The Narragansetts were one of the leading tribes of New England, controlling the west of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island and portions of Connecticut and eastern Massachusetts, from the Providence River on the northeast to the Pawcatuck River on the southwest. The first European contact was in 1524 when explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano visited Narragansett Bay.

Between 1616 and 1619, infectious diseases killed thousands of Algonquians in coastal areas south of Rhode Island. The Narragansetts were the most powerful tribe in the southern area of the region when the English colonists arrived in 1620, and they had not been affected by the epidemics. Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoags allied with the colonists at Plymouth Colony as a way to protect the Wampanoags from Narragansett attacks. In the fall of 1621, the Narragansetts sent a sheaf of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin to Plymouth Colony as a threatening challenge, but Plymouth governor William Bradford sent the snakeskin back filled with gunpowder and bullets. The Narragansetts understood the message and did not attack them.

European settlement in the Narragansett territory did not begin until 1635; in 1636, Roger Williams acquired land from Narragansett sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi and established Providence Plantations. The tribe was nearly landless for most of the 20th century, but it worked to gain federal recognition and attained it in 1983. It is officially the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island and is made up of descendants of tribal members who were identified in an 1880 treaty with the state.