by Michael Bell

Establishing our position in the world order.


The Burning of the Gaspee is re-enacted every year during Gaspee Days in Pawtuxet Village.

Rhode Islanders know that their state occupies a special place in the folklore of the rest of America. Ranches in Texas are characterized as larger than the state of Rhode Island, an oil slick in Alaska covers more area than Rhode Island, and icebergs are twice the size of Rhode Island. Indeed, Rhode Island is such a commonplace index of size that a teacher in this state has suggested that a classroom unit on measurement be titled, "An Inch, a Mile, Rhode Island!"

Yet Rhode Islanders have their own folklore about their state that does not always center around its size. Much of Rhode Island mythology concerns being first, last, or almost. Well known firsts range from being the premiere independent republic in the colonies (established in 1663 by charter from King Charles II) to firing the first shot in the American Revolution (when the Gaspee was burned in June of 1772).

Rhode Islanders led the Industrial Revolution [in the United States] with the establishment of Slater's mill in Pawtucket in 1790. (Never mind that Samuel Slater smuggled the specifications for his mill out of England!) As a result of this revolution, the mills in adjacent Central Falls converted this small city into the most densely populated 1.27 square miles in the country. In a state noted for smallness, there are some big statistics: in 1866, a 210-pound halibut was taken off Block Island, and in 1881, a 72-pound striper was caught off Beaver Tail.

The country's first shopping mall was built in Providence in 1828, and the Arcade is still in business. Rhode Island was the first colony to organize a Black regiment (1778), the site of the first America's Cup race, and the first state with a mandatory recycling program. Brown University's football team played in the first Rose Bowl in 1916, the first of the bowl games. Until the recently completed River Project, the widest bridge in the country was located in Providence.

Lesser known firsts include the abolition of capital punishment—a direct result of the hanging of a man convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence for the murder of Amasa Sprague of Cranston in 1843. The first felt hats made in America came from the mill of Cyrus French at Kingston in 1805, and nearby Peace Dale is credited with operating the first power loom five years earlier.

Some of Rhode Island's lasts are equally interesting. Although we were the first to declare independence from Great Britain (exactly two months before the Declaration of Independence), we were also last to sign, and thus ratify, the Constitution.

The same reluctance to give up control over their destiny also prompted Rhode Islanders to resist ratifying the 18th amendment. Both branches of Rhode Island's legislature voted down prohibition in 1919 and, in fact, appropriated $25,000 to prove that the amendment itself was unconstitutional. While the state lost this battle in Washington, it won on the home front, as Rhode Island remained wide open and wet, in practice if not in statute.

Rhode Island's almosts began when Roger Williams (who established the first Baptist church in America in Providence) first set foot in Rhode Island on a spot that is almost Providence (being in East Providence, actually) and was almost Massachusetts (and, in fact, was once part of both Rehoboth and Seekonk, Massachusetts). While some historians assert that the first free public-supported school in America was established in Newport in 1640, the fact is that students had to pay a small fee, making it almost free.

Rhode Island was almost the terminus for a transcontinental railroad, a distinction that was thwarted when the project's creator, Charles Hays, went down with the Titanic. And Samuel Ward, Rhode Island's representative to, and Chairman of, the Second Continental Congress, almost signed the Declaration of Independence. Shortly after writing to his daughter from Philadelphia that, "I am not like to get time to be inoculated and there is very little of the Small Pox now in this city," Samuel Ward died of smallpox.

Ed Anthony, eccentric and legendary bodyguard of General Burnside, and longtime commander of the Bristol Fourth of July parade (the oldest continuous Independence Day parade in the country), almost got married. According to local lore, he had vowed to collect thirty things before he died, the last to be a wife. Unfortunately, the twenty-ninth item on his list was a hen's tooth.

First, last, or almost, the essential fact is that, as small as Rhode Island is, it is never commonplace or inconsequential.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. This article originally appeared in the April 1994 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author.

More folklore from Michael Bell...

This article last edited April 21, 2004

© 1999–2017 Quahog.org (with the exception of elements provided by contributors, as noted).