Anyone growing up in Rhode Island probably feels that he or she has seen Roger Williams on many occasions.
You can see him standing over the city, at Prospect Park.
Or in Roger Williams Park, near the Betsey Williams Cottage:
[Source: National Park Service]
Or in the Providence City Seal, which is visible throughout the city, on police cars and in city offices:
[Source: City of Providence]
If you go to Washington DC, you might see him in the U.S. Capitol, as one of Rhode Island’s two statues.
[Source: Architect of the Capitol]
The only problem with all these images is that they are entirely imaginary! We have no idea what Roger Williams looked like. If he was ever depicted in his lifetime, we have no record of it. All of the statues, paintings and drawings of Roger Williams, ever since, have been completely made up.
Over the years, this has led to some confusion.
Roger has often been shown this way, as an intense young man, with lean features:
[Source: Providence City Archives]
But on other occasions, Roger has been shown this way, as a more middle-aged figure, with more substance:
Sometimes an artist has even felt bold enough to add a moustache:
What are we to make of all these different versions of Roger Williams? Which one is the most accurate?
Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing.
But we do have one clue, which unfortunately goes against the prevailing assumption of nearly all of these portraits. Roger Williams is almost always given long hair in his statues and portraits. But he once expressed himself quite vigorously on the subject of hair, and denounced long hair! In A Key into the Language of America, he wrote of the Native Americans that they kept their hair cut at a reasonable length. He praised them for refusing to let it grow “in such excessive length and monstrous fashion, as to the shame of the English Nation, I now (with griefe) see my Countrey-men in England are degenerated unto.”
That does not sound like someone who liked long hair.
So we should be careful not to judge too quickly. Simply because most of the statues have long hair does not mean that Roger Williams actually looked that way. Today, Rhode Island has people from all around the world, with many different kinds of features. Perhaps not knowing what Roger looked like is a blessing, because we can imagine him any way we want him to be. History can provide many answers, but not all of them, and this is a case where … we simply don’t know!
What do you think Roger Williams looked like?
Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (ed. Howard Chapin, Providence: The Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Tercentenary Committee, 1936), 49