterioration of relations with the monarchy leading to a declaration of independence. While the history of Rhode Island is fascinating, only the bare essentials are provided in this article, sufficient to explain the background and context in which legal institutions developed in the Colony.

Part V deals with legislative documents and includes a bibliographic listing of important legislative documents of the colonial period. Part VI addresses the early development of Rhode Island’s court system, and includes a bibliographic listing of both primary and secondary sources on the history of the courts. The conclusion provides a list of additional sources for researching the history, government, and laws of colonial Rhode Island, including archival collections in the state.

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