Providence, R.I.

views updated


In 1730 the population of Providence was 3,916, and the town included all of present-day Providence County west of the Blackstone River. However, so many farmers had moved into the "outlands" of Providence that three large towns (Scituate, Glocester, and Smithfield) were set off from the parent community in 1731. Before the colonial period came to a close, an inner ring of three more farm towns (Cranston, 1754; Johnston, 1759; and North Providence, 1765) were carved from Providence's territory. What remained (less than six square miles) at the head of Narragansett Bay was predominantly commercial and increasingly cosmopolitan in character.

By the 1760s Providence had a population of four thousand, a flourishing maritime trade, a merchant aristocracy, a few important industries, a body of skilled artisans, a newspaper and printing press, a stagecoach line, and several impressive public buildings. Great Britain's passage of the Sugar Act in 1764, levying a duty on sugar and molasses imports so essential to Providence distilleries and to the "triangular trade" in rum and slaves, set in motion a wave of local protest that crested in 1776. As the colonies edged toward the brink of separation with England, the town of Providence, urged on by local pamphleteers calling for autonomy, became a leader of the resistance movement.

In June 1772 Providence merchants and sailors burned the customs sloop Gaspée, and in June 1775 they burned tea in Market Square. Providence citizens led the way in calling for the Continental Congress and in founding a Continental navy. Providence escaped enemy occupation, a fate that arrested growth in Newport, the colony's largest town. French troops moved in and out of Providence from July 1780 to May 1782, and it was from this point, in June 1781, that Rochambeau's army began its fateful march southward to Yorktown. After the war ended, Providence resumed its pattern of growth. When American ships were barred from the British West Indies in 1784, local merchants replaced this important colonial trading partner with ports in Latin America and Asia.

Providence moved into the front rank of the new nation's municipalities, first as a bustling port and then as an industrial and financial center. Providence merchants, especially the Brown family, accumulated the investment capital to sponsor experiments in manufacturing. In 1790 Samuel Slater, the Browns' protégé, initiated the transition, completed by the 1830s, from maritime to manufacturing activity as the heart of Providence's economy. Providence's four major areas of manufacturing endeavor—base metals and machinery, cotton textiles, woolen textiles, and jewelry and silverware—were established by 1830, and for the next century they dominated the city's economy, making Providence the industrial leader of the nation's most industrialized state. Providence owed this primacy to its superior financial resources and banking facilities, its position as the hub of southeastern New England's transportation network, and especially to its skilled workforce and enterprising business leaders.

In January 1801 the city suffered a disastrous fire that destroyed thirty-seven buildings on South Main Street. The Great Gale of September 1815 left the entire waterfront in shambles. The War of 1812 brought hardship to commerce, and the Panic of 1819 interrupted economic recovery. Most serious, however, were the town's internal growing pains. In 1820 the population of Providence reached 11,745. By 1830 the number of inhabitants had jumped to 16,832, of whom 1,213 (7.2 percent) were black. During the 1820s, tensions increased between the white working class and the black community. The fact that blacks were stripped of the right to vote in 1822 and were segregated by the Providence School Law of 1828 intensified their resentment.

In September 1831 a race riot erupted, beginning with a clash between some rowdy white sailors and blacks living in Olney's Lane. This four-day episode, in which five men died, was the final catalyst for municipal change. A town meeting on 5 October 1831 decided to adopt a city form of government, and the General Assembly agreed. In November the charter was issued and ratified by the town's electorate. In 1832 Providence became a city with a mayor-council form of government that replaced the traditional town meeting.

See alsoManufacturing; New England; Rhode Island .


Cady, John Hutchins. The Civic and Architectural Development of Providence, 1636-1950. Providence: Book Shop, 1957.

Conley, Patrick T., and Paul R. Campbell. Providence: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, Va.: Donning Company, 1982.

Greene, Welcome A., comp. The Providence Plantations for Two Hundred and Fifty Years. Providence: Reid, 1886.

Stokes, Howard K. The Finances and Administration of Providence, 1636–1901. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1903; New York: AMS Press, 1983.

Patrick T. Conley

About this article

Providence, R.I.

Updated About content Print Article