The key to Roger Williams's survival was the fact that he was able to adapt to the world of Narragansett Bay, learning from the Narragansett Indians including how to speak their language, and how to see the world from their perspective. Earlier in his life, he mastered five languages: French, Dutch, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He even maintained a lengthy correspondence with the authorities who had banished him from Massachusetts.
How did Roger survive under extremely challenging circumstances? One reason is simple – other people helped him. And he helped himself, by understanding how to learn from others.
Roger was fortunate to attend school and university, but he showed a marked ability to learn outside the classroom as well. As a young man, his life changed when he met the great English lawyer Sir Edward Coke, then beginning his long quest to prove that the law of England was superior to the monarchy and that freedom of thought was an essential human right.
In America, Roger learned from those he worshiped with and even those he argued with; he retained a long and meaningful friendship with John Winthrop, governor of the colony that banished him.
But Roger’s gift for learning from others was especially valuable at what was the lowest moment of his career, his banishment into the forests of New England. Although we know few details, it seems likely that the Native Americans near Narragansett Bay were critical to his survival. They not only helped him to feed and warm himself during a punishing winter, they made it possible for him to occupy the land that he ultimately claimed for his new colony. All future Rhode Islanders benefited from the friendship that developed between Roger Williams and the Narragansett and Wampanoag. Without their willingness to provide Roger with land, food, and knowledge, his survival and contributions to history would not have been possible.
How did Roger develop these friendships? It began with a relatively open mind. Although Roger shared some of the fears and judgments of his time and place, he was always interested in other peoples. With his intellectual curiosity, his language skills, and his genuine regard for the indigenous way of life, he was naturally drawn to the original Americans, more than any Englishman of his generation. He defended their right to the land – one of the sources of friction that led to his banishment from Massachusetts. Even before his banishment, he was learning from the indigenous people, dating back to his early time at Plymouth. He likely knew that he was coming to Narragansett Bay even before he was banished.
Toward the end of his life, as relations disintegrated between the English and the indigenous people, Roger was deeply distressed by the struggle that became King Philip’s War. While he first tried to prevent the war, he then participated in it and the sale of captives afterwards into slavery. We can speculate that he was responding to his personal suffering in that conflict and the loss of his home and possessions.
Despite that episode and its enduring significance, it remains indisputable, as Roger wrote, that “Rhode Island was purchased by love.” The friendship between these very different peoples was essential to the founding of a place that was always going to be different and that derived strength from all of its inhabitants.