Name-Dropping in Rhode Island

Article excerpt

Familiarly known as the "Ocean State," Rhode Island's full official name includes "and Providence Plantations," words the state legislature has resolved to drop. Voters will have a chance to weigh in on November 2. In the meantime, the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society in Kingston has mounted an exhibit asking, "What's in a Name?" Running through November, the exhibit contains maps, documents, panel displays, and paintings that provide context and historical explanations for the original political, economical, and geographical designation of the former colony.

"Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" appeared on the charter granted by Charles Il in 1663. The settlements incorporated under the charter - Providence, Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick - were based on agriculture, hence the seemingly full extent of the meaning of "plantation" used at the time by planters around Narragansett Bay. In mid-seventeenth-century New England, the present-day connotation of "plantation" as a Southern estate wholly supported by the labor of enslaved Africans did not exist. The word's meaning was entwined with the idea of a settlement in a new region. Complicating matters, though, is the fact that black slaves were, indeed, present in Rhode Island by 1652, and by the end of the seventeenth century, they were used for both trade and labor. …