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Socioeconomic Factors

Introduction - Historical Overview - Socioeconomic Profile

Historical Overview

Pre-European | Agrarian | Industrial | Post-Industrial

Urbanization along the Woonasquatucket River in Providence.
Urbanization along the Woonasquatucket River in Providence.
Courtesy: NOAA

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 suburban sprawl.

Pre-European Period (before 1635)
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 rival–the 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 2000).

...the Indian has been depicted as the uncivilized inhabitant of an uncivilized environment–even a product of it–a 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 seaports–Newport, Providence, and Bristol–flourished 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 1990).

Industrial Period (1830 to 1920)
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 general–this 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 Program 2000).

Post-Industrial Period (after 1920)
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, Washington, D.C.

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. Madrid.

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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Project Partner web pages - RIHRT, CRMC, NBEP, STB

This site was created through a partnership of the:

Coastal Resources Management Council
Narragansett Bay Estuary Program
Save The Bay®