Geography Facts: Rhode Island

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Rhode Island, located in the New England region of the United States, is the smallest state by area. The total area of Rhode Island is 1,214 square miles (3,144 square kilometers), of which 1,055 square miles (2,707 kilometers) is land.

Rhode Island measures about 37 miles east-west, and about 48 miles north-south.

Rhode Island was the 13th state admitted to the United States on May 29, 1790. Rhode Island was the last of the original U.S. colonies to be admitted to the union.

Where is Rhode Island Located?

Rhode Island is located along the East Coast of the United States. Rhode Island shares land borders with two states:  Connecticut to the west, Massachusetts to the north and east. Rhode Island shares a small maritime border with New York.


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Map showing the general location of Rhode Island.
Map showing the location of Rhode Island. Map: Caitlin Dempsey using NaturalEarth data.

Where Does Rhode Island Get Its Name From?

Rhode Island was named by Dutch explorer Adriaen Block who called the area “een rodlich Eylande” in 17th-century Dutch, which means “a red island”. The phrase means Red Island is believed by historians to have been named after the red clay or red leaves that lined the shore of Aquidneck Island.

Aquidneck Island was officially renamed in 1644: “Aquethneck shall be henceforth called the Isle of Rodes or Rhode-Island.”

If Rhode Island Isn’t an Island, Why Does it Have Island in the Name?

The renaming of Aquidneck Island to Rhode Island is why the state has “island” in the name. Up until 2020, the official full name was “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Rhode Island in the official name referred to the island of Aquidneck and the Providence Plantations was the area of Rhode Island that is part of mainland U.S.

In 2020, state officials formerly changed the official name to the State of Rhode Island.

1829 map of Rhode Island.
1829 map of Rhode Island. Aquidneck Island is labeled as “Rhode Island” on this map by Anthony Finley. Map: Library of Congress.

Rhode Island Nickname

Rhode Island’s nickname is the “Ocean State”. The small state has 400 miles (640 kilometers) of coastline facing the Atlantic Ocean. Large bays and inlets also make up 14% of the state (169 sq miles (438 kilometers)).

All residents of Rhode Island live within a 30-minute drive to the Atlantic Ocean or Narragansett Bay.

Satellite imagery of the state of Rhode Island.
Landsat satellite imagery of the state of Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Only Has Five Counties

Rhode Island, along with Hawaii, are the two states with the second fewest counties in the United States. Delaware, with three counties, has the fewest.

Rhode Island has five counties:

  • Bristol County
  • Kent County
  • Newport County
  • Providence County
  • Washington County (include Block Island located off the shore of mainland Rhode Island)
Map of Rhode Island labeling the five counties. Rhode Island is shaded a light yellow and the neighboring states are a light gray. The ocean is a medium blue.
Map showing the five counties in Rhode Island. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

Blackstone River

Flowing through Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Blackstone River has been around for roughly 10,000 years.

The river’s original Native American name was “Kittacuck,” which means “big tidal river.” The river’s present-day name originates from William Blackstone (originally William Blaxton) who landed in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1623 and in 1625 became the first European immigrant to settled in what became Boston. Blackstone then resettled in Rhode Island in 1635, making his home along the river.

The geography of the river and the valley it is located in gave rise to the American Industrial Revolution. An English immigrant by the name of Samuel Slater developed the first successful water powered cotton-spinning factory in the United States along the Blackstone River.

Cultural Geography Trivia About Rhode Island

The oldest Baptist church in the United States is the  First Baptist Church of Providence. The church was founded by the English-born Puritan minister, Roger Williams, in 1638.

The oldest synagogue is Tuoro Synagogue still standing is in Newport. The synagogue was built in 1759 for the Jeshuat Israel congregation.

White Horse Tavern was opened in 1673 in Newport and claims to be the oldest restaurant in the United States.

The Flying Horse Carousel in Watch Hill is the oldest carousel in continuous operation in the United States. The carousel starting offering rides in 1876.

References

Staples, H.B. (1882). “Origins of the Names of the State of the Union”Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Volume 1. p. 367.

Blackstone river Valley national heritage corridor–american Latino heritage: A discover our shared heritage travel itinerary. (n.d.). NPS.gov (U.S. National Park Service). https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/american_latino_heritage/blackstone_river_valley_national_heritage_corridor.html

The Industrial Revolution – The big story – Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. (2021, January 18). Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. https://blackstoneheritagecorridor.org/learning/history-of-the-valley/the-industrial-revolution-the-big-story/

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.