Roger Williams: Not you, too?

Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro

Managing Editor

Photo taken by Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro, edited by Magz Macleod

Roger Williams was a friend to the Native Americans. He was an advocate for the separation of church and state, learned the language of the locals and was an amazing mediator between the English settlers and the Native populations. He was well known for his language skills and for founding the first Baptist church in America, both in terms of the structure and religion. This, unfortunately, is not all there is to Williams. It can be argued that he is deserving of having both a university and a hospital named after him, and while he does deserve recognition for his work here in Providence, he ultimately betrayed the people who trusted him due to his own ideology.


In the 1620s, the Native American population in the Providence area had already made contact with the English. There were an estimated 100,000 Algonquin-speaking peoples in the New England area. In the Providence area specifically, those people consisted of the Wampanoag and the Narragansett. These people, as well as other tribes who made contact with the English settlers, had already lost a great number of people due to germ exposure, namely, smallpox.


Williams was quite progressive for his time, having been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for his more liberal beliefs on both the topics of politics and religion. He traveled south and came in contact with the Wamponoag and Narragansett people in the winter of 1636. The Wampanoag people helped Williams to learn navigation, while the Narragansett sheltered him, taught him to cultivate the land, taught him their language, and eventually allowed for the construction of a settlement. In 1638, Sachems Canaicus and Miantonomi deeded him the land that became Providence. It is his work with the Narragansett people that gave the future generations the first dictionary of Native American languages.


In 1663, The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation was founded following the signing of a charter by King Charles II. The charter contained a clause, added by the English Crown, that the colony has the right “to invade and destroy the native Indians.” Williams named the colony “Providence” as a show of gratitude to God for protecting him after his exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The basis of Providence was to provide religious freedom, a construct that Rhode Islanders enjoy to this day.


The year 1676 saw the United Colonies, which included the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Connecticut Colony, the New Haven Colony, and the Plymouth Colony, go to war with the Natives after multiple unsuccessful negotiations with Sachem Metacomet of the Wampanoag Nation over land and resources. Thus began “King Phillip’s” War. Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop called on Williams, despite being exiled, to translate for the English. As he translated, he added his own opinion, stating that the Natives had treated the Puritan settlers better than the English Crown had. Williams also worried that enslavement, as was common practice during war, would provoke conflict.


The Narragansett and Niantic, based in what is now Niantic, Connecticut, were originally neutral and allowed for the other Native Nations involved: the Nipmuc, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Podunks, Tunxis, Nashaway, Mohegan, Wabanaki, and Pequot, to send their women, children and elders to take refuge on their lands. The Great Swamp Massacre, occurring in what is now South Kingstown, led the Narragansett to join the war.


The Triangular Slave Trade was, for the second time, becoming more popular. The Natives who had been captured during Metacomet’s Resistance were sold into slavery, being shipped mostly to the British West Indies, the North Atlantic, and the Caribbean to work the very plantations that Christopher Columbus built. It’s important to note that not all of the slaves were captured during the war, as the United Colonies went after any Native person they could find, including the women and children. Some of the captured Natives remained in Rhode Island as indentured servants, meaning that their servitude would eventually end. Multiple “infractions,” such as owing for room, board, clothing and medical needs, “bad behavior,” theft, etc., would grant an extension of such servitude. The Narragansett, Niantic and Mohegan Tribes took slaves as well, but housed their slaves and provided accomodations instead of forcing labor.


Williams was, first and foremost, a preacher. He could justify the enslavement of Native men because in the Bible, references of slavery were abundant. He took issue, however, with the enslavement of women and children, as he could not justify this. Williams was eventually convinced, through his own thought process, that a general form of enslavement was a fitting punishment for the crime of war, a crime of which he was against. Williams took captives as slaves for his personal use and following Metacomet’s Resistance, he became a slave catcher. The treaty that ended the war included a fugitive slave clause and the Massachusetts Bay Colony asked Williams to track down runaway slaves. One of Williams’ sons, aptedly named Providence, took slaves to what is now Newport to be sold on the auction block. Williams encouraged, then pressured, Sachems to surrender their people and refugees.

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