- Historical Overview - Socioeconomic
Pre-European | Agrarian
| Industrial | Post-Industrial
|Urbanization along the Woonasquatucket
River in Providence.
The issues faced by Rhode Island's resource
managers are the product of hundreds of years of human activity.
When European explorers first visited Narragansett Bay, about 10,000
American Indians lived in what is now Rhode Island and managed its
landscape for their own purposes, clearing huge tracts of land for
agriculture and making widespread use of fire for hunting and to
control brush and undergrowth in the forests. Almost five hundred
years later, the population
of Rhode Island now exceeds one million persons and land use has changed
dramatically in response to the demands of a growing population,
commercial agriculture, industrialization, urbanization, and
In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed northward along the coast
of New England in search of a water route through North America
to China. Near what is now Point Judith, members of the Wampanoag
tribe paddled out to meet him and led him into Narragansett Bay,
where he anchored in Newport Harbor. Verrazzano stayed two weeks,
studying the Bay, the adjacent mainland, and the customs of his
hosts. This was the first confirmed visit of Europeans to this part
of New England.
The Wampanoags were one of the four major American
Indian tribes living in present-day Rhode Island. At the time of
Verrazzano's visit, about 10,000 people lived within its boundaries,
more than 6,000 belonging to the Wampanoag tribe's chief rivalthe
Narragansetts. Other major tribes included the Nipmucks and Niantics,
all four tribes being of the Algonquin family (State of Rhode Island
General Assembly 2000, Rhode Island Tourism 2001).
Upon their arrival in the New World, Europeans found
a richly forested landscape. But contrary to popular notions of
pre-European inhabitants living in a pristine state of equilibrium
with nature, the first Europeans who came to North America found
a natural environment that had already been significantly altered
by its human inhabitants; the land was being managed by American
Indians to meet human demands (Williams 1989). During the summer,
individual families lived in wigwams or wetus in coastal areas,
where they farmed and fished (Narragansett Indian Tribe 2002).
Early European visitors reported that the land had been cleared
for some 8 to 10 miles inland (State of Rhode Island General Assembly
...the Indian has been depicted as the uncivilized
inhabitant of an uncivilized environmenteven a product
of ita migratory hunter devoid of the ability to clear
the forest and cultivate the land. However, these views are difficult
to reconcile with the numerous early accounts of substantial and
well-cultivated crops of tobacco, sweet potatoes, squash, watermelons,
kidney beans, sunflowers, and, of course, maize, most of which
originated in North America and all of which grew profusely in
the favorable environment of the eastern forests...
Throughout the eastern forests, from Maine to the Gulf, there
is sufficient evidence to be sure that nearly all Indians lived
in villages, surrounded by fields in which they grew a great variety
of crops, particularly corn; wherever explorers went, mention
was made of cornfields. (Williams 1989)
The inland forest was also greatly altered by the American Indians.
During the winter, the Narragansetts and other tribes moved to the
inland forest to hunt, living together in longhouses that could
accommodate up to twenty families each. They used fire to clear
undergrowth and to aid in hunting, which reduced the number of species
found in the forest and increased the spacing of trees. Fire-hardy
species gradually came to dominate in thin forests that struck the
early British colonists as being much like the parks in England
(Williams 1989, Narragansett Indian Tribe 2002).
Agrarian Period (1635 to 1830)
It was more than 100 years after Verrazzano's visit that the
first white settlers moved to Rhode Island. In 1635, William Blackstone
built a house near the river that now bears his name. A year later,
Roger Williams led a small group of Nonconformists to found the
first permanent European settlement, Providence Plantations, on
land granted to them by the Narragansetts (State of Rhode Island
Secretary of State undated). By 1800, just under 70,000 people
lived in Rhode Island. At that same time, the population of the
United States had grown to more than five million.
Farming was the dominant occupation throughout the colonial period
and into the early nineteenth century. Plantation agriculture, using
black and American Indian slaves until slavery was outlawed, was
common in Washington County. Smaller farms dotted the coastal areas
and islands, producing apples, onions, flax, and dairy products.
Lumber, fish, and whale oil were also commercially important. Rhode
Island's largest seaportsNewport, Providence, and Bristolflourished
in the export of its agricultural, forest, and fisheries production,
as did the smaller ports of Pawtuxet, Wickford, East Greenwich,
Warren, and Westerly (State of Rhode Island General Assembly 2000).
In many cases, the early European settlers farmed lands that had
been cleared and farmed by the American Indians who lived there
before them (Williams 1989). However, the extent and intensity
of agricultural activities increased greatly during this period
to support export markets in addition to the demands of a population
that by 1830 had grown to almost ten times that of the pre-European
period. Rhode Island's relatively poor soils and harsh climate
further intensified the demands of agriculture upon the natural
environment (Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program 2000). This
greatly intensified the forces of environmental change that had
existed from pre-European times (Foster 1995). The development
of extensive reaches of waterfront to accommodate commercial shipping
also left permanent marks on the natural environment (Dahl
Industrial Period (1830 to
In 1793, Samuel Slater built a water-powered textile mill on the
Blackstone River in Pawtucket. This was the first successful power
mill built in the United States and marks the beginning of the nation's
Industrial Revolution. Farming and commerce continued to dominate
Rhode Island's economy until about 1830, when the power loom
and water-powered cotton mills gave the state a competitive advantage
in the production of textiles. With the Industrial Revolution came rail
transportation, and Rhode Islanders soon found that it was more
cost-efficient to import agricultural products from elsewhere in
the country than to grow it themselves. An important base-metals
industry arose in response to the need for textile machinery. The
invention by a goldsmith in Providence of a gold-plating technique
gave rise to one of the nation's most important centers of
jewelry manufacturing (Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program
2000, Rhode Island Tourism 2001).
With the expansion of manufacturing, the population
of Rhode Island grew rapidly. Between 1830 and 1920, Rhode Island's
population growth rate equaled or surpassed that of the United States
in generalthis while national growth rates were at their
highest recorded levels. The population of Rhode Island increased
from under 100,000 in 1830 to more than 600,000 in 1920. Much of
the growth, both in Rhode Island and in the nation as a whole, was
the result of immigration as foreign laborers came to work in the
factories. The largest group of non-English immigrants to Rhode
Island was the Irish; Irish Catholics are still the dominant ethnic
group in the state. Much of the growth, too, was centered in Providence
County, which in 1920 was home to almost 80 percent of the residents
of Rhode Island, although it constitutes only 40 percent of the
landmass (U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, Rhode
Island Tourism 2001).
The environmental impacts of the industrial period were far more
significant than those of preceding periods. The population grew
to six times that of the agrarian period and sixty times that of
pre-European times. Roads and railroads were built in support of
the rising industries, commerce, and the growing population. Dams
were constructed for water supply and to provide power and water
for industrial processes. Thirty-eight of the dams that appear in
the Project Inventory were constructed
during this period. Significant pollution resulted from the rapid
and unregulated industrialization that occurred at a time when there
was only a limited understanding of the ecological and economic
consequences of pollution.
One mitigating influence of the period was an increasing concentration
of the population in urban industrial areas that led to many of
the farms being abandoned and allowed to revert back to more natural
vegetation. Land in agricultural use fell from about 500,000 acres
in the late 1800s to 300,000 acres in 1920 and 100,000 acres in
1960. The state's total area of forested land more than doubled
between the late 1800s and 1950 (Rhode Island Statewide Planning
Post-Industrial Period (after
In the 1920s, the rise of the textile industry in the South had
devastating economic impacts on manufacturing in Rhode Island. The
state lost almost a third of its manufacturing firms between 1920
and 1929, and by 1998, manufacturing accounted for only 15 percent
of the state's gross product. As manufacturing declined in
importance, trade and service industries rose. Today, finance, insurance,
and real estate is the largest sector of the state's economy,
accounting for a quarter of the gross product, although accounting
for only seven percent of the jobs. The service sector is next in importance,
accounting for 22 percent of the gross product and 35 percent of
the jobs (U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, Rhode
Island Economic Development Corporation 2000).
The population of the state continued to grow through its post-industrial
period, although at a much lower rate than during the industrial
period. From 1830 to 1920, the population of Rhode Island grew at
an annual rate of over two percent. The rate of growth averaged less
than one percent annually between 1920 and 1970, and less than one half
percent annually after 1970. Nevertheless, Rhode Island's
2000 population of one million was almost twice its 1920 population.
The post-industrial period has met with mixed environmental results.
On the one hand, the era has certainly left its own marks on the
environment. Natural hydrology has been significantly altered as
roads, parking lots, rooftops, and other impervious surfaces have
come to occupy more and more of the total surface area. Urban
sprawl has resulted in the continued loss of natural vegetation
and the increase of nonpoint source pollution. There were about
4,000 miles of public roads in 1950. This increased to about 5,000
miles by 1970 and now stands at about 6,000 miles. (Rhode Island
Statewide Planning Program 2000)
On the other hand, with the decline of manufacturing has come a
decline in the pollution associated with manufacturing. In addition,
the implementation of the National Environmental Protection Act
and other environmental regulations
has mitigated the impact of the development that has occurred, and
publicly and privately funded environmental restoration projects
have been implemented to repair some of the environmental damage
of the past.
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Census Bureau Home Page. Undated. (http://www.census.gov)
Dahl, T.E. 1990. Wetland Losses in the United States, 1780s to
1980s. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service,
Foster, D. 1995. Land-use history and four hundred years of vegetation
change in New England, pp. 253-319. In B. L. Turner, et al. (eds.),
Global Land Use Change: A Perspective from the Columbian Encounter.
Narragansett Indian Tribe. 2002. "Historical Perspective of the
Narragansett Indian Tribe" Web page (http://www.narragansett-tribe.org/history.htm). Charlestown, Rhode Island.
Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. 2000. "About Rhode Island" Web page (http://www.riedc.com/aboutri/!aboutframe.html). Providence, Rhode Island.
Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program. 2000. Rhode Island
land use trends and analysis (including land use surveys for the
period 1970-1995). Technical Paper Number 149. Rhode Island Department of Administration, Providence, Rhode Island.
Rhode Island Tourism. 2001. "Rhode Island History" Web page (http://www.ritourism.com/).
State of Rhode Island General Assembly. 2000. "Rhode Island History" Web page (http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/studteaguide/RhodeIslandHistory/rodehist.html). Providence, Rhode Island.
Williams, M. 1989. Americans and Their Forests. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
State of Rhode Island Secretary of State. Undated. "Rhode Island
Early History" Web page (http://www.state.ri.us/rihist/earlyh.htm).
Providence, Rhode Island.
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