Environmental Protection Agency Narragansett Bay Commission University of Rhode Island Office of Marine Programs

History and Culture

Colonial Farming, Trade, and Manufacturing

The fabric of economic life in Colonial Rhode Island was woven from three separate by dependent strands: Farming, trade, and manufacturing.

Farming began in 1635, when William Blackstone, an Anglican clergyman and the first white settler in Cumberland (then part of Massachusetts), planted a garden and apple trees. The area is now called Blackstone Valley.

The first settlers learned how to grow corns, beans, pumpkins, and squash from the Indians. Their crops were meager, but the soil was good and the climate moderate. European strains of fruit, grain, and livestock attained a solid footing by the turn of the century. In 1673, William Brenton of Aquidneck Island had more than 1,500 sheep. Rhode Island's "dirt farmers" produced wool, hides, cheese, potatoes, beef, and mutton in quantities sufficient for export. Today's fishing industry was begun by farmers who fished part-time.

Horse trading began with the introduction of the Narragansett Pacer by Rowland Robinson of Narragansett. Bred from Andalusian and native stock by South County plantation owners, the strong and finely grated Pacer rapidly became the favorite saddle horse of the colonies. It became extinct because of over-exportation by the time of the Revolutionary War.

A surplus of farm products led to the rise of a shipbuilding industry. A 150-ton ship was built in Providence as early as 1646. By the early 1700s, there were also shipyards in East Providence, Newport, Warren, Bristol, East Greenwich, and Warwick. By 1769, 500 to 600 ships were sailing from Newport. Whalers scoured the killing grounds of the Atlantic to provide wax for local manufacturers of spermaceti candles. The lucrative Triangular Trade with the West Indies and Africa carried rum, molasses, and slaves. A ship's frames, spars, and decking required vast amounts of wood; thus was born the lumber industry. A sawmill was built in Portsmouth by 1638. Lumber may have been the first export from these shores.

Limestone was quarried in Lime Rock. By 1648, it was being fired into lime in a Providence kiln, the first in the colonies. Other early industries included brick making, tanning, weaving, and the manufacture of salt and rope.

Coal was mined in Portsmouth, Valley Falls, Cumberland, Bristol, Cranston, and Providence. Hard to burn and with a high ash content, Rhode Island coal could not long compete with Pennsylvania anthracite.

In 1655, Joseph Jenks, Jr., built a forge in Pawtucket that turned out tools and household utensils. Massive ship anchors were produced at Potowomut, in Warwick, at a forge established between 1720 and 1730 by the Greene family. During the Revolution, the Hope Forge in Scituate cast about 3,000 cannon for state and Continental forces and for privateers. At George Washington's request, it produced a battery of eight guns, later used at the Battle of Yorktown.

Information is from Cruising Guide to Historic Rhode Island, published by The Marine Advisory Service, A Sea Grant Program, The University of Rhode Island, 1976.

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