Immigration

Narragansett meeting with Roger Williams
Narragansett meeting with Roger Williams
The story of the Blackstone Valley is the story of people at work. People have come to the Blackstone Valley from every corner of the world, and each has added their voice, sweat, and genius.

The earliest residents of the Blackstone Valley were the Paleo-Indians. By the early 17th century, three principal tribes lived here: the Narragansett, the Nipmuc, and the Wampanoag. They followed a semi-nomadic life. In the summer they moved inland, planting fields of corn, beans, and squash. In the winter they moved to the coast, depending on fishing and hunting.



The earliest Europeans who visited the Blackstone Valley came to hunt and explore. The Reverend William Blackstone was the first European settler in the Blackstone Valley in 1635. In 1636, Roger Williams and a small band of followers established Providence, a settlement based on religious freedom and liberty of conscience. Over the following decades, more colonists came and built small farms and villages that dotted the Blackstone Valley’s landscape.

King Phillip’s War (1675-1676) shattered the Native Americans’ hold on the region. This opened the Blackstone Valley to further manipulation at the hands of the early settlers. Soon grist mills, sawmills, and iron forges were common sites in the Valley.

 
Men digging canal with shovels
Sketch of canal diggers
The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution meant that the Blackstone Valley needed many mill workers. At first, most mill workers came from the Blackstone Valley or nearby towns. These individuals transferred from farm to factory life. This ensured a steady income. Within a few decades, local labor sources did not match the mills’ demands. The first group to answer the call for laborers was the Irish. Early Irish immigrants constructed the Blackstone Canal. These canal diggers were professionals at their craft. They built canals in England, Ireland, and many worked on the Erie Canal in New York. While Irish immigrants were subject to prejudices for their Catholic faith, by the mid-19th century, they became the major work force in the Blackstone Valley.
 
Brick mill with Blackstone River in foreground
Brick Mill, Blackstone River
By the mid-19th century, many mill owners replaced waterpower with steam power. Steam power meant larger mills could be built, and these new mills did not have to be along the river. Particularly during the American Civil War, mill agents traveled north to Quebec to recruit French Canadian mill workers. Many Quebecois viewed this offer as a short-term opportunity. They would earn some needed cash and then return to farm life. While travel back to Canada was common, many decided to stay in the Blackstone Valley.

Quebecois communities were tight knit, and attempted to preserve their faith, language, and culture. French Canadians dominated certain towns in the Valley. This was particularly true in Woonsocket which evolved effectively into a French speaking community.

 
Chart outlining the population statistics in the Blackstone Valley from 1790 to 1860
The Population of Rhode Island 1790 - 1860
Around the turn of the twentieth century, a new wave of immigrants arrived in the Blackstone Valley. This time they came from Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Poland and Ukraine. Lack of farmland in their native homes was a major incentive to emigrate. These groups sought new opportunity in this Blackstone Valley. Most remained localized in certain communities, attempting to maintain their culture while assimilating to America.

Though the massive waves of immigrants seen in the days of the textile boom are gone, people continue to arrive in the Blackstone Valley. Today’s immigrants arrive from Central and South America and Southeast Asia. They face some of the same struggles and barriers that earlier immigrants had to overcome. They too enrich the culture of the Blackstone Valley.

 

Last updated: July 17, 2021

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