Native American


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.

Ted Widmer, Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Brown University

In 1643, Roger Williams published his first and best book, A Key into the Language of America.  Unlike the long religious arguments that characterized most of his later writings, this study was written with his feet planted squarely on the earth.  Thanks to the Key, that earth soon became “Rhode Island,” an official place. 

On the surface, the Key was a grammar of sorts, explaining familiar phrases spoken by Narragansett Indians.  But more than that, it offered a fascinating window into the daily encounters between the very different peoples now living next to each other by Narragansett Bay.  The underlying assumption of The Key– that natives mattered – sounded an unusual note in early American history, and set a precedent for the celebration of diversity that we now take for granted.  As Williams discovered, the best way to get at the basic truths of America was to talk with the original Americans themselves.   

Williams was proud of his talent for languages, and he worked hard to master the Native dialects after his arrival in Plymouth.  One of the many reasons he was banished from Massachusetts Bay in 1635 was his advocacy for the Natives.  He believed that their land should not be taken from them, and they ought to be treated with respect and due process.   An early manuscript he wrote on Anglo-Indian relations no longer exists, but contributed to his banishment. 

From the time of his arrival in the place he named “Providence,” Williams pondered the natives deeply, both as a practical necessity (they helped him to survive) but also because they appealed to his natural interest in language and the human condition.  He spent more time with them, perhaps, than any other Englishman of the first generation.  Like most anthropologists, he reveled in the difficulty of his task:   

“My souls desire was to do the natives good, and to that end to have their language, which I afterwards printed … God was pleased to give me a painful Patient spirit to lodge with them, in their filthy smoke holes (even while I lived at Plymouth and Salem) to gain their tongue.” 

But he seems to have loved those smoke holes at the same time, and forged genuine, lifelong attachments to the natives who offered him a path out of the wilderness.  Throughout his long life he was an honest broker with them – a claim that is difficult to make about most of the original settlers. 

A Key into the Language of America was published only seven years after his ordeal of banishment, and in some ways seems to have proceeded from it.  If nothing else, it made tangible how much he had learned in a short time.  Over 32 chapters and 205 pages, Williams poured out everything he knew about the Narragansetts.  The chapters follow a certain organic logic – the book begins with salutations, then moves to eating, entertainment and sleep, then covers a wide range of daily topics before ending with sickness, death and burial.  It is as much a study of culture as of language, and he interpolates his observations in between lists of vocabulary words and furtive little poems.  Like most first-time authors, he diminished his efforts, saying that he had written it during his sea voyage to England (“I drew the materals in a rude lumpe at sea”).   But it is clear that a great deal of effort went into the Key, and many years of hard experience.  

Williams began with an inquiry into the origins of the natives, a matter of debate in Europe, where some savants thought that they might be related to ancient races like the Greeks or the Jews.  As he meditated on where they had come from, he lapsed into the naturalistic language that pervades his entire narrative. 

“whence they came into those pars (sic), it seemes as hard to finde, as to finde the wellhead of some fresh Streame, which running many miles out of the Countrey to the salt Ocean, hath met with many mixing Streames by the way.  They say themselves, that they have sprung and growne up in that very place, like the very trees of the wildernesse.”

From that happy starting point, we learn everything we could possibly want to know about the Natives – the way they eat, the way they clothe themselves, the way they court, and the way that they interact with the natural world enveloping them – a world just then beginning to recede before the onslaught of civilization.  A nostalgic tone pervades the Key, as if the act of “discovering” America had somehow ruined it as well.  Through Williams, we learn of the natives’ extraordinary physical grace and hardihood (they seem not to feel the cold, and can walk hundreds of miles with tiny amounts of food).  He observes further that they avoid the extremes of gluttony and drunkenness to which the English often fall victim.  We learn that there are many different types of aborigines; just as there are different kinds of English, some “sober and grave,” other “Rude and Clownish.”  There are complicated inter-Indian relationships (the Narragansetts fear the “Tree-Eaters,” a neighboring tribe who occasionally ate men when they ran out of bark).  They love celebrations, and family gathering, and games (including a form of football).  In a word, they are human. 

As he wrote about the natives, Williams also inevitably passed judgment on his own kind.  Without quite calling attention to the fact, much of the Key is a protest against the shabby treatment that the natives had been receiving from the English.  Another book from 1643, about Massachusetts, entitled New Englands First Fruits; painted the Indians as utterly devoid of “civility” and at an “infinite distance from Christianity.”  Williams went very far in the opposite direction.  He admired all of the aspects of their civilization, including the fact that it was a civilization.  He praised their religion, an elaborate belief system premised on living in harmony with natural surroundings (native children could name many of the stars).  He praised their communitarian government.  And he praised their innate sense of ethics, and the kindness to strangers that he had experienced first-hand. 

To a striking degree, Williams also found the business-like qualities that Englishmen prided in themselves.  The Narragansetts liked to hear the news, they kept their promises, they kept their appointments with him, and they understood very well the concept of property.  As Williams wrote, “the Natives are very exact and punctuall, in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People.”  This completely refuted the argument, advanced by most of the others, that America was a gigantic empty space that all Europeans were free to expand into as they saw fit.  This humanistic argument culminated with a profound point, at odds with what most of Christendom was saying at the time:  “Nature knowes no difference between Europe and Americans in blood, birth, bodies, &c. God having of one blood made all mankind.” 

Other political arguments are hidden like barbs inside these seemingly innocent grammatical phrases.  In subtle ways, the Key is a feminist book.  In numerous places, Williams expresses his admiration for the courage and physical strength of native women, who work as hard or harder than the men, and never complain under any circumstances, including childbirth.  It also pulses with egalitarianism, as when a seemingly innocent meditation on the fur trade takes a perverse delight in inverting the idea of luxury:  “What treasures are hid in some parts of America, and in our New English parts, how have foule hands (in smoakie houses) the first handling of those Furres which are after worne upon the hands of Queens and heads of Princes?”

From a linguist’s perspective, the book is infinitely rich as well.  There are texts within texts, poems reflecting on what has just been said, winking asides to the reader, and what seem to be encoded suggestions within the vocabulary lists.  In other words, it is a reader’s delight, offering tantalizing paths through a wilderness that was as linguistic as it was physical.  

Recent research into the Key suggests another legacy as well.  It is very possible that the state of Rhode Island would not exist if Williams had not written this book. At the time he drove it through the press, in the summer of 1643, Williams was in London fighting desperately for official recognition of the colony he was trying to found – a colony that was in jeopardy because of new encroachments by Massachusetts and Connecticut, each eager to claim the desirable place he had found (and by so doing, suppress the freeform experiment he had launched).  The Key’s appearance delighted the crucial powers in London charged with regulating colonial affairs, and led directly a patent legitimizing the Providence Plantations once and for all.  This patent was a ringing victory for Williams in his fight to keep Massachusetts at bay, but it was even more.  The new patent contained no rules for religious worship, and set a crucial precedent for toleration, amplified again in 1663 when Rhode Island received a royal charter (again, with help from Williams), and amplified one more time in 1791 when the first amendment was added to the Constitution. 

The Key was printed by a Londoner named Gregory Dexter, who migrated to Providence a year later.  All in all, it was very much a Rhode Island production.  In fact, one could argue that the book created the place as much as the place created the book.  By proclaiming that Indians were as legitimate as Europeans, Williams had ensured that Rhode Island would be as legitimate as Massachusetts – a claim that would have seemed outlandish only a year earlier.  One of the phrases in the Providence patent still resonates.  Explaining why they had granted him his colony, Parliament praised Williams for creating a “neerer neighborhood” with the other people he was living among.  To create a nearer neighborhood remains a worthy aspiration. 

Williams never expected his little grammar to offer a final statement, of course.  He wrote, “a little key may open a Box, where lies a bunch of keys.”  But it was a most important beginning, all the same.  As he encountered it, the language of America turned out to be the language of Americans – Native Americans.  They had voices, and words, and it turned out to be quite possible to hear them.  Indeed, we can still hear them, thanks to the excellence of Williams’s translations.  Perhaps is fitting to close with his words, and those of the Narragansetts he enjoyed a lifelong conversation with, presented exactly as they appeared in the Key

Kunnúnni                              Have you seene me?

Kunnúnnous                          I have seene you


Jonathan Beecher Field, “A Key for the Gate:  Roger Williams, Parliament and Providence,” New England Quarterly LXXX, no. 3 (September 2007), 353-382

Edwin Gaustad, Roger Williams (New York, 2005).

The Correspondence of Roger Williams (ed., Glenn LaFantasie; Hanover, NH, 1988)

Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (ed. Howard M. Chapin; Providence, 1936)

Ted Widmer, Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Brown University

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)

Archeology Bibliography from RI Historical Preservation Commission

Ted Widmer, Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Brown University

We think of Roger Williams as a defender of freedom – especially when it came to “soul liberty,” the essential freedom to worship God in one’s own way. He also defended the freedom of others, allowing people he disagreed with (for example, Quakers) to live in Rhode Island without any of the restrictions they faced in Massachusetts. Then there were all the simple daily freedoms he promoted – he permitted anyone to cross the lands claimed by Rhode Island, and he generally supported the rights of all peoples to live in the way that they chose. He was far closer to the Native peoples of New England than any of the leaders of the neighboring colonies. He traveled with them, lived among them, and offered the hospitality of his home to them whenever they came through Providence.

But Roger was also a man of his time, and in the 17th century, slavery was widely practiced around the world. Slavery was not then what it became later – a highly-regulated system of labor, supported by the full might of the state, that kept vast numbers of people, especially people of African descent, in a permanent state of bondage. But slavery was beginning to become those things, and Roger was present as Rhode Island began its path toward slave-trading.  Sometimes he was personally involved. 

In the 17th century, slavery was a common form of punishment for fighting on the wrong side of a war. Many Native captives were enslaved this way. There were many local wars, between different Natives, or between Natives and the English and their allies. After each of them, the winning side, including the English and their Native allies, would decide what to do with the captives. 

This was in keeping with both Native and English practice. Natives routinely kept prisoners of war, including women and children of the defeated, whom they would integrate into their tribes after a conflict had ended. The English, too, had experience with forms of slavery. Some of the earliest English explorers had experienced long forms of servitude – John Smith, one of the founders of Virginia, was a prisoner of war in Turkey for years. 

But as Natives were sent further and further away – to Barbados, in the Caribbean – it became highly unlikely that they could return to their homes, as John Smith did. Slavery became harsher, and it contributed to the decimation of the Native Americans. It also helped to launch the African slave trade, because Native trades were often traded for Africans in the Caribbean.    

During his long life, Roger displayed several different attitudes toward slavery. When trying to define his idea of freedom, he might use the language of slavery. For example, in 1654, in a letter to Providence, describing his vision for Rhode Island, he wrote that he wanted “to keep up the name of a people, a free people, not enslaved to the bondages and iron yokes of the great.”

Roger never wrote a long statement about slavery, but as a young man, he seemed to disapprove. After the Pequot War, he urged his friend John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts, not to enslave Native captives for a long time. In one letter, from July 31, 1637, Roger asked that John Winthrop rethink the policy of “perpetuall slaverie,” and instead “set free” the Pequot captives who had just lost a war to the English and the Narragansett.

Roger also supported a Rhode Island law passed in 1652 that limited the time a person might be enslaved to ten years and specifically tried to prevent the enslavement of Africans.

But during the time of King Philip’s War, forty years later, Roger was not so forgiving. There is growing evidence that Natives fought King Philip’s War because they were angry over slavery, in addition to their unhappiness that their land was disappearing. But the English, including Roger, were also upset, especially as the war touched close to home. All of his efforts to avoid the war had failed; his house had been burned to the ground, along with many others in Providence, and most of his belongings were destroyed. After the Wampanoag and Narragansett had been defeated  by the English, there were many captives, and in August 1676, Roger led a group of Providence citizens who arranged their sale into slavery, and he received a portion of the proceeds (RIHS “Twelve Bushels of Corn” curriculum). A majority of these captives were enslaved locally, but about a quarter of them were sent to the West Indies, where they had little chance of survival.

In the years that followed, Rhode Island showed a mixed record on slavery. Rhode Islanders would propose limits to slavery at several moments – in 1652, 1676 (just before the enslavement of the captives), in 1784, and again in 1843. But Rhode Island sea captains were very active in the slave trade that began to bring Africans in large numbers to America (after Roger’s time), and slavery existed here in Rhode Island, as well. The first African slaves brought to Rhode Island arrived in 1696, when a Boston ship, the Seaflower, brought 47 slaves from Africa and sold 14 in Newport. In the 18th century, a thriving slave society grew in “the Narragansett Country” – a part of what is today South County.     

By the time of the Civil War, Rhode Islanders were nearly unanimous is opposing slavery, but Rhode Island businesses traded extensively with the South, and many local mills depended on cotton that came from the slave south.  

Even into the 20th and 21st centuries, we have seen how many obstacles there are to building a world of diversity and equality for all. For a long time, this painful history was hidden from view, but it has become an important topic for the next generation of historians. Rhode Islanders can never be too vigilant in seeking answers to these difficult questions.      


Colin Calloway, After King Philip’s War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England

Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle;  Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807

Linford Fisher, “Why Should Wee Have Peace to Bee Made Slaves:  Indian Surrenderers During and After King Philip’s War” (forthcoming in Ethnohistory)

Lorenzo J. Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England

“Indian Slaves of King Philip’s War,” Rhode Island Historical Society Publications 1 (1893-1894), 234-238

Arline Ruth Kiven, Then Why the Negroes: The Nature and Course of the Anti-Slavery Movement in Rhode Island, 1637-1861

Glenn LaFantaisie, editor, The Correspondence of Roger Williams

Glenn LaFantaisie and Paul Campbell, “Scattered to the Winds of Heaven:  Narragansett Indians, 1676-1880,” Rhode Island History (August 1978)

J. Stanley Lemons, “Rhode Island and the Slave Trade,” Rhode Island History (Fall 2002)

Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860

Joanne Pope Melish, “Rhode Island Slavery and its Legacies,” in The Freedom Talks: Reflections from Rhode Island Scholars

William Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England

John Sainsbury, “Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island,” New England Quarterly (September 1975)

Slavery and Justice Report (2006) 

Wendy Warren, New England Bound:  Slavery and Colonization in Early America

Ted Widmer, Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Brown University

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