Cumberland was originally settled as part of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, which was purchased from the local Native Americans by the Plymouth Colony. It was later transferred to Rhode Island as part of a long-running boundary dispute. The town was named in honor of Prince William, Duke of Cumberland.
William Blackstone (also spelled William Blaxton in colonial times) was the first European to settle and live in Cumberland. (He was also the first European to have settled in Boston, but left when he and the newly arrived Puritans disagreed about religion.) He preached his brand of tolerant Christianity under an oak tree that became an inspiration to Christians worldwide. He lived on a farm in the Lonsdale area of Cumberland, where he cultivated the first variety of American apples, the Yellow Sweeting. The site of his home is now occupied by the Ann & Hope mill.
The popular tourist destination "Nine Men's Misery" is a tomb found on the grounds of a former Trappist monastery (Abbey of Our Lady of the Valley), part of which was destroyed in a fire in 1950. The Trappists sold the monastery and grounds to the town and part of the building was converted into the Edward J. Hayden Library, aka Cumberland Public Library in 1976. This combined three smaller libraries into one.
Cumberland was the site of iron works that made cannons and cannonballs for the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Additionally, Cumberland (along with the neighboring towns of Central Falls, RI, Lincoln, RI, and Attleboro, Massachusetts) was the home of the Valley Falls Company, which is the original antecedent of Berkshire Hathaway, now one of the world's largest and most successful companies.
A machine shop in Cumberland made the first power looms for woolens in America. These were reportedly used at the Capron Mill in Uxbridge, around 1820, that burned in a recent spectacular Bernat Mill fire.
Cumberland is home to the headquarters and original location of the Ann & Hope chain of discount stores which claims to be the first chain of discount department stores in America founded in 1955.
Cumberland is in the lower Blackstone Valley of Rhode Island and in the John H. Chafee, Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, New England's historic National Park area.