Rhode Island has the double distinction of being both the smallest territory of any US state and having the longest name. The official name of the state is Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. And despite the name, most of what territory Rhode Island does have is on the mainland.
The origin of the name of the state is the result of bad map reading. Italian explorer Giovanni di Verrazano was the first European to chart this portion of the coast in 1524. He was the first to sight the island now called Block Island as well, which he described as being about the size of the island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean. Verrazano named the island Luisa, after Louise of Savoy, the Queen Mother of France.
In 1614, Dutch explorer Adriaen Block recharted the island and named it Roodt Eylandt, or red island. Subsequently, the island was renamed after the Dutch explorer. It’s not certain if he knew of Verrazano’s earlier description or if he was simply describing the island’s red clay shoreline.
Roger Williams, banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious beliefs, founded Providence in 1636. When Anne Hutchinson also fled the Plymouth colony the following year, she and others settled on Aquidneck Island, off the coast of Providence. In 1644, the colonists began calling Aquidneck Rhode Island, in the mistaken belief that this was the island charted by Verrazano and Block. In 1663, Britain formally granted a charter for the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.1
1Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, edited by Philip Babcock Gove (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1993), 1948;
Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names, edited by Kelsie B. Harder (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976), 456.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton