In 1636, Roger Williams fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he was wanted for heretically preaching the separation of church and state and condemning the King’s charters, which allowed colonists to take land from the natives without paying for it. Under cover of a blizzard, he escaped capture and disappeared into the woods south of Salem, in modern day Rhode Island, where the local Indians gave him food and shelter. He would later write
Gods providence is rich to his,
Let none distrustfull be;
In wildernesse, in great distresse,
These Ravens have fed me. (17)
In gratitude to God, he named the city he founded there Providence, on land for which he paid the Narragansett chiefs in full. In gratitude to the Narragansett Indians, perhaps, or at least as a result of his time with them, he learned to speak their language, observed how they lived and died, and published his findings, not wanting to “lightly lose what [he] had so dearely bought in some few yeares hardship” (A3).
The result, A Key into the Language of America, is the first recorded attempt at an English-to-Native-American language phrasebook. Though more practically useful for the English colonists than the illiterate natives, Williams’s Key also stands as a salvo in his lifelong struggle to keep colonists’ dealings with natives above the belt; if the English settlers could talk to the Indians, at least, maybe they’d be less likely to swindle and slaughter them. “For want of this, I know what grosse mis-takes my selfe and others have run into” (A3), Williams writes, alluding to, even as he glosses over, the often grisly costs of miscommunication and distrust between the colonists and the Indians. What effect access to these translated phrases had or was intended to have on native-settler relations is an interesting question, but this isn’t Phrasebook Daily, and Williams purposely wrote something that wasn’t just “a Dictionary or Grammer,” judging those formats to be “not so accommodate to the Benefit of all, as I hope this Forme is” (A8).
The form Key does take attests to his intent to hammer into his readers the humanity of these so-called barbarians (even as he calls them barbarians himself), beyond giving both parties a common language. By way of anecdote, ethnographic observation, moralizing doggerel, theology, tutorial, list, comparison, and translation, Williams systematically cobbles together a demonstration of a way of living, of approaching the world’s pleasures and challenges, of cohabitation. In A Key into the Language of America, language and the world it’s wielded on through reference and performance are intercut so as to make the Narragansett way of speaking inseparable from what it is to be a Narragansett. Williams calls this slippery form “Implicite Dialogue,” which he distinguishes from dialogue, a form which he uses elsewhere, but passes over here “for brevities sake” (A8). I’d call it an essay. “A little Key may open a Box, where lies a bunch of Keyes” (A3): Williams lays on the “key” metaphor pretty thick, but as a description of his structure—nested, shot-through with little insights—and as an articulation of one of the ways an essay can proceed, I think it fits perfectly.
The way Williams structures this book is enchanting and remarkable and central to his life’s work of shifting colonial perceptions of Indians, so that will be my chief focus here. A Key into the Language of America consists of 32 chapters, each of which has a handy title, from “Of Salutation” to “Of their Death and Buriall,” which he intends to be used like any phrasebook: “Whatever your occasion bee either of Travell, Discourse, Trading &c. turne to the Table which will direct you to the Proper Chapter” (A8). But where things get interesting is in the shape each chapter takes, at once formulaic and free-wheeling. First we get a straightforward list of words and phrases in Narragansett and their English translations, relevant to the subject at hand:
Askuttaaquompsin Hou doe you?
Askuttaaquompsin Hou doe you?
Asnpaumpmauntam I am very well. (2)
The translated words range from the obvious to the obscure, the pointless to the pointedly specific—sometimes so much so that a single phrase suggests a whole story, like the best micro flash fiction: “Mauchinaash nowepiteass. My teeth are naught” (15). “Cummachiteouwunash kuskeesuckquash. You spoile your Face” (192). At times, it’s the loaded juxtaposition of phrases on the list that suggests a narrative: “Nkeke Commeinsh. I will give you an Otter. Coanombuqusse. You have deceived me. ... Misquesu Kunukkeke. Your Otter is reddish” (162). When Williams feels the need to elaborate on any of the translations, wants to relate a relevant anecdote, or sees the opportunity to squeeze a sermon in, he inserts a prose block labeled “Observation” right between items on the phrase list:
Tuckowekin Where dwell you?
Matnowetuomeno I have no house.
As commonly a single person hath no house, so after the death of a Husband or Wife, they often break up house, and live here and there a while with Friends, to allay their excessive Sorrowes.
Tocketussaweitch What is your name?
Now annehick nowesuonck I have forgot my name.
Which is common amongst some of them, this being one Incivilitie amongst the more rusticall sort, not to call each other by their names but Keen, You, Ewo He, &c. (4)
This oscillation between translation and observation could be understood as helpful elaboration to further ease communication, which in many cases it seems to actually be, but it also gets deeper and less practical. We get, in the translation of Muckquachuckquand, the Children’s God, an anecdote of a dying Indian stabbed by an Englishman, praying to Muckquachuckquand because he had appeared to him as a child and told him to call on him in times of distress. In “Of their Gaming,” we get a theory that the Thunderbolt, a precious stone made from lightning, makes the holder win at gambling as Satan’s punishment for not “rising higher from the Thunderbolt, to the God that send or shoots it” (178). We learn Williams’s delight at the new wonders of strawberries and beavers as he translates them into English (though the original Narragansett, Moose, stays with us).
This set-up makes for compelling reading, and I’d like to imagine that the curious reader of the day, in using it for conversation, would eventually get hooked on these stories and lessons enough to want to spend more time with the Key. I’m sure it also captured the imaginations of the readers back in England, where it was printed, for whom the language of the New World and the stories of its natives would have still been full of mystery and adventure, and who may have been all the more susceptible to Williams’s way of thinking.
Williams’s structure depends on his reader sticking around, since after the practical vocabulary lists and the more or less closely linked observations, we also get in each chapter a “General observation” on the subject that sums up his impressions, and then a poem in balladic verse that reflects on some aspect of the natives’ relationship with God or the colonists, labeled “More particular”:
From these courteous Salutations Observe in generall: There is a favour of civility and courtesie even amongst these wild Americans, both amongst themselves and towards strangers.
The Courteous Pagan shall condemne
Who live like Foxes, Beares and Wolves,
Or Lyon in his Den.
Let none sing blessings to their soules,
For that they Courteous are:
The wild Barbarians with no more
Then Nature, goe so farre:
If Natures Sons both wild and tame,
Humane and Courteous be
How ill becomes it Sonnes of God
To want Humanity? (10)
These elements, while crucial for conveying Williams’s overall views on the way the Narragansett people conduct themselves and integrating these observations into his European value system and theology, wouldn’t provide a whole lot of immediate use to someone trying to make himself understood. As much as I believe in the utility and value of poetry, I don’t think I’d read a poem if I were trying to look up how to say “Give me Tobacco” just because it was in the same book. So what was Williams up to? How did he see his Key operating?
He may give us a hint in the page-length, old-timey full title, which includes “On all which are added Spirituall Observations, Generall and Particular by the Authour, of chiefe and speciall use (upon all occasions,) to all the English Inhabiting those parts; yet pleasant and profitable to the view of all men.” His higher purpose in writing and structuring his Key, as in his life, was guiding people toward God: these spiritual observations were the parts he saw as of use to all English, both pleasant and profitable. The poems, then, may have been the most important part to him, which could be why he labels them “More particular.” Each provides a digestible Christian lesson to the topics discussed in the chapter, often praising the ways of the noble savage at the expense of some failing of the English. But they basically all end in the same predictable lesson: none of it matters before God come judgment day, woe unto unbelievers, and so forth.
So why bother to “lodge with them, in their filthy smoke holes (even while [he] lived at Plymouth and Salem) to gain their tongue”? Why learn all about these people and befriend them if he believed they were going to hell pronto if they didn’t wise up to Western religion? This may just be my confusion with 17th century Puritan doctrine, but it seems pretty counterintuitive to found a colony based on the separation of church and state while making every effort to convert its people, to meticulously record the native beliefs while trying to bring them around to the truth in Jesus Christ. Part of the answer may lie in the conflict between his sincere belief in the value of conversion and his deep ambivalence about the role of the colonists in the natives’ lives. He writes of the “great Point of their Conversion so much to bee longed for” (A6), and his disappointment that the other American colonies professed to hold conversion as a goal but didn’t actually put any effort into the converting. As an effort towards this, he organizes the phrases included in his “Of their Religion, Soule, &c.” chapter like a script for door-to-door proselytizing:
Awaunkeesitteouwincohock: Who made you?
Tunna-awwa commitchuchunck? Whether goes your soule when you die?
Netop Kunnatotemous. Friend, I will aske you a Question.
Awaun Keesiteouwin Keesuck? Who made the Heavens?
Pausuck naunt manit keesittin keesuck, &c One onely God made the Heavens, &c. (132)
Yet he also gives accounts of his halfhearted attempts to justify to the natives how the English have treated them: “Many say the English cheat and deceive them, though I have labored to make them understand the reason of it” (154). He also notes, “notwithstanding a sinfull opinion amongst mauy Christians,” that “the Natives are very exact and punctually in the bounds of their Lands” (95), a direct observation that’s contradicted in elementary American History textbooks to this day.
In this contrast, we see a desire to save the heathens' souls coming up against the knowledge that the settlers were poisoning them through their influence. The English preying on the Indians like the “Wolfe … Embleme of a fierce blood-sucking persecutor” on the “Deere … Embleme of Gods persecuted, that is hunted people” (173). Could this intricate structure, then, be Williams’s ambivalence played out on the page, or an attempt at a resolution? A way of bringing his fellow colonists around to his way of treating the Indians, to make them see the nobility he saw in them and remind them of the watchful eyes of God, the ultimate judgment? To coax them into reading by providing useful information, then lure them into a morality lesson, the sugar that makes the medicine go down? His way of doing right by both his fellow colonists and his native friends? I think so, but let me borrow Williams’s structure by way of response:
Williams came a long way in structuring and fashioning his Key out of the “Materialls” he had initially gathered “in a rude lumpe … as a private helpe to [his] owne memory” (A2). The shaping of the Key, he hints, and I’ve argued, is crucial to what Williams hoped to work through and accomplish with the book, and indicative of the complexity of his understanding of the relationship between the settlers in New England and the Narragansett and other Indian peoples. His attention to structure, to anecdote and recorded speech; his commitment to enacting a thinking through in the text; and his transparency on every page regarding the very high stakes that this subject held for him, make Williams an essayist in my book, as well as a deeply moral and admirable, though problematic, historical voice.
Squeezing one final drop out of the key metaphor, he ends:
I have had such converse with Barbarous Nations, and have been mercifully assisted, to frame this poore Key, which may, (through His blessing) in His owne holy season) open a Doore; yea, Doors of unknowne Mercies to Us and Them, be Honour, Glory, Power, Riches, Wisdome, Goodnesse and Dominion ascribed by all His in Jesus Christ to Eternity, Amen. (205)
We start with a key that opens a box containing more keys, and end opening a door, which becomes multiple doors. We get from these images the importance of the shape of the book, and also that a tool intended for one purpose can give us access to other, unexpected tools and purposes. We also get, in this passage, a humble admission that the mercy which this book attempts to foster goes both ways, to “Us” and “Them,” and that it is unknown. What mercies Williams actually did open with A Key into the Language of America I couldn’t possibly say. But the events of King Phillip’s War in 1676, which involved his friend Metacomet’s severed head on display in Boston and Williams powerless to stop it, attest to the fact that the colonists and Indians didn’t live happily ever after, even in Rhode Island, Williams’s domain. But we have, in his Key, a testament to his sincere thanks to the mercy of these people and his desire to know them, to give them a fair shake, to live among them, and to get it all down in writing for posterity.
Today, Providence is full of relics of this conflicted, thankful, pious man, and I don’t just mean the statues and the zoo. The street names: Hope, Benevolent, Benefit. The islands further out: Prudence, Despair. And, obviously, the city itself: Providence. A city of concepts made physical. The bay, the cheap beer: Narragansett. I can approach understanding Williams’s gratitude for the city, for I, too, found mercy there, a non-believer’s version of providence. When I moved to Providence, a confused recent college graduate “figuring things out,” my apartment there burned down. A coworker took me in. My car was impounded and destroyed. The families whose kids I tutored gave me rides, fed me
At that time, I hadn’t read Williams’s Key, but I did read poet Rosemarie Waldrop’s 1994 book also titled A Key into the Language of America, which plays with Williams’s text and form to explore, according to the jacket copy, “the legacy of cultural imperialism, the consequences of gender, and the marginalization of the conquered.” It’s a dark look at the very real physical and cultural conquest present in Williams’s book, as well as the mixed portrait we get of Narragansett culture—patriarchal but sexually permissive, prone to war but respectful of all life—, but the gratitude and wonder are also present in Waldrop’s version. The enlightening unfolding of the structure is also reproduced in Waldrop’s Key, which takes the shape of the original’s chapters, in prose, verse, and list.
Waldrop was born in Nazi Germany and came to Rhode Island in the fifties, where she found the most shocking difference to be the abundance of Indian place names: Aquidneck, Matunuck, Pawtucket. She notes that since the 1800s, Narragansett has been a dead language, with Williams’s book the only relic we have today besides the names of towns and bodies of water. According to Waldrop, people of Narragansett ancestry turn to Williams now for traditional baby names.
Of course, it was the colonists who got the overwhelming benefit from the exchange with the Indians, mostly through violence and trickery, third grade Thanksgiving pageants notwithstanding. But maybe Williams did, to some small extent, pay the natives back for having fed and sheltered him, through his preservation—in a form the West could also appreciate—, of their tongue, their way of life, their way of thinking through and being in the world.
All quotes and page numbers, except where noted, are from the fifth edition, 1936 reprint by The Roger Williams Press (Providence, RI) of the 1643 original A Key into the Language of America by Roger Williams, printed by Gregory Dexter (London). You can find a scanned version of the 1997 reprint here. The "A" preceding some page numbers indicates Williams's preface, "To my Deare and Welbeloved Friends and Countrey-men, in old and new ENGLAND." All italics, as well as unconventional spelling and punctuation, are Williams’s. You can’t make this stuff up. In the actual text, longer lists of phrases separate the observations, but I've shortened them here to just a few interesting examples. If you want to explore the actual form in its full scope, or to learn Narragansett, consult the original in the link above.
Andy Axel is an MFA candidate in poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His work has appeared in H_NGM_N and Coldfront. He used to live in Providence, RI.