Who were the indigenous people of Rhode Island? There were several major tribes, related but distinct. Each was part of the Algonguin family and had been in these parts for many thousands of years. Their languages were related, and they could understand each other. In addition to spoken languages, many indigenous peoples could communicate through a sophisticated understanding of sign language. Scholars have not always agreed on how to count them, but estimates usually suggest that about 100,000 indigenous people were living in New England as the English began to settle here.
On the eastern side of Narragansett Bay were the Wampanoag (a branch based around Bristol were also called the Pokanoket). The domains stretched from the Bay to Plymouth, Cape Cod, and the islands, and at the time of Roger’s arrival, they were governed by a mighty sachem called Massasoit or Ousamequin. Roger had spent time with them during his stay at Plymouth between 1631 and 1633.
They were a proud people but had lost huge numbers to disease in the years immediately preceding the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620, and they were trying to defend their historic territories from rival tribes as well as from the English. It is possible that Roger Williams was allowed to purchase the land that became Providence because it was a contested property, claimed by both the Narragansett and Wampanoag.
To the west of the Bay were the Narragansett, a strong people not as badly devastated by the illness that had wiped out the Wampanoag to the east. The Narragansett sachems Canonicus and Miantanomo were critical to Roger’s success in establishing himself in Providence, and their friendship was important to him in many ways. His book about them, A Key into the Language of America remains the indispensable source, centuries later. He lived among them, and every page of the book displays respect for their society. He admired their physical hardihood, their internal self-government, and their tolerance of others, including, one imagines, of him. In many ways, their successful society seemed to be a model for the kind of new community he wanted to create. Their sachems commanded respect for their moral authority as much as their royal lineage. Female sachems were occasionally in command as well. Their rate of crime was low in comparison to the English. Their society worked communally, much as Roger wanted Rhode Island to work. As he wrote, “When a field is to be broken up, they have a very loving sociable speedy way to dispatch it: All the neighbours men and Women forty, fifty, a hundred &c. joyne, and come in to help freely.” He added, ““nothing is more hateful to them than a churlish disposition.”
Roger must have thought to himself, if only Rhode Island were that simple! His book is full of asides that the indigenous people offered a more genuine form of hospitality than those “that call themselves Christians.” He also quoted the Bible to argue that God made “one blood” of all mankind, and that Nature knew “no difference” between these different peoples.
In many other ways, the indigenous peoples displayed respect for others. Roger’s book is full of admiration for a civil people in what was becoming an uncivil time, in Old England as well as New England. They exchanged gifts, they respected boundaries, they arrived at meetings on time. They improved the land and cleared out forests. They played games and sports. They created art. They made tools from stone and wood. They worked out an exchange system, using wampum made from seashells. They had a remarkable knowledge of nature; understanding the medicinal properties of plants. Though many English used words like “Savage” and “Barbarian,” and on occasion Roger did as well, his book pointed out all the ways in which this society was just as sophisticated as the English one, and sometimes more so. They farmed and fished to get their food. They lived in real communities, the villages that they moved between. They built sturdy lodges to sleep in. They studied the heavens and had their own names for the stars. They had elaborate belief systems and stories of where they came from, as rich as the religions and traditions of Europe and Asia. They considered themselves a part of the natural world and explained to him “that they have sprung and growne up in that very place, like the very trees of the Wildernesse.” As Roger summarized, “the most high and Sovereign Creator hath not made them inferior to Europeans.”
As it turned out, Roger’s friendship with the indigenous peoples was as important for Massachusetts and Connecticut as it was for Rhode Island. Through his patient diplomacy, he helped avert bloodshed on many occasions. One of the remarkable features of his life is how much he did to help the colony that had just banished him, sending back faithful reports on indigenous activity to John Winthrop. It can also be said that he helped his new neighbors, explaining to them the ways of the English, and refusing to convert them to his religion against their wishes. If one wants to find the origin of Rhode Island’s singular attachment to freedom of conscience, one doesn’t have to look much further than the mutual respect that Roger Williams and the indigenous peoples showed each other in 1636.
Study Roger’s A Key into the Language of America and speak Narragansett phrases
Look at a selection of indigenous “signatures” on early documents; ask your students to create a signature of their own and to sign an agreement with it
Using a 1926 guide to Native American sign language, ask your students to learn a few signals and have a “conversation”
Learn the medicinal qualities of trees and plants within Rhode Island [Howard S. Russell, Indian New England Before the Mayflower, appendix 1 (209-215), gives medicinal properties of plants – I can provide photocopy]
Make and eat food from indigenous recipes. Which modern foods come from them? [see Howard S. Russell, table of “Modern Foods Inherited from the Indians,” 73 – I can provide photocopy]
Ethel Boissevain, The Narragansett People (Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1975)
Kathleen J. Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650 (Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996)
Howard M. Chapin, Sachems of the Narragansetts (Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1931)
Robert A. Geake, A History of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island: Keepers of the Bay (Charleston SC: History Press, 2011)
Christopher L. Pastore, Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)
Sidney Smith Rider, The Lands of Rhode Island as They were Known to Canonicus and Miantunnomu (Providence, 1901)
Howard S. Russell, Indian New England Before the Mayflower (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1980)
William S. Simmons, The Narragansett (New York: Chelsea House, 1989)
William S. Simmons, Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986)