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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

June 11, 2024: Ocean State Histories: The Name

[250 years ago this week, Rhode Island banned the slave trade. That significant moment was just one of many in this littlest state’s story, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Ocean State histories, leading up to a special post on works through which you can learn more about Rhode Island!]

Two debates over the Ocean State’s name, and why we should better remember it in any case.

I don’t think it’s common knowledge, even up here in New England, but up until 2020 Little Rhody’s full name was the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. That lengthy appellation was due to the combination of two initially separate English colonies, the Rhode Island colony (which included Newport, Narragansett Bay, and Portsmouth) and Roger Williams’ Providence Plantations (which evolved into the city of Providence). While the word “plantation” in the latter name likely originated (as it did for William Bradford’s naming of Plimoth Plantation to the north) in the concept of the “plantations of God” (a phrase still in use in the 1830s, as illustrated by a quote from Emerson’s “Nature”), it nonetheless conjures up unfortunately histories of oppression and slavery (of both Native and African Americans), ones to which Rhode Island like all New England was certainly linked. Because of those echoes, the Rhode Island General Assembly in 2009 initiated a referendum to drop the Providence Plantations part of the state’s official name—but by a wide majority (78% to 22%) Rhode Islanders voted in November 2010 to keep the full name as is. (It was finally changed after another November 2020 vote.)

The history of the Rhode Island part of the state’s name is less controversial, but still a source of uncertainty and debate. The phrase initially referred to a specific area known by its Native American name, Aquidneck Island, and settled by English followers of Anne Hutchinson in 1636; Roger Williams first used the name “Rhode Island” for that region in 1637, and in 1644 the Rhode Island General Court decreed that “Aquethneck shall be henceforth called the Isle of Rodes or Rhode-Island.” But the origins of the “Rhode” part remain in doubt, with at least two competing historical theories: that it was derived from Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano’s likening the island to the Greek isle of Rhodes during his 1524 voyage through Narragansett Bay, and the English utilized his comparison in naming the island upon their arrival; or that it derives instead from Dutch explorer Adriaen Block’s description of the area as “an island of Reddish appearance” in a 1625 account of his own voyage through the region, which the Dutch word “rodlich” transformed into “Rhode” in English. It’s of course entirely possible that both of these moments and perspectives played a role in the English take, and that even by the 1630s (much less in our own far more distant era) the name represented a murky combination of factors.

It’s precisely those multiple factors and histories that make it so important for us to better remember every part of the name “the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” though. As I wrote in Monday’s post, Roger Williams’ role in founding the English colony is I believe relatively familiar, although there’s plenty more we can and should remember about that inspiring individual. But if we can recognize that even America’s smallest state represents a combination of the journeys and followers of Williams and Anne Hutchinson, of the native histories of Aquidneck and Narragansett (a 30,000 year old Native American tribe that played a key role in every colonial New England history and continues to evolve in our own era), and of Italian and Dutch explorers and perspectives, among other moments and influences, then we can start to truly appreciate the cross-cultural origins and evolutions of each and every part of our nation. Not so little at all, Rhody.

Next Rhode Island history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Ocean State stories you’d highlight?

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