A Nearly 4000 Word History of Providence, RI

In preparation for Providence’s long-delayed turn on Friday Flagging, I wanted to write up a (kinda) brief history of Providence.

Providence’s History

While the polity of “Providence” wouldn’t exist until 1636, human settlement has existed in the area for thousands of years. By the early 1600s, what was to become Providence sat at the frontier of Narragansett and Wampanoag control; the “border” (although it’s probably anachronistic to describe it as such) was what became known as the Blackstone River. A possible village located on Mashpaug Pond may have given its allegiance to the Narrangansetts.

European-brought diseases had ravaged the Wampanoags, and the Narragansetts had taken advantage of this to seize the islands in the bay. By the time Roger Williams and his followers arrived in 1636, the Narragansetts were the dominant nation in New England. The Pequot War showed how the Narragansetts were political players, using the English to defeat their strongest rival, and still attempting to maneuver against the Mohegans a decade later (though this severely weakened them). Thus, it was from the Narragansetts that Williams purchased the land that became Providence.


Roger Williams

Let’s talk about Roger Williams. The most accurate word for Williams is “zealot”. Williams is often portrayed as a beacon of tolerance in a sea of religious dogmatism, but tolerance for Williams was not the same as acceptance. A year before he was forced into exile from Massachusetts, Williams was involved in a controversy over the flags used by Massachusetts. The colony used the English Red Ensign, which is a red flag with a cross of St. George (red cross on a white field) in its canton. To Williams, displaying a cross like this was popery (evidence of Catholicism). So great was his anti-Catholic animus that he convinced Massachusett’s General Court to order the crosses removed, which was vetoed by the Governor, who managed to negotiate a compromise where every standard bearer (the people who held the flags) would get to choose whether to remove the cross or not. All the standard bearers removed the cross. It’s believed this is the origin of the popular flag of New England, which uses that layout with a pine tree in place of the St. George’s cross.

Williams’ zealotry never left him, and it remained a motivating factor years later. When Williams heard George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) had visited Portsmouth, in his late 60’s in the dark of night, he rowed from Providence to Aquidneck Island for the chance to debate the religious leader. He considered Quakers heretics.

That zealotry is on display in the name of Providence: in his view, it was through divine providence that Williams and his 12 friends came to settle this city.

Williams also occupies a complicated place within English-Native relations. Williams seems to have been a respected go-between, offering himself as a hostage on two occasions so Native leaders could appear before English courts. He attempted to avert war in the lead-up to King Philip’s War, but in the aftermath, he was perfectly willing to participate in the genocide carried out by his fellow English colonists. Chief among his sins was the selling of the defeated Wampanoag and Narragansetts into slavery.

Finally, Williams is really the individual who did the most to keep the colonies of Rhode Island together. Without him, it’s possible this state would’ve been given over to Massachusetts, divided between them, or else be two separate states.

Like many figures in Providence’s history, Williams occupies a place of both honor and ill-repute.


Early Colonial Providence

Williams and his followers first purchased an area that extended north to Pawtucket, and then west to the Seven Mile Line, a boundary set seven miles from Fox Point (today, it is the border of seven cities and towns in Rhode Island). By 1659, they purchased an adjacent plot of land to similarly creatively-named Twenty Mile Line (today, Rhode Island’s western border).

By then, the Town of Providence encompassed an area the same as modern Providence County minus any settlements east of the Blackstone and Seekonk. The initial politics of the town were largely democratic, with heads of households deciding to accept new residents by majority vote (they did not accept religious dissent Samuel Gorton, who left to the Pawtuxet settlement on Providence’s border, later founding Warwick). The majority of the settlement was happening in the area between Main Street and Benefit. Providence was a less appealing port than Newport, and so it played second fiddle to that town. Unlike Massachusetts’ colonial towns, Providence never formed a village green, and indeed, the town’s early civic center was a gristmill set up to provide the town with flour.

In 1675, the genocidal King Philip’s War was waged against the Native population of New England. While Williams had tried to prevent it (see the above giving himself as hostage), Rhode Island had little influence in inter-colonial politics, and virtually every building in Rhode Island was destroyed during the period, on both sides. Providence was no exception.

Providence began to transition to a seaport economy in the 1700’s, becoming part of the African slave trade (Native slaves not meeting the demand for forced labor) by processing molasses and sugar into rum for the brutal economy, leading to the development of a waterfront economy.

In 1731, Providence faced the first of its partitions: the town was quartered, with the southeastern portion remaining Providence and the other quarters becoming Scituate, Glocester, and Smithfield. About two decades later, Providence was further partitioned, with Cranston formed in its south from the old Pawtuxet area claims in 1754, Johnston formed in 1759 from the remainder west of the Woonasquatucket’s southern bend, and North Providence in 1765. This was the nadir of Providence’s size, though it only lasted for two years: in 1767, Providence re-annexed land on the modern East Side from North Providence, extending its northern border to modern Rochambeau Avenue. For the next 101 years, Providence would be a sort of backwards L, roughly containing only the neighborhoods of the modern West End, Federal Hill, Upper South Providence, Downtown, Fox Point, Mount Hope, College Hill, Wayland, and the northern tip and southern half of Elmwood and Blackstone respectively.

While other cities’ and towns’ partitions have often seen anywhere from half to 90% of the population disappear, Providence actually grew over the period of its partitions. From 1700 to 1774, the town quadrupled in size, to stand at about 4,300 residents (including 6 Native and 285 Black residents – though I’m not sure these were willing residents). By the start of the Revolutionary War, the population was beginning to shift, with a third of all households living west of the Moshassuck.

While still only half the size of Newport, Providence had retained its position as the administrative center. The legislature and courts were based at the Old State House (then called the Court House), the first building of Rhode Island College (now Brown University) was up, Market Square was a center of trade, and the First Baptist Meetinghouse had transformed into the monumental wonder we know today (capable of holding a third of the town’s residents). In 1773, the city built its first real municipal building: a two-story market house which contained merchants’ stalls on the first floor, and the town offices on the second floor (a couple of decades later, they added a third story for the state’s first Masonic Lodge).

And then the Revolutionary War broke out. While Providence leaders had been important in the lead up to the war, a lot of people in Providence got rich as privateers in the very early years of the war. However, the British occupation of Newport stopped Providence from providing a base for such expeditions, and nearly 130 ships from Providence were forced to base elsewhere. Providence residents also made money by manufacturing cannons and naval supplies.

The Rise of Providence

Newport’s disaster paved the way for Providence’s rise. With their major rivals largely destroyed or fled, Providence’s merchants now enjoyed commercial supremacy in the state. No longer enjoying preferential British tax treatment for rum, the slave trade ceased to be as profitable, and Providence turned to India and China for large profits. This required better port facilities, including one at where India Point Park is today (you see where the name comes from now).

The expansion of trade helped fuel the growth of finance in the town, and with finance came money for things like roads. The Turnpike Boom, so essential to the early history of many northern RI towns, connected Providence with communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Providence’s markets were vital to region, and put the town in a place of supremacy over its local rivals.

That wealth, derived initially from the inhuman slave trade, provided the backing for the American Industrial Revolution, with mills appearing in the villages of Manton, Olneyville, and Ruttenberg. The new mills focused primarily on cotton products. While the ability to profit directly from the slave trade was no longer feasible with the loss of preferential treatment by British authorities and increasingly unpopular at home, Providence’s leading businessmen now turned to the products produced by enslaved Africans and Black Americans, many either transported or descended from those transported by Rhode Island ships. This funded pro-slavery and anti-slavery white leaders alike.

Beyond textiles, Providence’s second major industry was silver and jewelry, powered by the invention of gold-plating, which allowed gilt products to be sold for cheaper than gold.

Providence experienced prodigious growth, making it the seventh largest community in the United States by 1810, but it still operated along the town meeting form of government established by Williams and his followers. It had organized its first public school system in 1800, it owed money on infrastructure improvements that were necessary, and it needed to fund poor relief. In short, the city finances were dire.

Racial tensions were also a problem. Black residents were about 10% of the population, and in two pogroms(this is the closest word I can think of to capture the incidents) white residents intentionally destroyed the Black neighborhoods (basically shantytowns) of Hard Scrabble and Snow Town. The latter, in 1831, engendered a commission to report on the causes, which primarily placed the blame on the Black residents and pushed for a stronger police force. In 1832, Providence incorporated with a strong police force and a council-mayor form of government (it was a bicameral council, with a lower City Council and an upper Board of Aldermen), and the City of Providence was born. By that point, the city was shifting its population across the Moshassuck to the west side neighborhoods (today’s West End, northern Elmwood, Federal Hill, Upper South Providence and Downtown).

The Industrial City

With the construction railroads in the antebellum period, the city began to develop its own industry. The application of the steam engine in factories allowed industry to be placed away from water sources, and Providence industrialized with three industries: textile manufacturing, mechanical manufacturing (making machinery for textile manufacturing) and jewelry (though this tended to be less industrialized until Gorham industrialized).

The growth of industry heralded a similar growth in population; by 1865, almost half of the city’s nearly 55,000 residents were foreign born or a child of immigrants. The vast majority of that were Irish.

The massive growth of the city, and the state’s population, led to calls for reform to the antiquated property requirements for suffrage in the 1840s, which most famously resulted in the Dorr Rebellion. The Dorrite headquarters were on Atwells, and the building still stands. Providence’s Black residents skillfully navigated this turmoil, using a campaign to force the issues of abolition and Black suffrage in both camps. Ultimately, they cast their lots in with the Freeholder side. Drawing on the example of the Rhode Island Regiment, Providence’s Black residents were among those who held the Providence arsenal against the Dorrites. Their service and agitation won them the right to vote in a statewide referendum.

Most Black residents didn’t share in the material benefits that Providence’s white residents were experiencing. As previously discussed in the Pawtucket entry, Rhode Island’s early industrialists purposely excluded Black people from working in industry. Thirty years after the destruction of Snow Town had precipitated the incorporation of the City, Black residents north of greatly reduced salt cove (now a circular basin simply called “the Cove” into which drained runoff from factories and railroads) were still living among the worst conditions in the city (other poor conditions were among those living near the Bleachery on the south side, the Irish neighborhood on Fox Point near the ports, and those unfortunate enough to live near the Blackstone Canal which doubled as an open sewer).

One of the longest-running controversies in the new Providence began in 1845: where to place the city hall. Even after taking over the floor on the market building reserved for the Masonic Lodge, they didn’t have enough space for the new government (they kicked the merchants out of the first floor in the early 1860s). The problem was that the City Council and Board of Alderman were evenly divided between the city’s west and east sides: three wards east of the Moshassuck, three wards west. This even number of seats (a bad idea for any legislature) meant a deadlock when it came to deciding which bank of the river to build city hall. It would take 29 years to break ground on the new city hall.

The Civil War was a bit of a boon for the City (once again, Providence turned to manufacturing weaponry), and in the aftermath, the city’s most constant shepherd was Mayor Thomas Doyle, who served three nonconsecutive periods between 1864 and his death in office from a stroke in 1886. Doyle, who ran a corruption-free administration, oversaw massive changes in the city (Doyle did things like raise taxes, use debt financing, and spend money). Among such changes: sewers, uniformed police, municipal water, a tripling of the population (not least because the City annexed the eastern part of Cranston in 1868 and the populous southern parts of North Providence in 1874). Doyle actually vetoed the decision to place City Hall at its present location; the veto seems to have united the council against him, they overrode the veto, and City Hall still stands at Dorrance today.

The Panic of 1873 temporarily caused a bit of trouble for the city, as the collapse of the Sprague concern in Cranston caused a small recession in the state (Doyle was married to Sprague’s sister). The city recovered by the end of the decade, and the city’s new products included machine tools, screws, silverware, and wool goods. The first automobile, a steam-powered car made by A.T. Cross (the maker of fine pens and pencils), appeared in Providence in 1898.

An Immigrant City

The postbellum period changed the ethnic makeup of the city. The city had previously had immigration either made up largely of British subjects: English, Scottish, Anglophone Canadians, and Irish. Afterwards, new groups arrived (or were annexed into the city): French Canadians, Swedes, Turks, Russian Jews, Germans, and Portuguese; but primarily, Italians. Black Americans were greatly reduced as a percentage of population, removed from Smith Hill and now mostly living in either the West End or Mount Hope.

Tomes could be (and have been) written about the immigrant experience in Providence, but two episodes demonstrate the discrimination new migrants faced. First, after the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants faced with western hostility came east. A small group (never more than a few hundred people) settled on Empire Street, which became known as Providence’s Chinatown. The Exclusion Act, a brutal piece of nativist legislation, essentially forbade the free immigration of Chinese nationals (many snuck through the southern border, leading to the creation of the US Border Patrol). The sole exception was for merchants; which led many Chinese immigrants to start restaurants and laundries as relatively easy-to-start qualifying businesses. The City demolished Chinatown in 1913 after two incidents: the first, in 1909, involved a white woman in New York City murdered by her jilted Chinese lover after she left him for another man; the ensuing racist panic among whites during the nationwide manhunt for the murderer led to numerous civil liberties being trampled and set the stage for cities to attack their Chinatowns. Providence prohibited Chinese restaurants from obscuring their interiors, and advised that Sunday school teachers of Chinese students not be attractive white women. In 1913, Providence Police raided Chinatown looking for illegal gambling and opium dens, seizing $12,000 dollars and arresting six men. This was enough for The Providence Journal to racistly mock the arrests, tar the whole Chinese community, and call for the destruction of Chinatown. The City obliged. Most Chinese left, while Chinatown reconstituted in an apartment block on Summer St., which also no longer exists.

The second episode occurred in 1914, in what’s derisively known as the Macaroni Riots. With the outbreak of World War I, there was a spike in food prices. This especially fell hard on Providence’s immigrant communities, most notably the Italian immigrants on Federal Hill who lived in overcrowded slum conditions. Both the Mayor and the Governor looked into the price increases, with the grocers and food retailers denying they were to blame. The Governor’s inspections concluded that there was no way merchants could have coordinated the price spikes.

These cursory investigations were not enough for the Italians, especially the Italian Socialist Club. There were also existing tensions between the Italian community and the police force (which was mostly Anglos and Irish). At a rally organized by the Socialists, a local retailer on Atwells was accused of purposely mislabeling domestic pasta as international in origin to gain the benefits of increased prices; his store was smashed up in retaliation after a Socialist rally the next week. Soon, more storefronts were being smashed. Police moved in. Stones were thrown, shots were fired. While the police managed to take control of the situation, tensions had not been calmed.

Things exploded again when police arrested a man on the street the following Sunday afternoon. While the man had a warrant based on failure to pay child support, onlookers thought he was being arrested for the previous night’s violence, and moved to defend him. Police opened fire on the crowd; people within the crowd fired back. 18 casualties were recorded, six of which were police; one was a fifteen-year-old boy shot in the chest. Others may have been injured, but sought at-home medical treatment in an effort to avoid the authorities. Heavy police presence after secured Atwells.

There was one final riot following another Socialist rally on Labor Day in Olneyville, but the riots stopped from that point on.

The World War that precipitated the rise in food prices also granted temporary reprieve to Providence’s textile industry, but the writing had been on the wall. The industrialization of the South meant Providence could not compete with cheap labor and cheaper transportation prices. Nativist immigration policy put in place in the 1920s also limited new arrivals. Providence would no longer experience the prodigious growth of the 19th Century, reaching its population high point in 1940 with about 253,000 residents. The final re-annexation occurred in 1919, when Providence received the Neutaconkanut Hill area from the King family, bringing Providence’s borders to their current place.

Providence’s Dark Age and its Renaissance

After World War II, Providence experienced a massive decline. From 1940 to 1980, the city lost 38% of its population. Part of this was industrial failure: most of the textile firms failed, and their employees plus the returning servicemen led to a postwar unemployment crisis in Rhode Island. Suburbanization also was a major blow to the city, as assimilated white groups were able to escape the crowded slums of Providence for the surrounding communities thanks to federal support.

In the 1950s, the new interstate highway system ripped apart the city, separating the West End, Elmwood, and South Providence from Downtown; physically ending whatever unity the old west side of Providence had remaining. Aerial photos of the construction is striking; blocks of houses ripped out and replaced with a massive highway. The continuity of the city remains utterly disrupted.

In 1946, the city established the Providence Redevelopment Agency to help with the decaying housing stock; which often meant destroying people’s homes. Between 1946 and 1976, nearly a quarter of the city fell under the control of the PRA, clearing 279 acres of land. 2,500 new units of housing, including those at University Heights and Wiggins Village, were built. Industrial parks off of Huntingdon Avenue and at Randall Square replaced old neighborhoods the PRA declared blighted. Most of the funds were provided by the federal government (anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters). The City also gave thought to demolishing City Hall.

New immigrant groups, notably Latin Americans, began arriving after the nativist immigration restrictions were relaxed in the 1960s. A new wave of Cabo Verdeans (who had been present since 1860s) arrived. In the aftermath of American intervention in Southeast Asia, Southeast Asians established themselves in the city. West African migrants also came to the city.

As far as I can tell, Providence had abolished the Board of Aldermen sometime after the 1930s, switching to a unicameral system (I know it downsized the City Council by stopping the practice of electing two councilors per ward in 1982, so it may have been as late as then). Mayoral elections had been dominated by a set of Irish Democrats since the 1940s. But demographic changes had left the Italians the strongest ethnic group in the city. Into this stepped Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. For a city reeling from a set of psychological blows, there’s no denying that Cianci was a psychological boost.

Cianci is a complex figure. There is little doubt, in my mind, that the city, in the long term, was worse off financially due to his arrival. Cianci’s corruption is well-documented, but to briefly mention it: he resigned the first time after using police to kidnap his ex-wife’s boyfriend and deliver the man to him to torture. He resigned the second after being convicted on racketeering charges stemming from a bribe paid to one of his employees that was clearly intended for him. Cianci also had a tendency to claim everything positive that happened in Providence, regardless of whether he had anything to do with it. The old line is that Cianci would show up to the opening of the envelope, but left unsaid is that he would somehow argue he was vital in getting that envelope opened in the first place. This leads to the misconception that Cianci is personally responsible for things like the uncovering of the Providence rivers or WaterFire that he merely just didn’t stop from happening.

That said, he was the finest cheerleader the city has had in the postwar era, possibly even ever. His desire to make Providence a “world-class city” seems to have been achieved, even if he accomplished it primarily through force of will (and thanks, in part, to his successors who didn’t commit crimes to accomplish their goals).

Cianci began an Italian-American dynasty that held the mayor’s office from 1975 to 2011, replacing the old Irish-Americans. In 2011, in a sign of the political strength newer immigrant groups from Latin America possess, the first Latino mayor, Dominican-American Angel Taveras, was elected. He was succeeded by Jorge Elorza, the city’s first Guatemalan-American mayor. The city is increasingly consumed by battles over workers’ pensions, many which were agreed to under Cianci’s administration and have often been neglected by the City. Once again, the city is facing a problem with debt; but now revenue-increasing measures are restrained by state law in a way the city hasn’t experienced before, and the ability to grow our way out of the problem is much more difficult.

Providence’s future is uncertain, but so it has been in its past. Were it not for the Revolutionary War, were it not for smuggled rum-fueled slave trading financing industrial innovation we might not speak of Providence in the same way. If we’re being honest, it’s extremely lucky Providence became what it is today, problems and all. It takes thousands of people, thousands of decisions, to make a grand city. It will take just as many to make it even grander.

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