From English to Algonquian: Early New England Translations

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Roger Williams

Roger Williams (1603?-1683)

Ordained as a minister in the Church of England in 1629, Roger Williams made his way from England to Plymouth a year later. Disillusioned by the church in England and ever the religious nonconformist, Williams managed to make enemies of many Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Salem shortly after his arrival in New England. Williams’s radical ideas surrounding the separation of church and state and his rigorous opposition to Massachusetts Bay Colony’s systematic appropriation of native lands led to his expulsion from Massachusetts in 1635.

To avoid arrest, Williams fled Massachusetts and traveled south. Ill-equipped to deal with the harsh winter climate, Williams received assistance and shelter from the Wampanoag and Narragansett he had befriended years earlier when he had traded English goods for fur and food. 

By 1636, Cononicus, sachem of the Narragansett tribe, had granted Williams land along the Seekonk River. On this land, Williams established the settlement of Providence Plantations in what would become the colony of Rhode Island.

As both an Englishman and ally to native peoples at a time when natives were being pushed off their land and robbed of their cultural identity, Williams forged delicate and complex relationships with the tribes of New England. During his years in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Williams endeavored to study the lifeways of his native neighbors and produced a printed dictionary of the Narragansett language titled A Key to the Language of America; or, An Help to the Language of the Natives in That Part of America, Called New-England. First printed in 1643, this work was the first in-depth study of a native language produced in the colonies.