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Transcript:

GONZALEZ: I’m Ana

NUNES: And I’m Alex

GONZALEZ: You’re listening to Mosaic, a podcast about American immigration from the Public’s Radio in Providence, Rhode Island.

NUNES: In this episode, we’re going way back, to before this country was even a country, to tell an unfamiliar story about a very familiar immigrant. 

SPEARS: It’s often presented as though Roger Williams and the Narragansett people were best friends, and kind of skipped merrily into the future. And I think that it has to be tempered a little bit from that and that it needs to be looked at a little more deeply.

GONZALEZ: As some of you might know, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island. And he’s kind of a big deal.

NUNES:  Yeah, he was the father of cherished American values including freedom of speech and worship. And his name is on everything from a university, buildings and parks to t-shirts and tote bags. He’s practically a cartoon cutout. 

GONZALEZ: Right, and most Rhode Islanders know the same basic story about him. I went over to Prospect Terrace Park, on the East Side of  Providence, which is dominated by a huge statue of Roger Williams looking out over the city and talked to people there...

GONZALEZ: What do you know about Roger Williams?

STUDENT 1: I really don’t know much about him...

STUDENT 2: I remember we learned about him in US history, and I think he founded Rhode Island.

MAN 1: Didn’t he get exiled at some point? 

MAN 2: They didn’t like him up in Boston because his religious beliefs, or vice versa. But they were like, “hey, get the BEEP outta here.” From what I understand, really had great relationships with the indians. And I forget the Indians names that he hooked up with, but…

GONZALEZ: Do you know anything about, like, him as a person? Or anything he did beyond founding Rhode Island?

MAN 1: No. I should because I learned it in school a lot. 

GONZALEZ: Which schools did you go to?

MAN 1: Roger Williams...

GONZALEZ: Ok, but to be fair, that guy actually knew a lot. And he’s talking about Roger Williams Middle School in Providence. So it’s been some years. 

NUNES: Yeah, let’s cut him some slack. The accepted story about Roger Williams goes like this: Roger Williams was kicked out of Massachusetts for religious reasons. He traveled south to what we now refer to as Rhode Island. He became fast and peaceful friends with the native people there--the Narragansetts, and, before you know it, he founded Providence and, later, Rhode Island. Fast forward 400 years, and here we are. 

MACKAY: Not so fast there.

GONZALEZ: Scott Mackay, our political analyst and resident historian here at the station. Scott, what are we getting wrong?

MACKAY: Well, he was all of those things: But, if you look into his role as a colonial leader and his relationship with Native Americans, there’s a darker side.

NUNES: So why don't we hear this less flattering story of Roger Williams?

MACKAY: Because that doesn't fit either the New England myth of Roger Williams or the melting pot narrative that Americans love to tell about immigration. 

GONZALEZ: Roger Williams did some incredible things. He was an idealist who learned Algonquian and published the first Algonquian-English dictionary. He founded Rhode Island and the Baptist church. And he established the American ideal of the separation  of church and state. But this story isn’t about that. 

NUNES: This story is about how immigration and colonization changed Roger Williams. It’s about Roger Williams and the Pequot War. It’s about genocide and the disappearance of an entire Indian nation. 

MCBRIDE: Major fighting took place here. 

GONZALEZ: I’m out in the woods of Mystic, Connecticut on the site of the biggest battle of the Pequot War. It’s now a 200-acre plot of land a few miles out from the touristy port where Julia Roberts was a waitress in that pizza movie. I’m talking with Dr Kevin McBride, an archeologist from the University of Connecticut.

ANA: So is this the actual site of the battle of Fort Mistick?

MCBRIDE: Well we call it the Mystic Campaign. There are two major battles...

GONZALEZ:  Dr. McBride and his team of archaeologists, grad students, and undergrads have been working on uncovering the battlefields of the Pequot War for over a decade. He’s telling me about some of the things they’ve found.

MCBRIDE:  Like the amulets. The arrow points. A lot of personal items like jaw harps. Everybody has a jaw harp. Everybody. All the colonists and all the native guys, you know jaw harps?

GONZALEZ: Yeah I know.

MCBRIDE: You know we've all you know we always wondered what would happen if they just stopped fighting and had a little concert.

GONZALEZ: Some fifes, some jaw harps, you know? 

NUNES: But what does this have to do with Roger Williams??

GONZALEZ: Well first, Roger Williams is a big part of their research. His letters are helping researchers piece together what really happened in the Pequot War, which is huge. Because this was the first sustained, organized battle between the English colonies and indigenous tribes in New England. And Roger Williams is writing the whole time, passing along information about this complicated war and, inadvertently, about himself. His writing helps us understand the fragility and complexity of the relationships between English colonists and indigenous people. 

MCBRIDE: It’s filtered obviously, but there is a lot of Narragansett voice in his letters to the Winthrops. Of course they have an agenda. That's what makes them richer a little more interesting, you know. 

NUNES: The agenda Dr. McBride is talking about here, that would be Roger Williams’s political motives, right?

GONZALEZ: Absolutely, Roger Williams has worked to place himself at the center of all information networks of southern New England. He has this unique position where he’s not only in the upper crust of English colonial society, he’s managed to gain the trust of the Narragansett leaders, Miantonomi and Canonicus. 

NUNES: Right, at this point, he’s been living with the Narragansetts for months and building up the settlement of Providence. 

GONZALEZ: But, at the same time, he’s writing letters to English folks in Connecticut and over on Aquidneck Island. They want information about the Native Americans. He’s also writing to Governor John Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

NUNES: But isn’t Winthrop the guy who kicked him out of Massachusetts? Why would he help Williams?

GONZALEZ: They’re good friends, and they always have been. That’s how Roger Williams knows that the English in Massachusetts and Connecticut want to attack the Pequots. He’s in the middle of all of it, and everybody wants land, information, and power, including Roger Williams. In one of his first letters to Winthrop in June of 1636, Williams writes about this.

WILLIAMS: “The Pequots hear of your preparations, and comfort themselves in this, that a witch amongst them will sink the pinnaces, by diving under water and making holes, as also they shall now enrich themselves with store of guns, but I hope their dreams (through the mercy of the Lord) shall vanish, and the devil and his lying sorcerers shall be confounded.”

GONZALEZ: Thanks for reading for us, Scott.

MACKAY: No problem!

NUNES: On top of being our resident historian, Scott’s going to be Roger for the rest of the episode. Scott, when Williams says “The devil’s lying sorcerers”, he’s talking about the Pequots, right?

MACKAY: That’s right. It’s important to remember that Williams is first and foremost a deeply religious, English clergyman. He’s part of the Puritan immigration, or invasion, and colonization of New England. And they’re trying to set up their systems of law and religion in this new land. But, obviously, indigenous groups are already here, living by their laws and spiritual practices. The Pequots represent all of the threats to the new European order. They’re the enemy not only of the English, but also Roger Williams’s native allies, the Narragansetts.


FISHER: And at the end of the day, even though Williams is a religious and political dissident, he’s been kicked out of Massachusetts Bay, he still essentially more English than not, right? 

NUNES: We’re getting some historical help here from Lin Fisher, a professor of History at Brown University.

FISHER: So he plays an important role in persuading the Narragansetts to remain separate from the Pequots and to not join the Pequots against the English.

GONZALEZ: Roger Williams’s first loyalty is to New England. In this one really vivid letter to John Winthrop, Roger Williams tells his old friend how he was able to use his relationship with the Narragansetts to convince one of their leaders, Canonicus, to remain on the side of the English:  

WILLIAMS: “The latter end of the last week I gave notice to our neighbor princes of your intentions and preparations against the common enemy, the Pequots. At my first coming to them, Canonicus was very sour, and accused the English and myself for sending the plague amongst them, and threatening to kill him especially...At last I not only sweetened his spirit, but possessed him, that the plague and other sicknesses were alone in the hand of the one God...”

GONZALEZ: This letter is really important, because it shows that Canonicus, who’s the older, wiser Narragansett Sachem, or leader, was questioning the English. By this time, 1637, thousands of native people have died from horrible diseases, like smallpox, that European settlers brought with them to this new land and spread, either by accident or on purpose. So, Canonicus has every right to be suspicious. 

MACKAY: And Roger Williams comes in and is able to convince Canonicus that the English aren’t doing this, it’s just God punishing everybody. 

NUNES: At this point, the Narragansetts could still ally with the Pequots if they think that the English are actually their common enemy. Roger obviously sees this as a possibility, so he sweetens Canonicus’s spirit, in his words. 

GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, the English in Massachusetts and Connecticut have declared war on the Pequots. It’s May of 1637. English forces are preparing to attack a large Pequot fort in Mystick, Connecticut. The Captain of the English army is a hardened veteran of the Thirty Years War, John Mason. He comes up with a battle plan and tells it to his top military leaders.. And they’re basically like, “No. That’s not gonna work. We’ve been fighting the Pequots, and we know we’ll lose if we fight like this. Come up with something better.”

NUNES: In comes Roger Williams.

NUNES: In a letter to John Winthrop, Roger Williams lays out an attack on the Pequots in nine points, with some crucial help.

NAUMEC: That's a Narragansett battle plan. 

GONZALEZ: That’s David Naumec, another archeologist and military historian working with Dr. McBride.

NAUMEC: You know what Williams has written down and forwarded as a suggestion on how to proceed. You know everything he mentions is coming right from probably Miantonomi.

NUNES: Now this story needs to get into some military strategy, so bear with us. It’ll be worth it. 

GONZALEZ: In the letter we’re talking about, Williams’s first four points tell John Winthrop that the English need to prepare for a long battle. 

NUNES: He also gives the English intelligence about where the Pequots will run for refuge, a swamp called Ohomowaukee. And it tells Winthrop where to house English munitions and vessels for the attack.

GONZALEZ: Basically, this letter becomes the new battle plan for the English. It’s now a dawn attack, based on speed and surprise.

WILLIAMS: Point number five. That the assault would be in the night, when they are commonly more secure and at home, by which advantage the English, being armed, may enter the houses and do what execution they please.

MCBRIDE: Then they march 35 miles in two days to get to a place called Porter's rocks, a couple of miles north of the Mystic Fort, intending to attack at dawn. 

WILLIAMS: Point number six. That before the assault be given, an ambush be laid behind them, between them and the swamp, to prevent their flight.

MCBRIDE: So Mason and Underhill, they have 77 guys. 77 soldiers and 250 native allies. They split into two groups, and the idea is to approach from the southwest and the Northeast, surround the fort. Put their muskets through the gaps in the palisade and fire into the wigwams, where the Pequots were sleeping. 

FISHER: And there’s this amazing drawing from the time period. In the drawing, there’s this palisaded fort, which is the Mystic fort—the Pequot fort—and all the wetus inside, the wigwams. There’s a line of Englishmen around the outside of it with guns and a line of natives outside of that with bows and arrows.

MCBRIDE: One thing they didn't calculate on, is a village that size normally has seventy five men. The Pequots did get intelligence of the English marching from Narragansett. They put another hundred and fifty men inside the fort intending to go out against the English the next day. So when Mason gets in the fort, instead of finding seventy five men, there's two hundred twenty five. [beat] That's when Mason decided to burn it. 

FISHER: So they decide to set the town on fire, withdraw, and then shoot whoever comes out. Which is what they do.

WILLIAMS: Point number eight. That it would be pleasing to all natives, that women and children be spared.

FISHER: Nobody is spared. Children, women. And it’s so horrific to the Narragansetts and Mohegans, that they end up, the Narragansetts especially, end up going home. 

MCBRIDE: The rest of the battle takes place outside the fort, and within the space of an hour, 400 Pequot were killed. Half of them were burned to death inside the fort. The English, they suffered a lot too. They had like 24 casualties. Four or five of the men were wounded so badly that they had to be carried on stretchers. They had arrows sticking out of them. 

NUNES: With Fort Mistick burning behind them and almost an entire nation massacred, the English begin to march towards their ships on the Thames River. The surviving Pequots have a chance to regroup. The difficult, wooded terrain gives them an advantage. They attack the English on foot for over 4 miles, with arrows, hatchets, swords, and muskets. 

GONZALEZ: For nine bloody hours, the battle continues. But Mason and his men eventually reach their ships. The battle plan the English got from Roger Williams via his Narragansett allies, turned into a slaughter in the hands of Captain John Mason. And it devastates the Pequots.

MCBRIDE: So by the end of the day, the Pequot lost probably 500 men, and that pretty much destroyed their military and their ability to carry on a war. That's probably a primary reason why they began to abandon their country.

SPEARS: It was a horror. That people wish we could take back.

GONZALEZ: This is Lorén Spears. She is Narragansett and Niantic and has worked for the majority of her life preserving Narragansett culture and educating people about it. 

SPEARS:  When I think of the Pequot massacre at Fort mystic, I feel as though that is the real reality check for indigenous people of southern New England, or of the colonies that are being established, you know. The way that we did warfare was not this full annihilation, this conquest mentality, and just going in and burning down the village, killing the women, the children, the elders. And so in reality, what they did is use our historic enemies against us. The whole concept of divide and conquer. They did it well as you can see.

GONZALEZ: I’m sitting with Lorén in the Tomaquag Museum, in rural Exeter, Rhode Island. Lorén is the director here. Before her, her mother ran the museum. And before that, her grandparents ran a restaurant where the Tomaquag museum now stands. We’re in the main exhibition space, under 2 ancient Narragansett canoes, surrounded by paintings, photographs, and artifacts.


SPEARS: I'm not a fan of the word artifacts so I'm decolonizing it. We say cultural materials because it's connected to a culture and a people.

GONZALEZ: Lorén is also working to decolonize the story of Roger Williams.

SPEARS: It’s often presented as though Roger Williams and the Narragansett people were best friends, and kind of skipped merrily into the future. And I think that it has to be tempered a little bit from that and that it needs to be looked at a little more deeply.

GONZALEZ: What do you think, Scott: were they best friends?

MACKAY: You know life's not just black or white. I think a lot of this was survival. Williams was worried about the survival of his colony, his flock. And that becomes more important to him than his relationship with the Native Americans. He’s English. And he’s bullheaded And that makes him this great thinker and leader, but it also makes him an aggressor. And someone who can manipulate complex situations in his favor. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, “The victors write history.” And I think if you look at what's happened here the people who eventually run the society have largely written the history of the founding of this country and frankly it's national myth.

NUNES: So what is it we need to understand from Roger Williams hidden story?

MACKAY: People like to talk about the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech side of Roger Williams. But he was also a colonizer. And that’s crucial to understand.

Inevitably, he’s contributing to the destruction of a way of life. He didn’t intend to contribute to the genocide when he first came over from England. But that’s what happened in the colonization of this country, and Roger Williams was an active participant.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. He wasn’t the one burned down Fort Mistick, but he was the mastermind behind the plan and the reason it was even a possibility. 

NUNES: That brings us back to the story: the English have wounded the Pequots beyond anyone’s expectations. There are two more, smaller battles between the English and the Pequots in the summer of 1637. By July it’s clear that the Pequots are defeated. And the English have to figure out how to handle this victory.

GONZALEZ: Again, in comes Roger Williams. His relationship with Miantonomi and Canonicus is affected by the Pequot War. The Narragansett warriors who didn’t desert the battle witnessed the slaughter of the Pequots and told their leaders how different it was from indigenous ways of war. But Miantonomi and Canonicus don’t end their relationship with Williams by any means. 

NUNES: How so?

GONZALEZ: Williams is still living in Narragansett territory, and he’s busy establishing the settlement of Providence. Roger and Miantonomi work together to come up with the terms of the Pequot’s surrender. Roger Williams writes to John Winthrop in July 1637 about what should happen to the surviving Pequots and their leader Sassacus.

WILLIAMS: For the disposing of them, I propounded what if Mr. Governor did desire to send for some of them into the Bay; leave some at the Narragansett and so scatter and disperse them: this he liked well, that they should live with the English and themselves and slaves... That there is no hope that the Mohawks or any other people will ever assist Sassacus, or any of the Pequots, against the English, because he is now, as it were, turned slave to beg his life…

NUNES: This is really surprising to me because one of the things we know about Roger Williams is that he was a vocal opponent of the African slave trade. But he apparently was okay with enslaving Native Americans as the spoils of war.

MACKAY: Roger Williams is against the transatlantic slave trade. He outlaws it in the colony of Rhode Island. But he thinks enslavement is the proper punishment for those Pequots who survived the Pequot War. He even requests an enslaved child for himself. 

NUNES: In that same chilling letter, Williams also writes that the English should divide up Pequot corn and land.

GONZALEZ: John Winthrop takes this advice and turns it into the Treaty of Hartford, a short document signed in Hartford, Connecticut Colony, on September 31st, 1638. It’s the official end of the first Anglo-Indigenous War in New England.

NUNES: And just like Williams laid out, it divides up Pequot lands and enslaves remaining Pequots. Some were given to English homes in New England, and others were sent to the Caribbean. 

GONZALEZ: The Treaty of Hartford also eliminates the use of the word “Pequot”. It states that all remaining Pequots “shall no more be called Pequots, but Narragansetts and Mohegans”. This type of language is genocidal. It’s an attempt to erase the Pequot nation.

SPEARS: When you're on conquest, you vilify and dehumanize the group you're trying to conquer. And then you erase them. 

NUNES: This history is really important to understand. Because it shows a more complete picture of Roger Williams and the founding of Providence. 

GONZALEZ: Right, and it shows how complicated and terrifying the colonization and conquest of New England was. And how people native to this land needed to make some incredibly difficult decisions to survive the immigration of European settlers. 

SPEARS: We can't change time. We can't change history. But we can educate around it. And I said it before and I'll say it again. There is no Rhode Island history without Narragansett or other indigenous Rhode Island history. There's no U.S. history without indigenous history. We’re interwoven in all of it. We're part of the fabric of this country. We were here prior to this becoming this country, and we're here during this country. As our elders would say “and we'll be here when you all decide to move to Mars” because we're not going there. We're staying here. You know this is where our ancestors are. This is where our stories are. This is where our history is. This is where we're our people are today. We are part of this place. This is our homeland.

Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org