Biographical material for

Roger Williams

"Roger Williams was born in London, circa 1603, the son of James and Alice (Pemberton) Williams. James, the son of Mark and Agnes (Audley) Williams was a 'merchant Tailor' (an importer and trader) and probably a man of some importance. His will, proved 19 November 1621, left, in addition to bequests to his 'loving wife, Alice,' to his sons, Sydrach, Roger and Robert, and to his daughter Catherine, money and bread to the poor in various sections of London.
The will of Alice (Pemberton) Williams was admitted to probate 26 January 1634. Among other bequests, she left the sum of Ten Pounds yearly for twenty years to her son, Roger Williams, 'now beyond the seas.' She further provided that if Roger predeceased her, 'what remaineth thereof unpaid ... shall be paid to his wife and daughter....' Obviously, by the time of her death, Roger's mother was aware of the birth in America in 1633 of her grandchild, Mary Williams.
Roger's youth was spent in the parish of 'St. Sepulchre's, without Newgate, London.' While a young man, he must have been aware of the numerous burnings at the stake that had taken place at nearby Smithfield of so-called Puritans or heretics. This probably influenced his later strong beliefs in civic and religious liberty.
During his teens, Roger Williams came to the attention of Sir Edward Coke, a brilliant lawyer and one-time Chief Justice of England, through whose influence he was enrolled at Sutton's Hospital, a part of Charter House, a school in London. He next entered Pembroke College at Cambridge University from which he graduated in 1627. All of the literature currently available at Pembroke to prospective students mentions Roger Williams, his part in the Reformation, and his founding of the Colony of Rhode Island. At Pembroke, he was one of eight granted scholarships based on excellence in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Pembroke College in Providence, once the women's college of Brown University, was named after Pembroke at Cambridge in honor of Roger Williams.
In the years after he left Cambridge, Roger Williams was Chaplain to a wealthy family, and on 15 December 1629, he married Mary Barnard at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. Even at this time, he became a controversial figure because of his ideas on freedom of worship. And so, in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Roger thought it expedient to leave England. He arrived, with Mary, on 5 February 1631 at Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their passage was aboard the ship Lyon (Lion).
He preached first at Salem, then at Plymouth, then back to Salem, always at odds with the structured Puritans. When he was about to be deported back to England, Roger fled southwest out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was befriended by local Indians and eventually settled at the headwaters of what is now Narragansett Bay, after he learned that his first settlement on the east bank of the Seekonk River was within the boundaries of the Plymouth Colony. Roger purchased land from the Narragansett Chiefs, Canonicus and Miantonomi and named his settlement Providence in thanks to God. The original deed remains in the Archives of the City of Providence.
Roger Williams made two trips back to England during his lifetime. The first in June or July 1643 was to obtain a Charter for his colony to forestall the attempt of neighboring colonies to take over Providence. He returned with a Charter for "the Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay" which incorporated Providence, Newport and Portsmouth. During this voyage, he produced his best-known literary work -- Key into the Languages of America , which when published in London in 1643, made him the authority on American Indians.
On his return, Roger Williams started a trading post at Cocumscussoc (now North Kingstown) where he traded with the Indians and was known for his peacemaking between the neighboring colonists and the Indians. But again colony affairs interfered, and in 1651 he sold his trading post and returned to England with John Clarke (a Newport preacher) in order to have the Charter confirmed. Because of family responsibilities, he returned sometime before 1654. John Clarke finally obtained the Royal Charter from Charles II on 8 July 1663, thereby averting further trouble with William Coddington and some colonists at Newport, who had previously obtained a charter for a separate colony.
Roger Williams was Governor of the Colony 1654 through 1658. During the later years of his life, he saw almost all of Providence burned during King Philip's War, 1675-1676. He lived to see Providence rebuilt. He continued to preach, and the Colony grew through its acceptance of settlers of all religious persuasions. The two volumes of the correspondence of Roger Williams recently published by the Rhode Island Historical Society, Glenn W. LaFantasie, Editor, present an excellent picture of his philosophy and personality. Unfortunately, there was no known painting made of him during his lifetime, although many artists and sculptors have portrayed him as they envision him.
Roger and Mary (Barnard) Williams were the parents of six children, all born in America:

. . . . .

Roger Williams died at Providence between 16 January and 16 April 1683/84, his wife Mary having predeceased him in 1676. His descendants have contributed in many ways, first to the establishment of an independent Colony, later to the establishment of an independent state in a united nation. The United States of America has maintained the reality of separation of church and state which Roger Williams envisioned, and ordained in his settlement at Providence."

From the Roger Williams Family Association.

Bible used by Roger Williams


Letter of Transference

"Be it known to all men by these presents, That I, Roger Williams of the Towne of Providence in the Narragansett Bay in New England, having in the yeare, one Thousand Six hundred thirtye Foure And in the yeare one Thousand Six hundred and Thirtye ffive, had severall Treatyes with Counancusse, And Maintenome, the Two cheife Sachims of the Narragansett: And in the End, purchased of them the Lands and Meddowes upon the Two Fresh Rivers called Moshosick And Wanasquattuckett. The two said Sachims having by a deede under theire hands two yeares after the sale thereof established and confirmed the boundes of those landes from the river And fields of Pawtuckqut and the great hill of Neotaconconitt on the northwest, and the towne of Mashapauge on the west, notwithstanding I had the frequent promise of Miantenomy my kind friend, that it should not be land that I should want about these bounds mentioned, provided that I satisfied the Indians there inhabiting, I having made covenants of peaceable neighborhood with all the sachems and natives round about us. And having in a sense of God's merciful providence unto me in my distress, called the place Providence, I desired it might he for a shelter for persons distressed of conscience; I then, considering the condition of divers of my distressed countrymen, I communicated my said purchase unto my loving friends John Throckmorton, William Arnold, William Harris, Stukely Westcott, John Greene, senior, Thomas Olney, senior, Richard Waterman and others who then desired to take shelter here with me, and in succession unto so many others as we should receive into the fellowship and society enjoying and disposing of the said purchase; and besides the first that were admitted, our towne records declare that afterwards wee received Chad Brown, William Feild, Thomas Harris, sen'r, William Wickenden, Robert Williams, Gregory Dexter and others, as our towne book declares. And whereas, by God's merciful assistance, I was the procurer of the purchase, not by monies nor payment, the natives being so shy and jealous, that monies could not doe it; but by that language, acquaintance, and favor with the natives and other advantages which it pleased God to give me, and also bore the charges and venture of all the gratuities which I gave to the great sachems, and other sachems and natives round and about us, and lay engaged for a loving and peaceable neighborhood with them all to my great charge and travel. It was, therefore, thonght by some loving friends, that I should receive some loving consideration and gratuity; and it was agreed between us, that every person that should be admitted into the fellowship of enjoying lands and disposing of the purchase, should pay thirty shillings into the public stock; and first about thirty pounds should be paid unto myself by thirty shillings a person, as they are admitted. This sum I received in love to my friends; and with respect to a towne and place of succor for the distressed as aforesaid, I doe acknowledge the said sum and payment as full satisfaction. And whereas in the year one thousand six hundred and thirty seaven, so called, I delivered the deed subscribed y the two aforesaid chief sachems, so much thereof as concerned the aforementioned lands from myself and my heirs unto the whole number of the purchasers, with all my powers right and title therein, reserving only unto myself one single share equal unto any of the rest of that number, I now again in a more formal way, under my hand and seal, confirm my former resignation of that deed of the lands aforesaid, and bind myself, my heirs, my executors, my administrators and assigns never to molest any of the said persons already received or hereafter to be received into the society of purchasers as aforesaid, but they, their heires, executors, administrators and assigns, shall at all times quietly and peaceably enjoy the premises and every part thereof...."

First Baptist Church of America


Original church at Salem, Massachussetts


  The First Baptist Meetinghouse was completed in 1775
to house the Providence congregation of the Baptist Church of America,
founded in 1639 by Roger Williams.

The Original Deed of Providence from the Indians


"At Nanhiggansick, the 24th of the first month, commonly called March, in ye second yeare of our Plantation or planting at Mooshawsick or Providence.
Memorandum, that we Cannaunicus and Miantunomi, the two chief sachems of Nanhiggansick, having two yeares since sold vnto Roger Williams, ye lands and meadowes vpon the two fresh rivers, called Mooshausick and Wanasqutucket, doe now by these presents, establish and confirme ye bounds of those lands, from ye river and fields at Pautuckqut, ye great hill of Notquonskanet, on ye north-west, and the town of Maushapogue on ye west.
As also, in consideration of the many kindnesses and services he hath continually done for us, both with our friends at Massachusetts, as also at Quinickicutt and Apaum or Plymouth, we doe freely give unto him all that land from those rivers reaching to Pawtuxet river; as also the grass and meadowes upon ye said Pawtuxet river.
In witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands.

Ye mark of + Cannonnicus.
Ye mark of + Miantunnomi.

In ye presence of

The mark of + Sottaash.
The mark of + Assitemeweit.

1639. Memorandum 3 mo. 9th day. This was all again confirmed by Miantounomi; he acknowledged this his act and hand, up the streams of Pautuckqut and Pawtuxet without limits, we might have for use of cattle. Witness hereof, Roger Williams. Benedict Arnold."

Charter for Rhode Island and Providence Settlements
14 March 1644


Roger Williams returning from England with the Charter


Some of the many books and publications by Roger Williams


An help to the Language of the Natives in that part of AMERICA, called NEW-ENGLAND




A Discourse touching the Propagating the Gospel of CHRIST JESUS

Roger Williams Park, Providence, Rhode Island


This statue of Roger Williams sits in Roger Williams Park.








Memorials to Roger Williams



Memorial located at the location of Roger Williams' home on Main Street in Providence, Rhode Island.



Memorial located at the location of What Cheer Rock, where Roger Williams first exchanged greetings with the indians.

The Tree That Ate Roger Williams

"The body of the great 17th-century religious emancipator Roger Williams was eaten by a tree. Williams died in 1683 and was buried in a poorly marked grave in the back yard of his home. Fifty-six years later, a workman accidentally broke into the emancipator's coffin while excavating a nearby grave, exposing the bones. In 1860, a descendant of Williams, Stephen Randall, ordered workmen to exhume the remains from the Providence, R. I. plot and transfer them to a more suitable tomb. But the excavation yielded only a few badly rusted coffin nails and scraps of rotten wood. Not a bone was found. The workman, however, did find something extraordinary: the ramifying root of a nearby apple tree lay exactly where the remains should have been and it had taken the shape of Williams' body, from head to heels. As it grew, the roots apparently had encountered Williams' skull and followed the path of least resistance, inching down the side of his head, backbone, hips and legs, molding itself closely to the [---?---]. The corpse itself was gone - absorbed into the tree through the roots. The tree had eaten Roger Williams. The human-shaped root was removed for safekeeping and today is on display at the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence."

"After the lapse of 177 years of obvious neglect, the researches for the identification of the grave were finally commenced on the 22nd day of March, 1860, in the presence of several gentlemen, who were invited to witness the processes of the disinterment.... After the removal of the turf and loam, down to the hard surface of the subsoil, the outlines of seven graves became manifest, the three uppermost on the hillside being those of children, and the four lower ones, those of adults.
The utmost care was taken in scraping away the earth from the bottom of the Roger Williams. Not a vestige of any bone was discoverable, nor even of the lime dust which usually remains after the gelatinous part of the bone is decomposed. So completely had disappeared all the earthly remains of the Founder of the State of Rhode Island, in the commingling mass of black, crumbled slate stone and shale, that they did not 'leave a wreck behind.'
By the side of the grave of Roger Williams was another, which was supposed to be that of his wife; for wonderfully preserved therein was found a lock of braided hair, being the sole remaining human relic. All else had disappeared in the lapse of more than 170 years, during which this tress of hair had survived every other portion of the body equally exposed to the wet earth.
On looking down into the pit whilst the sextons were clearing it of earth, the root of an adjacent apple tree was discovered. This tree had pushed downwards one of its main roots in a sloping direction and nearly straight course towards the precise spot that had been occupied by the skull of Roger Williams. There making a turn conforming with its circumference, the root followed the direction of the backbone to the hips and thence divided into two branches, each one following a leg bone to the heel, where they both turned upwards to the extremities of the toes of the skeleton. One of the roots formed a light crook on the part occupied by the knee joint, thus producing an increased resemblance to the outlines of the skeleton of Roger Williams, as if indeed, moulded thereto by the powers of vegetable life. This singularly formed root has been carefully preserved, as constituting a very impressive exemplification of the mode in which the contents of the grave had been entirely absorbed. Apparently not sated with banqueting on the remains found in one grave, the same roots extended themselves into the next adjoining one, pervading every part of it with a network of voracious fibres in their thorough search for every particle of nutritious matter in the form of phosphate of lime and other organic elements constituting the bones. At the time the apple tree was planted, all the fleshy parts of the body had doubtless been decomposed and dispersed in gaseous forms; and there was then left only enough of the principal bones to serve for the roots to follow from one extremity of the skeleton to the other in a continuous course, to glean up the scanty remains. Had there been other organic matter present in quantity, there would have been found divergent branches of roots to envelop and absorb it. This may serve to explain the singular foundation of the roots into the shape of the principal bones of the human skeleton."

Transcript of an article from a 19th Century Rhode Island newspaper and excerpt of an address by Mr. Zachariah Allen in 1860 Regarding the Scientific Discovery of the Root that Consumed the Body of Roger Williams.