The smallest state in the United States of America, if you’re talking in terms of land area, is Rhode Island.
On the other hand, if you want to know which state has the smallest population, then the answer is Wyoming.
It is worth remembering, however, that just as big things sometimes come in small packages, you can still have really small cities in huge states (and vice versa). For example, the most populous state in the USA is California, yet its smallest city in Vernon, which is a heavily industrial area and has a population of only around 100 people.
On the other hand, the smallest city in the smallest state is considerably bigger: New Shoreham, Rhode Island, has a population of just over 1,000. It also has excellent beaches and views of the Atlantic Ocean!
Yet, despite the state’s name, Rhode Island is not actually an island at all, but is connected to Connecticut and Massachusetts. However, it is roughly the same size as some small islands.
This is because the state’s land area only comes to around 1,000 square miles.
|State||Population||Land Area (km²)||Population Density (people per km²)|
|Rhode Island (RI)||1,059,361||2,678||396|
(The information in the table above comes from estimates made by the US Census Bureau for the year 2019. See here for RI and here for WY. The population density for each state was calculated simply by dividing the total number of people in the state by the number of square kilometers of land within the state’s boundaries, then rounding the figure to the nearest whole number.)
Table of Contents
Why is Rhode Island even called an island?
The name of the state was first given by the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who was one of the first Europeans to record his voyage to the Americas.
He was from the Italian city of Florence, which at that time was an independent republic, but he sailed to America under the orders of the King of France, who wanted to find a route to the Pacific Ocean and East Asia, where valuable commodities like spices could be sourced.
Without an effective sea route, it took many months to transport goods by land — passing through the hands of many different merchants and middlemen — on the ancient Silk Road.
Of course, no such route existed until the Panama Canal was built in 1914, allowing ships to sail through the narrow strip of land that separates North and South America. (The technical name for a narrow strip that connects two larger landmasses is an isthmus.)
In a letter to King Francis I of France, Verrazzano talks about being stranded in a violent storm.
It was then that his crew “discovered a triangular-shaped island”, which looked to be roughly similar in size and shape to the Greek island of Rhodes.
This was probably what is now called Aquidneck Island. The modern name comes from a Native American word of unknown meaning, but it became known at the time as Rhode Island (or the “Ilande of the Rodes”, as it is written in one document from the period), because of Verrazzano’s comment about its similarity to the more familiar Mediterranean island.
So that is why, even though most of the state is connected to the American mainland, the entire state has become known as Rhode Island.
How did Giovanni da Verrazzano die?
Verrazzano may have met his end in a particularly grizzly way. It was said — in a book written by his brother — that he was eaten by a tribe of cannibals.
This story may not be true, however, because it feeds into dramatic notions of Native Americans as vicious and bloodthirsty. While violence — and even cannibalism — was a real part of indigenous societies, stories like that also played to the prejudices of Europeans.
In fact, Verrazzano may have been hanged by the Spanish for engaging in piracy. There are records telling us that a man, who happened to have a different name, was executed at roughly the same time at Puerto del Pico in the center of Spain, and this could have been Verrazzano using a nickname to hide his identity.
Soldiers and pirates have long adopted a nomme de guerre, which translates from French as a “war name”. In fact, this practice was first fully adopted in the French army, which is why the phrase remains in that language.
Yet there have been cases where it seems less unlikely that an explorer actually could have been cannibalized by a group of tribespeople. In 1961, Michael Rockefeller — a member of the famous banking dynasty — was killed in a remote region of Indonesia, which borders Papua New Guinea.
Some people have said that he could have been captured by hostile members of the Asmat tribe, who live in the region and are known to have a long history of practicing cannibalism.
The short film below shows contemporary footage that documents the search for Michael Rockefeller, whose body ultimately was never found:
Comparing the size of the smallest states
If you want to put Rhode Island’s size in perspective, just consider that you could fit the small state around 2,500 times into the entire landmass of the United States.
On the other hand, you’d only need the population of just over 500 Wyomings in order to end up with roughly as many people as currently live in the USA as a whole.
The largest state in the USA is Alaska. It is also one of the most recent to be added to the Union, since it became a full state only in 1959, along with Hawaii.
It’s amazing to think that it would be possible to cram the small state of Rhode Island almost 650 times into the huge ice-covered mass of Alaska.
What about proposed states?
Washington D.C. — known officially as the District of Columbia — is not a state in its own right, but if it were, it would be the smallest by far.
Some people want D.C. to gain statehood, because they think it’s unfair that people living in the region do not have a Member of Congress to represent their interests.
After all, one of the most important events in American history, the Boston Tea Party, took place because the colonists felt that they didn’t have enough say over how the far-away parliament in Britain ran their affairs: “No taxation without representation” was the slogan they used.
President Biden has stated that his administration would like to make Washington D.C. the 51st state, but it may not come to fruition: Republicans see the move as an attempt to secure more votes in a Democratic stronghold.
On the west coast of the USA, there have also been proposals for a new state (or even an independent nation), but this one would take its land from other states that already exist.
The proposed state of Cascadia would be made up of large parts of Washington and Oregon, while also including most of the Canadian province of British Columbia. Activists say that it would produce a greater sense of connectedness in the Pacific Northwest.
It would not be a small state. In fact, it would be even larger than California, its southern neighbor.
There is currently little political support for Cascadia to gain its independence, however, which makes it a much more remote prospect than that of Washington D.C.
It all depends what you’re measuring when you talk about smallness, but, as you saw above, Rhode Island and Wyoming are usually considered the smallest states in America.
However, those aren’t the only ones. If you considered the USA’s smallest state to be the one with the fewest miles of public roads, then — using this data — you’d have to count Hawaii as the smallest.
The answer that you end up with always depends on exactly what question you’re asking in the first place, so think carefully about what you mean by the words that you’re using.
You should also remember that the size of a state doesn’t necessarily make it any more, or less, important. Big isn’t always best: small can be beautiful.