John M. Barry on Roger Williams and the Indians

The founder of Rhode Island often helped out the early colonists in their dealings with Native Americans

Roger Williams in Rhode Island
According to author John M. Barry, Roger Williams, center, had a great facility with language—a great curiosity for language—and began trading with Indians and trying to learn their language. The Granger Collection, NYC

John M. Barry is the author of New York Times bestsellers The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History and Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood 1927 and How It Changed America. His most recent book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul explores the relation between church and state and between the individual and the state through the story of Roger Williams’ search for religious freedom and how it informed the society he founded in Rhode Island. Barry spoke to the magazine on Williams’ respectful relationship with American Indians.

Roger Williams said the Indians helped him survive in the wilderness after his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. How did he come in contact with Indians after he arrived in America?
Williams had a great facility with language—a great curiosity for language—and began trading with Indians and trying to learn their language. He arrived first in Massachusetts and then went to Plymouth for a couple of years. He clearly traded with the Indians when he was in Plymouth, and when he went back to Massachusetts, he continued trading with them. He also negotiated between the English and the Indians as well as between Indian tribes, chiefly the Narragansett and the Wampanoag. He was easily the most fluent Englishman in America in the Algonquin language, the language used by New England Indians. Then in 1636, five years after he arrived, he was banished, so he had had five years of contact with the Indians.

How did William’s views on Indian land rights put him at odds with his fellow colonists?
The colonists had two basic arguments for title to the land. First, the king gave it to them. Second, they argued that God had decided to give it to them by wiping out the Indian populations, probably with the smallpox epidemic. Since it was vacated, they felt it was theirs for the taking. Williams did not believe that. Running through Williams’ veins was this idea that English common law controlled all legal relationships and guaranteed individual rights. He believed that Indians had the same property rights as Englishmen, and therefore just because the crown gave an Englishman land didn’t mean it had any legal authority. As far as the vacancy argument, he pointed out that English noblemen owned vast estates and their only use of it was for hunting—same as the Indians. He felt the only legal claim to Indian land came when an Englishman bought the land from the Indians, so this was a threat to the English’s legal title in the Bay Colony.

Many people in Massachusetts had already bought some or all their land from the Indians, and after Williams started talking, many retroactively bought pretty much all the land they had. To make sure they had secure title, they tracked down Indians who could claim land they were occupying and paid them small amounts. That wasn’t universal, but it was widespread.

Despite Williams’ banishment from Massachusetts, the Bay Colony asks him to persuade the Narragansett to side with the English in the Pequot War of 1637. Why does Williams’ oblige and how does he get the Narragansett to agree?
There was a real threat to the very survival of the English in 1637 if the Pequot and the Narragansett joined forces in an alliance and attacked the English. Williams very much felt he was an Englishman despite having been banished. Also, he had a very close relationship with John Winthrop, who was then deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and who had earlier warned Williams that he was about to be arrested, giving him the opportunity to flee.  He had an equally strong relationship with Henry Vane, the governor at the time. Partly out of personal loyalty to Winthrop and Vane, partly out of loyalty to fellow countrymen, he acted. He risked his life when he walked into the camp where the Pequot and Narragansett were negotiating. As the only European in a camp of probably 1,000 or so warriors and several thousand more Indians, he proceeded to confront the Pequot, contradict them, and convince the Narragansett to remain neutral in the war. That certainly saved many English lives. It probably saved the colony itself, although even had the English been driven into the sea, they certainly would have returned.

Williams’ book A Key into the Language of America is more than just a dictionary, providing insights into Narragansett culture. What were some of his observations?
He concluded that there were no real differences between Indians and Englishmen as men. There were only cultural and religious differences. He believed what he wrote: “Boast not proud English, of they birth & blood, Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good. Of one blood God made him, and thee, & all.”

Williams also made anthropological observations: such as how Indians viewed borders; how they viewed property; that family kinship was extremely important—so much so that if an Indian was accused of murder and fled, the tribe might execute his brother instead; the way they prepared food; their lifestyle. All these things are described in the book.

Why didn’t Williams try to convert the Indians?
He believed that to truly become a Christian you had to understand in depth what Christianity was and what the message of Christ was. He felt confident that he could have brought the tribes to a pro forma profession of Christianity, but that was not satisfactory to him. Williams felt that becoming a Christian had to come not simply from the heart, but from the heart and a full intellectual understanding. As fluent as he was in their language, he did not feel that he had enough fluency to really communicate that.

As devout as he was, when Massachusetts Christians were putting intense pressure on the Narragansett to convert, threatening them with armed action if they did not, he actually convinced Cromwell’s government to tell Massachusetts to back off, to guarantee that the Narragansett had the right to worship as they chose, which is really kind of extraordinary.

In 1675, hostilities between the colonists and the Indians break out and again Williams’ mediates between the parties, but he’s unsuccessful. Does the King Philip’s War change Williams’ relationship with the Indians?
The Indians burned Providence and burned Williams’ own house down, which meant that he spent his last years in poverty. Nonetheless, right up to the very end of his life, he still considered Indians his friends. I think he saw the war not as this racial Armageddon but as bad policy, a terrible mistake. Certainly, Europeans had been on different sides in different conflicts and then formed alliances and friendships. He was well aware of that. I think he viewed it in that context.

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