A tiny state of just about 1,500 square miles, Rhode Island contains about 400 miles of shoreline, including inlets, rivers, estuaries, and bays. Nearly every inch of the state lies within 20 miles of the ocean or Narragansett Bay, which begins at the northern end of the state, first as the Seekonk River and then the Providence River, and a large chunk of the state is on the islands of Aquidneck, Conanicut, Prudence, Block, and a few others. And while Rhode Island has a very high population density, the state actually feels fairly rural and undeveloped in many places.

Castle Hill Lighthouse at dusk.

Castle Hill Lighthouse, Newport, Rhode Island. Photo © enfi/iStock.

The region has no particular history linking it to the Greek island of Rhodes, and it is quite clearly not an island.Despite the nearly constant proximity of water frontage, Rhode Island has a distinct inland region whose personality is much like that of the rest of interior southern New England. The southern end of the state, however, from Napatree Point in the extreme southwest to Point Judith to the east, is one long and scenic expanse of beautiful golden sand, punctuated only by the occasional inlet. Directly behind these beaches are long and deep salt ponds, created by occasional breaks in the beach that allowed saltwater to pour in and that have then been sealed by shifting sands. These salt ponds are sheltered havens for wildlife watching, water sports, and fishing.

At Point Judith, the endless string of beaches gives way to the mouth of enormous Narragansett Bay. Beaches extend, off and on, up the western shore of the bay nearly to Providence. A little more than a mile across Narragansett Bay lies the long and narrow Conanicut Island and, another mile east of that, the considerably larger Aquidneck Island. About 10 miles due south of Point Judith, well away from the mainland, lies the summer resort community of Block Island. And another couple of miles east of Aquidneck is the final bit of Rhode Island’s oceanfront, Sakonnet. Another five miles east and you’re in Massachusetts.

The thin swath of land fringing the ocean from Napatree Point clear up around Narragansett Bay to Providence is characterized by its low elevation and sandy soil. The East Bay and Sakonnet areas are slightly higher in elevation and are composed mostly of sandstone and other rock that hasn’t eroded to nearly the degree that the low coastal plain has through the eons. Most of Rhode Island, however, is characterized by rolling terrain with peaks rising occasionally to 700 or 800 feet—not terribly high compared with northern New England or even the highest points in nearby northeastern Connecticut and central Massachusetts. But compared with other small states that fringe the Eastern Seaboard—New Jersey and Delaware, for example—Rhode Island is relatively hilly and offers a nice balance for anybody who loves to admire both the ocean and the hilly countryside.

The Name Game

The genesis of how and why Rhode Island acquired its official name—technically known as Rhode Island and Providence Plantations—has never been definitively nailed down. The region has no particular history linking it to the Greek island of Rhodes, and it is quite clearly not an island. So how did it come to be known as Rhode Island?

The history of the name is a jumble of vague associations and mistaken identities, but it’s believed that the name Rhode was first used to describe Block Island by 16th-century Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who wrote that it reminded him of the Greek island. In the next century, sailors passing by another small Narragansett Bay island, today known as Aquidneck, mistook it for the island Verrazano had identified, and started calling it Rhode Island. Later, as Providence developed, the entire region became known as Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Confused? No doubt the state’s residents were too, which may be why they later shortened the state’s name to simply Rhode Island. Legally, however, it remains Rhode Island and Providence Plantations—the longest name in all the United States, ironically held by its smallest state.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.