Most of us in Rhode Island have been conditioned to point with pride at Roger Williams, great contribution to freedom of religion. This, of course, is rightly so, but we often forget that Williams also made a great contribution in the field of brotherhood and understanding between the English colonist and the American Indian. This was done at a time of extreme prejudice, ignorance and misunderstanding. As in the field of religious freedom, Williams was practically alone in his attempt to understand and respect the American Indian.
One of the major reasons that the young preacher was banished from the Puritan colony in Massachusetts was his insistence that the land belonged to the Indians rather than the king of England. Williams’ preaching on this subject so infuriated the Elders of the Church in Massachusetts that they ordered him to stop preaching along those lines.
Not only did Williams differ with the authorities on the concept of landownership, but he treated the Indians in a manner quite different from most Englishmen. Williams, feeling he was a “guest” in America, extended friendship and respect to the Wampanaogs and Narragansetts and welcomed them to his church. This was done at a time when most of his fellow Englishmen regarded their “hosts” as dirty, lazy, immoral heathens, incapable of salvation. He mad a great effort to learn their language and spent many hours with them discussing the universe, eating their food and sleeping in their wigwams. The much more patient, tolerant and understanding Indians recognized that Williams was a remarkable man. A strong bond of friendship and love grew between the preacher and the leading sachems, Canonicus, Miantonomi and Massasoit.
When in January of 1636 Williams was forced to flee from the Massachusetts colony to escape being banished to England, his life was saved by the friendliness and hospitality of the Wampanoags. Williams and his friend Thomas Angell, often half-starved and frozen, were welcomed in the wigwams where the meager food supplies of the Indians were freely shared with them. When they finally reached Massasoit’s camping ground at Montaup (Mount Hope, Bristol), they were guests of the Wampanoags sachem for the remainder of the winter. Here, the mutual respect and friendship grew into a very strong bond that was primarily responsible for the manner in which Rhode Island was settled.
In the spring of 1616, Massasoit gave Williams land about 10 miles north of Montaup, in the area we would today call Rumford-Seekonk-Rehoboth. Feeling secure in the concept that Massasoit’s generosity was all that was needed, Williams sent for his followers, including such men as Francis Wicks, Richard Waterman and Joshua Verrin. The good will and help of the Indians was not enough, however, for shortly after the small band of dissidents had felled the trees and built houses and furniture, they ere told by Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that Plymouth owned the land and that soldiers would be sent to burn the houses if they didn’t leave.