From the establishment of Providence Plantation by Roger Williams in 1636, Rhode Island was known as the refuge of dissident troublemakers. Principally made up of independent, agricultural communities, it remained small and almost totally populated by English settlers.
Europeans first explored coastal Rhode Island in the early 16th century. It was not permanently settled, however, until Williams sought personal and religious freedom after being driven from the Massachusetts colony in 1636. Having come to New England as a Puritan (see Pilgrims and Puritans), he declared himself a Separatist, encouraging his congregation to break ties with the Church of England and denouncing the charter of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Other dissidents driven from Massachusetts, including William Coddington, John Clarke, and Anne Hutchinson, established Portsmouth and Newport in 1638. Fearing the evil effects of the absence of English law in Providence, a number of prominent citizens left to found Warwick in 1643. Four years later, Providence, Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick joined together in order to repel encroachments from bordering colonies. A new charter of 1663 provided the legal basis for self-government that lasted into the 19th century. In 1686, Rhode Island was forced, along with Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut colony, and New Hampshire colony, into the Dominion of New England, a heavy-handed autocratic experiment that failed as a result of the deposition of King James II of Britain during the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89.
The religious freedom that prevailed in early Rhode Island made it a refuge for several persecuted groups including Baptists, Quakers, Antinomians, Jews, and French Huguenots (Calvinists), groups that drew from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds. Although small, the colony prospered. Its diverse economy incorporated rich farmlands, whaling and fishing industries, and extensive transatlantic commerce. By the time of the American Revolution (1775–1783), the colony regularly traded with England, the Portuguese islands, Africa, South America, the West Indies, and other British mainland colonies. The most lucrative commerce was in slaves, forming one leg of a triangular route that brought molasses from the West Indies to Rhode Island, whose distilleries made rum, which was then sent to Africa for the purchase of slaves. Rhode Island was, however, the first colony to prohibit the slave trade, in 1774.