With help from the Narragansetts, Roger Williams became skillful at living in his unfamiliar new environment. He studied the land and water around Narragansett Bay and used traditional places like waterfalls and large rocks to mark off the boundaries of his settlement. From the Narragansetts, he also learned fishing and farming techniques and their strategies of wise land use.
To survive his banishment, Roger needed to learn from the land, the water, and the Native Americans who had lived in this place for thousands of years. When he was sent into the woods in January 1636, it was the coldest time of the year. For a bookish young man from London, it must have been terrifying to make his way through a wilderness populated by wolves and bears. There were no easy places to find food or to sleep, and he could only go as far as his feet would carry him. But he survived, thanks to his ability to adapt to new surroundings.
Roger had probably come to Narragansett Bay earlier, when he lived at Plymouth, and spent time with the Wampanoag people. That early training would have helped him to know how to find food in the woods. To know nature well was essential to survival. He probably took shelter with the Wampanoag people, and there is a tradition that he lived in a cave near Swansea called Margaret’s Rock. Then, when he came to live in his first settlement, on the eastern shore of the Seekonk River, he planted crops to help feed his tiny community. When he resettled later in 1636, he built a house near a spring of fresh water, near the site of the Roger Williams Memorial.
Nature never stopped teaching Roger. Through his many dealings with the Natives, he learned to see the land and water as they did, and he put many of the words they used into his first book, A Key into the Language of America. To a hungry Englishman, it was important to know words like Sickìssuog (clams) or Ewáchim-neash (corn). A knowledge of the land was also important for making boundaries, and the earliest definitions of the settlement included rivers and even large rocks in the woods.
As it turned out, Roger had found a beautiful place to settle. Narragansett Bay was a welcoming body of water, protected from the ocean, and full of fish and shellfish to eat. It was already known to earlier explorers. More than a hundred years earlier, in 1524, the first European, an Italian explorer named Verrazano, had visited this region and mapped it. Other explorers had put Narragansett Bay on their maps. One Englishman, William Blackstone, had come to live here, but he was a hermit, and the last thing he wanted to do was to found a colony. Roger was different; he had found a place that was natural for the kind of community he wanted to start.
Why? Providence was a pretty place, at the confluence of several rivers, by a Great Salt Cove, at the head of Narragansett Bay. The Bay was full of islands, large and small, which supported the natural independence of the people who followed Roger here, seeking to escape the central authority of Boston. Islands were also useful in another way; they were perfect for keeping flocks of sheep who could not run away. Rhode Island’s many coves and inlets would later help provide privacy to those who wanted to avoid scrutiny from tax collectors and other government officials, including pirates, Sons of Liberty, and slave-traders.
Over time, it was clear that Roger had been fortunate in being banished to such a desirable location. Unfortunately, that secret was soon known around New England, and for most of his life, Roger had to work to keep Massachusetts and Connecticut from taking over the small area he and his fellow settlers had developed into a colony. Reflecting these struggles, Rhode Island’s boundaries have been adjusted over and over again, for centuries.
In addition to his home at Providence, Roger spent much time at his trading post near the present site of Wickford. That suggests that this former city boy had grown comfortable in the wilderness, as a place to think, worship, and simply to enjoy nature. It is fitting that his main monument today is a natural environment of its own, Roger Williams Park, filled with living trees, flowers, plants, and even a zoo.