One of America’s earliest cultural pluralists and advocates of the separation of church and state, Roger Williams founded Providence, Rhode Island, as a safe haven for early European settlers who had suffered religious persecution. He also believed in forging good relations with the Native peoples of New England. Rather than fight for title to the land, Williams argued that colonists should negotiate and pay a fair price for it. His policy proved effective; Rhode Island had the most peaceful Indian relations in all the colonies.
Williams was born in London, England, about 1603. His father was a hardworking shopkeeper who hoped to carve out a better life for his children. Young Roger eventually went off to college at Cambridge University, where he studied to become a minister. He later landed a job as the private chaplain of a nobleman, Sir William Masham. While working for Masham, Williams became increasingly interested in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which he had heard rousing stories. In 1631, Williams decided to give up his life in England and set off for America, where he hoped to establish himself in what was already being viewed in some quarters as a land of opportunity.
Once in Massachusetts Bay, Williams found himself at odds with the colony’s leadership. He criticized the king and believed that the colony should completely separate itself from the Church of England rather than try to reform or purify it. Williams believed in religious freedom, arguing that governments were not divinely sanctioned and therefore had no right to establish state religions. He also claimed that the colony’s royal charter was null and void because the settlers had not purchased the land from the Native people. The colony’s leaders considered such talk tantamount to blasphemy, and Williams was eventually banished from Massachusetts Bay in 1636. Rather than head back to England, he decided to move south, and he established the colony of Providence near Narragansett Bay. Williams invited all religious refugees to the new colony and set up a trading post at Cocumscussoc, where he met and befriended the local indigenous people.
Unlike his belligerent neighbors to the north at Massachusetts Bay, Williams made peace and forged positive relations with the Natives. He insisted on adequately compensating the Narragansett Indians for their lands. Only after he fairly purchased the territory around Providence did he apply to London for a colonial charter. But Williams did not stop there. He furthered the Narragansetts’ trust by learning their language and familiarizing himself with their culture. He saw in Indian society a degree of harmony, humanity, and hospitality that was decidedly lacking among his own people. Williams documented his observations and the Narragansett language in his book, A Key into the Language of America: Or, An help to the Language of the Natives in that part of America, called New-England [sic]. Considered the first ethnoanthropological study of American Indians, Williams’s account records Narragansett culture, analyzing everything from their religious beliefs to their sleeping habits.
Though Williams was a staunch advocate of Indian land rights, he was also a pragmatist and a realist. Hence, when the Pequots went to war with Massachusetts Bay over that colony’s encroachment on Native land, Williams convinced the Narragansetts to remain neutral. He believed that only death and destruction would come to the Indians if they fought the colonists. Williams’s peace policy and dealings with the Native peoples were effective; relations between whites and the Narragansetts remained cordial for nearly forty years. But the burgeoning white population’s continual expansion onto Indian lands inevitably led to further conflict.
In 1675, Wampanoag Chief Metacom took on Massachusetts Bay, resulting in what came to be known as King Philip’s War—the bloodiest conflict up to that time. Though the Narragansetts had not taken sides in the war, colonists preemptively attacked them, resulting in the Great Swamp Massacre. With five hundred to six hundred dead—most of which were women and children—the Narragansett leadership ignored Williams’s pleas and decided to side with Metacom in his fight against the colonists. They launched an assault on Providence, burning the town to the ground. Williams, in turn, accepted a commission as captain in the local militia and fought his former friends. In the end, the Narragansetts and Wampanoags could not match the firepower of the colonists, and they suffered a devastating loss in the war.
After King Philip’s War, Williams’s vision of a peaceful land where Indians and whites lived side by side, each learning from the other, came crashing down. With all of his former Narragansett friends gone, he lived out his last days a broken man among the rubble and ashes of Providence. Roger Williams died in the winter of 1683.
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