The first visit by Europeans to the bay was probably in the early 16th century. At the time, the area around the bay was inhabited by two different and distinct groups of natives: the Narragansetts occupied the west side of the bay, and the Wampanoag lived on the east side, occupying the land east to Cape Cod.
It is accepted by most historians that first contact by Europeans was made by Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer who entered the bay in his ship La Dauphine in 1524 after visiting New York Bay. Verrazzano called the bay Refugio, the "Refuge". The bay has several entrances, however, and the exact route of his voyage and the location where he laid anchor is still a subject of dispute among historians, leading to a corresponding uncertainty over which tribe made contact with him. Verrazzano reported that he found clearings and open forests suitable for travel "even by a large army," a far cry from the impenetrable tangle that resulted when the English suppressed controlled burns in the seventeenth century.
Later, in 1614, the bay was explored and mapped by the Dutch navigator Adriaen Block, after whom nearby Block Island is named. The first recorded European settlement was in the 1630s. Roger Williams, a dissatisfied member of the Plymouth Colony, moved into the area around the year 1636. He made contact with the Narragansett sachem called Canonicus by the Europeans, and set up a trading post on the site of Providence. At the same time, the Dutch had established a trading post approximately 12 miles (20 km) to the southwest which was under the authority of New Amsterdam in New York Bay.
In 1643, Williams traveled to England and was granted a charter for the new colony of Rhode Island. He also wrote a dictionary of the Narragansett language, Keys to the Indian Language, which was published in England that same year.
The Gaspée Affair, an important naval event of the American Revolution, occurred in 1772 in the bay; it involved the capture of the HMS Gaspee, a British ship. The American victory contributed to the eventual start of the war at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts three years later. The event is celebrated in Warwick as the Gaspee Days Celebration in June, which event includes a symbolic recreation of the burning of the ship.
Captain James Cook's HMS Endeavour is believed to have been scuttled in the bay, as part of a blockade by the British, whose occupation of Newport was threatened by a fleet carrying French soldiers in support of the Continental Army.
Roger Williams and other early colonists named many of the islands in the bay. To remember the names, colonial school children often recited the poem: "Patience, Prudence, Hope and Despair. And the little Hog over there."