Roger Williams will always be linked to the city he founded, and many of the statues and memorials built to remember him are in Providence. But he is also the founder of a state, and fittingly, he visited many other places in Rhode Island during his long life, including the East Bay, Prudence Island (which he purchased), and Newport.
One place was especially meaningful to him, and he went there over and over again. It may be the best place of all to experience Roger Williams, and to see the world through his eyes. Secluded and quiet, it was nothing like Providence. Ironically, its distance from his crowded home town may have been the reason he was drawn to it.
Where was this un-Providence? On the West Bay, above Wickford, there is charming cove, with an uninhabited island, and a protected spot for a home site. “Cocumscussoc,” as it was called in Roger’s day, still feels much as it did back then, with migratory birds enjoying a respite from the more crowded waters of Narragansett Bay, and a quality of calm that must have appealed to Roger when he needed to escape the sharp opinions of his fellow Rhode Islanders.
The word “Cocumscussoc” is a mouthful. One historian (Rider) spelled it Cawcawmsqussick. Try spelling that for your teacher! According to another historian, Carl R. Woodward, it means “marshy meadows” – fitting, since a small stream, now called Stony Brook, flows into the cove here. (Woodward also gives another possible meaning – “the place of the marked rock.”)
A very old house stands nearby, facing the cove. “Smith’s Castle,” as it is known, is a roomy wooden structure, dating from the 17th century. Though very old (circa 1678), it is not the first house on the site. An early settler, Richard Smith, built an even earlier house – and Roger almost certainly lived here before he did.
We do not know when he first came here, but it was early in the Rhode Island story. One biographer, Ola Elizabeth Winslow, speculates that he may have come before his banishment, when he was newly arrived in America, living at Plymouth, and getting to know the Native Americans of the region. She believes that the trading post was laid out by the sachem of the Narragansett, Canonicus. If true, that would explain why it meant so much to Roger; because Canonicus had personally selected it for him. Famously, Roger later explained that “Rhode Island was purchased by love.”
Anyone who visits today can see why this was such an attractive location. The protected cove was safe from Narragansett Bay, with its rougher weather. The presence of small creeks offered a good supply of fresh water, and would have helped with growing a garden. It was accessible by land or water from Providence.
After Roger established Providence in 1636, he began to visit Cocumscussoc with more regularity. He met with his Native American friends here, and began to conduct business, exchanging goods. Historians still call it “the trading post,” although it is not entirely clear what kind of structure Roger occupied here. Was it a house? Or a kind of simple structure with room for goods to sell? Or perhaps a structure more familiar to the Narragansett, a longhouse or a smaller wigwam? Roger rowed a Narragansett canoe; might he also have built a Narragansett home for himself, in the heart of the Narragansett lands? The third chapter of his Key into the Language of America is all about “sleep and lodging;” it reflects a deep familiarity with the Narragansett home (Wêtu), and how to find comfort within.
Not long after, another Englishman came to the same spot, and built a more substantial house. Richard Smith was a settler of Taunton, then a part of the Plymouth Colony, and now part of Massachusetts (though easy to reach by water from Narragansett Bay). According to Roger, Smith’s house was “the first English house” in the Narragansett Country, which was another way of referring loosely to the area that is now South County. The house was so large, it was called a castle – Smith’s Castle. We do not know exactly how these two properties related to each other. According to Howard M. Chapin, “it seems probable that the Williams trading house and the Smith trading house were on adjoining tracts of land northeast of Cocumcussoc Brook and northeast of Wickford Harbor.”
We can assume that Roger’s trading post was not as large as Smith’s Castle. It would not be in Roger’s nature to even use a word like “castle.” But Cocumscussoc was a very important place for the infant colony. Here a great deal of diplomacy happened, in addition to commerce. The Narragansett came to spend time with Roger and discuss recent developments, in much the way that old-fashioned shop owners still like to exchange gossip with customers. They also were able to purchase English items of great utility, particularly those made of metal: pans, knives, pots, shovels, needles, and other tools.
The English, on the other hand, could purchase food and clothing made from animal skins, helpful in the cold winters that they were struggling to survive. They also could send valuable items (like beaver fur) back to England, to make a profit. The Narragansett were skilled at catching beaver, otter and muskrat, deep in the interior, and this was a lively trade that brought benefits to each side. One historian called Cocumscussoc the ancient “mart of trade” of the Narragansett, as if it were an early version of the Ocean State Job Lot. It was far simpler than that; but on the days that the Narragansett came to visit, it must have felt busy.
Through these commercial interactions, the various peoples living alongside Narragansett Bay deepened their trust of each other. The trading post was a kind of neutral zone for free trade, not unlike the Duty-Free section of an airport today, where people could spend a little time shopping before returning to their homes. Roger may have been a man of God, but he was evidently a good businessman as well, and that too helped Rhode Island. We should not forget that he had grown up in a busy part of London, the son of a “merchant tailor,” and he brought that knowledge, with everything else, to Narragansett Bay.
It is also important to give the Narragansett their due. They were skilled at business too, and throughout A Key into the Language of America, Roger comments with admiration on their commercial intelligence, with chapters on trade, on coins, on debts, and many sections that involve mathematical counting. Throughout the northeast, the Narragansett were known for their skill at making wampum – money – out of seashells. The fact that Roger was allowed to conduct so much business at his trading post was a tribute to them as well as to him.
If we look carefully, we can also see a third people at Cocumscussoc, barely visible in the margins of the story, but there all the same. The Dutch living in New Amsterdam – today’s New York – were frequent visitors as well. New Amsterdam was not so distant. Roger’s neighbor, Richard Smith, had lived there; his daughter married the son of a Dutchman named Lodowick Op Dyck, later Anglicized to Updike. The Dutch were known for their commercial instincts, and would have enjoyed the lively trading post. In A Key into the Language of America, Roger mentions that he had seen the Narragansett use a Dutch trumpet to send alarms to each other. In 1643, when he sailed to England to begin his long legal battle to defend Rhode Island, he did so in a Dutch vessel (for the obvious reason that he was banned in Boston). In this way, too, the trading post was vital to Rhode Island’s success.
There was another way in which this remote location served Roger Williams well. To go into the woods helped him to clear his head enough to write. Many of his letters were composed here. In all likelihood, his books were as well. A Key into the Language of America often reads as if it were written deep in the woods. Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health has many of the same qualities. Roger claimed it was written “among the naked Indians of America.”
In short, Cocumscussoc was one of the most important places in America to him. Here he could clear his thoughts, express himself, and renew his friendship with the Narragansett – particularly with his cherished friend, Canonicus. Two hundred years before Henry David Thoreau went into the woods to write Walden; Roger Williams had already blazed a similar path.
But it was more than just Nature that drew him here. Can we not speculate that there was a higher appeal as well? Nearly everything in Roger’s life revolved around his never-ending quest for spiritual fulfillment. Might he not have experienced God here more directly than in the crowded and argumentative place he had named – almost blasphemously – after Providence?
Whatever his motives, Roger came often to Cocumscussoc in the 1640s. Glenn LaFantaisie believes that he lived here for many months of the year. Far from the real estate squabbles that defined Rhode Island, as much as its higher aspirations for “soul liberty,” Roger could protect what he called his “beloved Privacie.” His love of privacy was noticed by others as well; in his history of New England, Cotton Mather wrote that he “was by the people sometimes chosen governour: but for the most part he led a more private life.”
Like all vacations, Roger’s time at Cocumscussoc had to come to an end. In 1651, he sold his property to Richard Smith, who then became the sole Lord of Smith’s Castle. We do not know all of the reasons for Roger’s departure, but he needed to return to England for another effort to defend Rhode Island. Also, his closest friends among the Narragansett had died; Canonicus in 1647, and Miantonomo in 1643. Other problems were surfacing as well. It was becoming more difficult for the Narragansett to find enough animal furs to satisfy the English. A rising traffic in guns also threatened the friendly relations that had characterized the first generation. In 1656, Roger noted that that “the Indians have been filled with artillery and ammunition from the Dutch…and from the English by stealth.”
When war finally came, almost two decades later, it was swift and brutal. King Philip’s War destroyed all of the friendships Roger had worked so hard to build.
It must have been especially painful to see so many English troops use Cocumscussoc as a staging area for their invasion of the Narragansett Country. In December 1675, a thousand soldiers came here from Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Connecticut, before massacring the main Narragansett encampment, twelve miles away, in the Great Swamp. The Narragansett retaliated with violence of their own, and burned down the original house Richard Smith had built at Cocumscussoc. His son soon built another version, the building that now stands sentry here, watching over a quiet horizon that conceals most of this darker history.
After King Philip’s War, there was little need for a trading post. Instead, the once busy cove became a sleepy place, hidden from view, like so many quiet inlets of Narragansett Bay. But unlike the others, this one had been essential to Rhode Island’s founder, and to the colony that he succeeded in establishing, against all odds. By coming here, he introduced himself to others; in doing so, he may have found himself as well.
Howard M. Chapin, The Trading Post of Roger Williams, with those of John Wilcox and Richard Smith. Providence: E.L. Freeman, 1933
Robert A. Geake, “The Narragansett at Cocumscussoc” https://rifootprints.com/2014/...
Usher Parsons, Indian Names of Places in Rhode-Island. Providence: Knowles, Anthony and Co., 1861
Glenn W. LaFantaisie, The Correspondence of Roger Williams (Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society/Brown University Press, 1988)
Glenn W. LaFantaisie, “A Day in the Life of Roger Williams,” Rhode Island History (August 1987), 95-109
Sidney S. Rider, The Lands of Rhode Island, as they were Known to Caunounicus and Miantunnomu when Roger Williams Came in 1636. Providence: Author, 1904
Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Master Roger Williams (New York: Macmillan, 1957)
Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (ed. Howard M. Chapin, Providence: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Tercentenary Committee, 1936)
Carl R. Woodward, Plantation in Yankeeland: The Story of Cocumscussoc, Mirror of Colonial Rhode Island (Chester, CT: Pequot Press, 1971)