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Roger Williams founded the first permanent white settlement in Rhode Island at Providence in 1636 on land purchased from the Narragansett Indians. Forced to flee Massachusetts because of persecution, Williams established a policy of religious and political freedom in his new settlement. Other leaders advocating freedom of worship soon established similar communities on either side of Narragansett Bay. These communities united, and in 1663 King Charles II of England granted them a royal charter, providing for a greater degree of self-government than any other colony in the New World and authorizing the continuation of freedom of religion.

Farming and sea trading became profitable businesses. Providence and Newport were among the busiest ports in the New World. Despite making profits from the slave trade, Rhode Island was the first colony to prohibit the importation of slaves.

At the start of the Revolutionary War, Rhode Islanders were among the first colonists to take action against British rule by attacking British vessels. On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce allegiance to Great Britain and declare independence. Although no major battles took place in the state, Rhode Island regiments participated in every major campaign of the war. Rhode Island's independent spirit was still in evidence at the close of the Revolutionary War. It was the last of the 13 original colonies to ratify the U.S. Constitution, demanding that the Bill of Rights, which guarantees individual liberties, be added.

Following the Revolution, industrial growth began in Rhode Island. In 1793, Samuel Slater's mill in Pawtucket became America's first successful water-powered cotton mill. From this success, the Industrial Revolution in America began. As industrialization increased, Rhode Island's cities expanded with immigration. New citizens looking for job opportunities came from a score of countries, mainly Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, and French Canada. Over the years, as these workers became assimilated into Rhode Island's industrial structure, a tradition of manufacturing skill and excellence developed that is still an important asset for the state's economy.

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