Ethnic Groups of Rhode Island
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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
As part of the “Triangular Slave Trade” with the South and the Caribbean, Rhode Island’s economy was heavily reliant on slave trade. However, slavery waned in acceptance during the Revolutionary War. Despite the slave trade, Rhode Island had one of the first anti-slavery laws. Records of African Americans as both slaves and free citizens exist in abundance in Rhode Island, integrated in all varieties of public records. The Rhode Island State Archives has numerous collections that document the role of African-American soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Not much has been published, however. The Rhode Island Historical Society, in its large collection of manuscript material, has many records on African Americans.
Rhode Island’s native population sold their land to the outcasts from Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies to create the earliest settlements in the state. The early manuscript holdings in the Rhode Island State Archives contain information on Narragansetts and their descendants, who managed to stay in the state long after the demise, through either death or slavery after King Philip’s War, of most other tribes in New England. “Indian” is a term found often in all categories of records for the state. As with African American slaves, natives often took the names of their owners or those to whom they were indentured, making it critical to follow white families of the same surnames. For excellent historical background, see Sydney S. Rider, The Lands of Rhode Island as they were Known to Canonicus and Miantunnomu (Providence, R.I.: the author, 1904).
Other Ethnic Groups
French, Jewish, and Portuguese communities have existed in the state from an early time. For Jewish research, Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society, 130 Sessions St., Providence, RI 02906 offers annual state and local meetings and projects. It publishes Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes with a query column.
The early French were Huguenots soon integrated into Rhode Island’s population. The American-French Genealogical Society, P.O. Box 830, Woonsocket, RI 02861 is primarily concerned with French-Canadians who came for work in the nineteenth-century mills. Membership is open to French-Canadian or French researchers, but inquiries regarding the society’s library are answered by mail for a per surname fee. The society provides Je Me Souviens with membership. See also Albert K. Aubin, The French in Rhode Island (Pawtucket, R.I.: American French Genealogical Society, 1981).