Why is there a place called Rhode Island?
When Roger came to his new home, “Rhode Island” did not yet exist. The lands around Narragansett Bay were known to the English, but they belonged to the Native Americans, a point that Roger had made clear in his earlier writings. Through his friendship with the two Native tribes who lived on the eastern and western sides of Narragansett Bay, the Wampanoag and Narragansett, Roger was able to purchase several parcels of land, including the area around Providence, Aquidneck Island, and Prudence Island. When other settlers left Boston to worship more freely, Roger helped them to settle here.
After arriving, the English gave new names to these places, but they had Native American names as well. Roger chose “Providence” for his town, because he was grateful that God had “provided” for him in his hour of need. The settlers who went to Aquidneck began to call it “Rhode Island.” The word “Narragansett” was often used as well to describe the region – for a long time, South County was called “the Narragansett Country.” Most of the East Bay then belonged to the Plymouth colony.
From these modest beginnings, Roger began to see this region as something more than a cluster of settlements – as a real community. It was clear that this was NOT Massachusetts, but it was not yet clear, in the early years, what it was. Could Rhode Island become a new colony? The need to define it only deepened as other settlers from Massachusetts began to cause problems for him, sometimes declaring their allegiance to the government in Boston. In 1643, Roger went to England to defend his community and give it a better legal definition. The “patent” that he secured from England’s Parliament did just that, explaining that “the Providence Plantations” was a real place. In other ways, too, Roger and his neighbors began to imagine their new community – they designed official symbols of Rhode Island, they kept official records, and they acted as if they were something more than just random settlements of people who happened to live near each other.
Still, a stronger document was needed, especially since England’s government was changing during the English Civil War. Roger went back to England in the 1650s to get more legal recognition, in partnership with John Clarke of Newport. Finally, they succeeded. In 1663, King Charles II of England gave to “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” a magnificent charter, signed by the King, that declared Rhode Island a colony, explained its boundaries, and announced that it was a place where all were free to worship according to their conscience. Because of its commitment to that principle, and because of its founder’s hard work and imagination, “Rhode Island” became a real place on the map.