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Genealogical Research in Rhode Island

Genealogy Research Rhode Island

As one of the original thirteen colonies, there are many historical and genealogical records and resources available for tracing your family history in Rhode Island. Because there are so many records held at many different locations, tracking down the records for your ancestor can be an ominous task. Don’t worry though, we know just where they are, and we’ll show you which records you’ll need, while helping you to understand:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

These records can be found both online and off, so we’ll introduce you to online websites, indexes and databases, as well as brick-and-mortar repositories and other institutions that will help with your research in Rhode Island. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Ocean State” to illustrate what type of records may have been generated during specific time periods. That information will assist you in pinpointing times and locations on which to focus the search for your Rhode Island ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Rhode Island

The Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians inhabited the area when the first Europeans, an expedition led by Giovanni da Verrazano, explored Rhode Island in 1524. It wasn’t until 1636 that the first permanent settlement was established by English clergyman Roger Williams at Providence. The area was popular with those seeking freedom from religious persecution, and many other nonconformist groups established settlements at Portsmouth in 1638, Newport in 1639, and Warwick in 1642.

The four settlements were united into a single colony in 1644, until granted a royal charter by King Charles in 1663. The charter granted religious freedom, self government, and strengthened the territorial claims of the colony. The area became attractive to those seeking freedom from oppression, and many more nonconformists flocked to the area. The ensuing encroachments by white settlers on Native American lands led to and Indian uprising known as King Philip's War (1675–76). The Indians were soundly defeated, and the early part of the following century saw significant growth in agriculture and commerce, including the trading of slaves.

Because of its great degree of self-rule, Rhode Island had much to lose from British attempts at domination of the colonies after 1763. Consequently, in May of 1776, Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce British Rule. Having grown use to a large amount of independence, Rhode Island was hesitant to join the Union, and was the last state to do so, withholding ratification until May 29, 1790.

The 19th century saw urbanization, industrialization, and immigration increasing immensely. Rhode Island’s royal charter was still in effect at this time, and there was no procedure in place to amend it. Almost unlimited power was conferred on the legislature through the charter, and it gave disproportionate influence to the declining rural towns. Additionally, suffrage was restricted to estate owners and their eldest sons. This led to a group of political reformers known as the People’s Convention moving to bypass the state legislature. Though some resistance was given by a coalition of Whigs and Democrats, a new constitution was implemented in 1843.

  • Important Dates in Rhode Island History
    • 1636 – First settlement established at Providence
    • 1638 – Settlement founded at Portsmouth
    • 1639 – Settlement established at Newport
    • 1647 – Rhode Island Colony unites with Warwick colony
    • 1657 – First Quakers arrive in Rhode Island
    • 1685 – French Huguenot refugees settle in Rhode Island
    • 1747 – Towns of Tiverton, Warren, Little Compton, and Bristol annexed from Massachusetts
    • 1776 – First colony to renounce British rule
    • 1776 – British army occupies Newport
    • 1779 – British army driven from Newport
    • 1790 – Joins Union

Famous Battles Fought in Rhode Island

King Philip's War of 1675-1676 was the bloodiest conflict of 17th century New England. On a per capita basis, it was the bloodiest war in American history. During the Revolutionary War, the only conflict to take place in the state was the Battle of Rhode Island. No Civil War battles took place in the state, but Rhode Island Regiments played an important role in several major Civil War conflicts.

These battle accounts that exist can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men.

Common Rhode Island Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Rhode Island ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of Rhode Island.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

Rhode Island Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

Rhode Island Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.
    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – county records, census, manuscripts, historical newspapers, maps, photographs, Native American index, surname list, military name index

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

    • Kansas State University – manuscript collections, literary papers, diaries and journals, photographs, broadsides, maps, audio visual items, oral histories, and printed material.

      University Archives
      Farrell Library
      Manhattan, KS 66506
      Tel: (913) 532-7456

Additional Rhode Island Genealogical Resources

Rhode Island Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on Rhode Island genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Rhode Island Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Rhode Island Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the Rhode Island Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Rhode Island Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

  • Rhode Island newspapers and periodicals that you can search online or on-site.
    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – African American publications, Civilian Conservation Corps, Labour Populist publications, Socialist publications, Territorial period newspapers, History of Kansas newspapers from1916

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

    • Kansas Heritage Center – most of the newspapers published in Dodge City from 1876 to the present and newspapers from several other Kansas towns.

      PO Box 1207
      Dodge City KS 67801-1207
      Tel: 620-227-1616
      Fax: 620-227-1701

    • – free searchable database of Kansas newspaper archives, 1841-1981
    • Library of Congress Digital Newspaper Directory – free searchable database of historical U.S. newspapers dating from 1690-present
    • The Online Books Page – links to historical books and periodicals available for viewing online, dating from mid-16th century
    • – largest online database of historical newspapers in the world.

Historical Rhode Island Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research.

Rhode Island City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in Rhode Island is the Rhode Island Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available historical directory related to Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives. Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find Rhode Island vital records

Rhode Island began recording official records of births and deaths in 1911. Marriage licenses were required starting in 1867, but not filed at state level until 1913.

  • Copies of vital records after those dates must be requested from the:
    • Kansas Office of Vital Statistics

      Charles B. Curtis State Office Building
      1000 SW Jackson Street
      Suite 120
      Topeka, KS 66612-1221
      Tel: 785-296-1400.

    • Kansas Genealogical Society – various historical vital records

      KGS, PO Box 103
      Dodge City, KS 67801-0103
      Tel: (620) 225 - 1951

    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – extensive collection of vital records dating from pre-territorial times

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

Marriage and Divorce Records

Marriages prior to May 1913 were recorded in the district county courts where the marriage took place. Rhode Island marriage licenses did not include the names of the parents unless the bride or groom was underage. Records can be found at:

Divorce records from 1861 until July 1951 were recorded in the Rhode Island District Courts.

Copies of official divorce records after July 1951 can be ordered from the Rhode Island Office of Vital Statistics.

Census Reports

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

Rhode Island Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records.

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

Most of the records of individual denominations are kept in central repositories.

Rhode Island Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some time of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

Rhode Island Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for Rhode Island Cemetery records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Find a Grave – over 100 million grave records can be searched on this site. Search can be conducted by name, location, or cemetery name.
    • - A free online database containing approximately 4 million cemetery records from around the world.
    • Billion Graves – as the name implies, you can search a billion records including headstone photos, transcriptions, cemetery records, and grave locations.

Rhode Island Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors.

Most of these records must be accessed at a county court or clerk’s office, but some can be found online as well. You can obtain copies of the original probate records by writing to the county clerk.

Rhode Island probate records have been recorded by the probate division clerks of the Rhode Island District Courts and include dockets, wills, oaths, inventories, letters, bonds, appraisements, accounts, court orders, claims, and final settlements.

Rhode Island Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

Most overseas immigrants came to Rhode Island through east coast ports such as New, and then traveled by railway to Rhode Island. Earlier immigrants landed at New Orleans and then traveled by steamboats upriver to Rhode Island. The U.S. National Archives has passenger lists or indexes of American ports for 1820 to 1940, as well as immigration and naturalization records for the entire United States. These records can also be accessed at the National Archives Regional Branch in Rhode Island City

Rhode Island Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Rhode Island Ancestors

Looking for female ancestors requires an adjustment of how we view traditional records sources. A woman’s identity was often under that of her husband, and often individual records for them can be difficult to locate. The following resources are effective in locating female ancestors in Rhode Island where traditional records may not reveal them.


  • Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island, John D. Austin (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984)
  • From Working Daughters to Working Mothers: Immigrant Women in a New England Industrial Community, Louise Lamphere (Cornell University Press, 1987)
  • Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 1730-1830, Betty Ring (Rhode Island State Historical Society, 1983)

Selected Resources for Rhode Island Women’s History

Rhode Island Historical Society
John Brown House
52 Power Street
Providence, RI 02906
Tel: 401.273.7507

John Hay Library
Brown University
20 Prospect St.
Providence, RI 02912

Common Rhode Island Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Rhode Island and are also being currently researched by other genealogists. If you find your surname here, there is a chance that some research has already been performed on your ancestor.

Acker, Anna, Anusewski, Atwater, Babcock, Bailey, Ball, Barker, Barrett, Beckett, Belanger, Bennett, Bergeron, Bissonette, Bliss, Booth, Boswell, Bounty, Bradley, Breck, Brewin, Briggs, Brown, Bucket, Budnitz, C.Roc, Cadieux, Caldorado, Callie, Canady, Carlson, Caron, Castleton, Charbonneau, Charles, Chartier, Chase, Colwes, Cook, Couillard, Couillaud, Crawford, Cunningham, Curley, DeLaPorte, deMarcilly, Desel, Deslaurier, Deved, Diesel, Dorothea, Downs, Dragon, Dragoon, Duchesne, Dumas, Edwards, Eldred, Elizabeth, Emma, Favreau, Favreaux, Fell, Finlayson, Fisher, Francone, Frank, Gauthier, George, Gervais, Gonzalez, Gorton, Greta, Guild, Guntner, H.Pearse, Haden, Hadens, Haldane, Halstead, Hardy, Hartman, Harvey, Haskell, Hatswell, Henley, Herman, Hermann, Horton, Houle, House, Hurley, Hyland, J.Dolan, J.Morgan, Joudin, Judy, Karydis, Keesing, Kenney, Kyle, Labombard, LaFauci, Laforce, Lamson, Lantry, LaRoc, LaRocque, Larsen, Larson, L'Ecuyer, Ledoux, Lippincott, Loveday, Lowther, Lupton, Lyons, MacComb, Mahoney, Maillot, Maloney, Margaret, Marten, Martin, Mary, Matthews, Mayette, McNeil, Menzie, Mercier, Michelle, Mosher, Mundorf, Murray, Nansel, Nolan, Otten, Ouimet, P.T.Hatswell, Pain, Paine, Paine2, Perry, Pierce, Piligian, Powers, Primo, Provost, Prue, Quinn, Rcquebrune, Ream, Reed, Remington, Rendeau, Rice, Riley, Riviere, Roach, Rock, Rooney, Ryan, Sabourin, Sadlo, Sawyer, Seleurier, Sellers, Seward, Shackett, Shaw, Sheldon, Shepherd, Sherman, Sherwood, Signor, Silver, Simmons, Slocum, Smith, Soule, St.Georges, Steele, Sturdy, Sullivan, Sylvester, Taglierini, Terry, Thomas, Tyson, Vose, Wallace, Watson, White, Whiteside, Wilcox, Williams, Winslow, Wodjenski

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