Before European colonization, the Narragansett and Nipmuck tribes are believed to have used the area. The first English settlers arrived during the 17th Century and established communities that became known for their farms, sawmills, and gristmills. Most of the original forest was cleared for agriculture or to provide wood or charcoal for the growing population.

During the Industrial Revolution, the availability of water power from the many streams led to the establishment of small mill villages. In the early 20th Century, the path of this rural area changed when the City of Providence established a new water supply system with the north branch of the Pawtuxet River and its watershed as the source. The City used eminent domain to acquire nearly 15,000 acres of land and the creation of the reservoir system was one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken in Rhode Island. The lands around the water supply have been managed since the beginning, starting with the planting of seven million tree seedlings along the reservoir shorelines and in old fields. Artifacts of historical land use such as stone walls, cellar holes, mill foundations, and water power infrastructure are still evident on the property today.