Rhode Island History and Research Overview

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Rhode Island is a small state with a long name — State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The original four towns were clustered around Narragansett Bay. Roger Williams, a minister banished from Massachusetts Bay, established Providence. Another religious free thinker, Samuel Gorton, founded Warwick; Anne Hutchinson’s followers settled in Portsmouth; and Thomas Coddington’s devotees populated Newport. The colony became a haven for those seeking freedom to worship, attracting Baptists, French Huguenots and Calvinists, Jews and Quakers. King Philip’s War of 1675 to 1676 devastated the colony and local Native Americans. At war’s end, only a small tribe remained in what is now Charlestown. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut claimed ownership of parts of the colony in the 17th century.

In the 18th century, the close proximity of Narragansett Bay enabled Rhode Island traders to lead the Colonies in imports and exports. Many Rhode Island families today have connections in the West Indies due to the colony’s prominence in the Triangle Trade of slaves, rum and sugar. Many inhabitants of coastal areas participated in whaling and fishing.

The American Industrial Revolution began with Samuel Slater, an English immigrant who built the first US factory for manufacturing cotton thread. Textile manufacturing attracted immigrants to towns such as Slatersville in waves — Irish, Scots, French-Canadians and Italians. Germans found employment in the jewelry and silver trades.

As the factories left, Rhode Islanders turned their coastline into a playground for the rich and famous. Today, tourism attracts visitors from all over the world.


(click to enlarge)
Rhode Island state map with county outlines


  • Know the history of your ancestral town or village. Town boundaries act as political divisions for record-keeping purposes, but individuals usually claim allegiance to one of the more than 100 villages in Rhode Island, not the town where they were born. Orientation is possible by using a gazetteer of place names for the state.
  • Start your research at the Rhode Island Historical Society for the broadest possible selection of resources. Reference materials are open to the public, but use of the manuscript and photo departments requires an appointment.
  • Once you’ve covered the resources in the major repositories, take your search to your ancestors’ town. Outside the major cities, towns are small and you can easily connect with a town historian.
  • Regardless of the time period you’re researching, you’ll discover basic sources and little-known collections to trace your family through Rhode Island’s colorful past. This tiny state can be traversed in a day, enabling genealogists to visit town clerks, public libraries, and state repositories.



  • Federal census: 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows:1890
  • State census: 1865, 1875, 1885, 1905, 1915, 1925, 1935


  • An Album of Rhode Island History, 1636–1986 by Patrick T. Conley (Donning, 1986)
  • Bibliography of Rhode Island: A Catalogue of Books and Other Publications Relating to the State of Rhode Island by John Russell Bartlett (filmed by University Microfilms, 1987)
  • Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island, 2 vols. (National Biographical Publishing Co., 1881)
  • The Catholic Church in Rhode Island by Thomas F. Cullen (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, 1936)
  • Civil, Military and Professional Lists of Plymouth and Rhode Island Colonies: Comprising Colonial, County, and Town Officers, Clergymen, Physicians and Lawyers by Ebenezer Weaver Pierce (1881; Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968)
  • Documentary History of Rhode Island, 2 vols., by Howard Millar Chapin (Preston and Rounds, 1916, 1919)
  • The Early Records of the Town of Providence, 21 vols. (Snow and Farnham, 1892–1915)
  • English Origins of New England Families: From the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 3 vols., from the New England Historic Genealogical Society (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985)
  • The Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island: Comprising Three Generations of Settlers Who Came Before 1690 by John Osborne Austin (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1978)
  • A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, 4 vols., by James Savage (ca. 1860; Genealogical Publishing Co., 1965)
  • Genealogies of Rhode Island Families: From Rhode Island Periodicals, 2 vols. (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983)
  • History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: 1636–1790, 2 vols., by Samuel Green Arnold (Reprint Co., 1970)
  • Inventory of Church Archives in Rhode Island: Baptist Bodies from the Works Projects Administration (Historical Records Survey, 1939)
  • Inventory of the Church Archives of Rhode Island by Society of Friends (Historical Records Survey, 1939)
  • Memorial Encyclopedia of the State of Rhode Island by Wilfred H. Munro (American Historical Society, 1916)
  • Men of Progress: Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Leaders in Business and Professional Life in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations by Richard Herndon (New England Magazine, 1896)
  • New England Families: Genealogical and Memorial, 4 vols., by William Richard Cutter (1913; Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1914)
  • New England Family Histories: States of Maine and Rhode Island by Lu Verne V. Hall (Heritage Books, 2000)
  • The Records of American Baptists in Rhode Island and Related Organizations (American Baptist Historical Society, 1981)
  • Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island, 3 vols. (J.H. Beers & Co., 1908)
  • Rhode Island: A Bibliography of Its History edited by Roger Parks (University Press of New England, 1983)
  • Rhode Island Biographical and Genealogical Sketch Index by J. Carlyle Parker (Marietta Publishing Co., 1991)
  • Rhode Island Genealogies (Broderbund, 1996, CD-ROM)
  • Rhode Island Research Outline by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (online at
  • Rhode Island Sources for Family Historians and Genealogists by Kip Sperry (Everton Publishers, 1986)
  • State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century, 3 vols., edited by Edward Feld (Mason Publishing Co., 1902)

Return to the main Rhode Island page

From the Family Tree Sourcebook
Also available: the State Research Guide Book, State Research Guides CD and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.