A Key into the Language of America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“This Key, respects the native language of it, and happily may unlocke some Rarities concerning the natives themselves, not yet discovered.

A little Key may open a Box, where lies a bunch of Keyes.”

Summary Overview

A Key into the Language of America is a book written by Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. Williams, an Anglican minister, offers the first study of the language of the American Indians (specifically, the Narragansetts) residing in this region. Williams learned the Narragansett language while living with the tribe and developed an appreciation of their culture and traditions in the process. The book, therefore, serves as one of the first sympathetic presentations of an American Indian way of life.

Defining Moment

As a preacher, Roger Williams was, first and foremost, a man of God. However, unlike many of his contemporaries in the early seventeenth century, Williams did not speak out against perceived “rogue” religious traditions such as Quakerism. Politically, Williams was of the mindset that government and faith should be separate, with the former never entrenching upon the latter. Although he was ordained as a minister of the Church of England, his liberal views found no favor among the English. He therefore departed for New England, where he hoped that he would be welcomed by other religious refugees.

The Puritan government and leadership of Massachusetts Bay Colony had initially embraced the arrival of Williams, but soon changed their minds when he began speaking against the taking American Indian lands for the colony. Williams was severely criticized for his dissenting tone, leading the colonial government to initiate legal sanctions against him. When he discovered that he was to be deported back to England for his views, Williams and a few followers absconded, heading south to the Narragansett Bay area of what is now Rhode Island.

Upon his arrival, Williams and his fellow refugees were confronted with a particularly harsh New England winter with no food or supplies. A tribe of Wampanoags came to their rescue. They found the refugees and brought them to the home of Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoags. The party spent the winter with Massasoit, and in the spring, he granted Williams land near the Seekonk River. Later, Williams made a deal with the Narragansetts to buy land on the Narragansett Bay. Williams named this place Providence. It was here that Williams, his family, and his growing number of followers established a colony of their own. The Rhode Island area would soon become a haven for tolerant and open-minded colonists.

Williams had initially approached the Narragansetts in a ministerial capacity. As was his religious calling, he sought to convert them to Christianity. Williams’s ingrained respect for the differences in religion and culture, however, led him to respect the traditions of the Indians among whom he now lived. As Williams’s colony grew, he sought recognition and legal protection from England for his colony, so he set sail in 1643. During the trip, he paid respect to his Narragansett friends by developing a guide for others to use in order to learn their as-yet unfamiliar language. Ultimately, Williams’s notions of religious freedom would become incorporated into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Author Biography

Roger Williams was born in London, England, sometime around 1603. He was educated at Sutton’s Hospital, a part of Charter House School in London, and later at Cambridge University, receiving his degree in 1627. During his education, he excelled at foreign languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Although he was ordained in the Church of England, Williams embraced the notion of Puritanism, which adhered to a simpler form of worship. He feared that the Church of England was becoming too close to the ritualistic style of Catholicism. He also strongly believed in the freedom of worship, regardless of a person’s religion. His views were highly unpopular in England, so Williams and his wife, Mary, immigrated to New England in 1631.

Upon his arrival in Boston, Williams was offered a position as pastor. He declined the post because he felt that the Puritan Church was too integrated in the colony’s government. He instead preached in Salem and then moved to Plymouth, where he remained for two years.

While there, he set up a trading post with local Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes. He became friends with many of them and began to learn the Narragansett language. His contact with the local tribes would shape his views on the rights of native peoples even further.

He began to preach a separatist view, one that ran counter to the precepts of the Boston church. When the parish showed resistance, he withdrew from Plymouth and resettled in Salem in 1633.

As he assumed his post in Salem once again, Williams almost immediately picked up where he left off in Plymouth, preaching religious tolerance and speaking against the English government’s claim to the land. Authorities in Boston began to draw up a long list of charges against Williams, including allegations that he denounced the taking of land from American Indians and that he thought it wrong to swear an oath in God’s name. The Massachusetts General Court sentenced him to deportation back to England, so Williams and a few of his followers escaped into the wilderness, resurfacing at Narragansett Bay.

As Williams’s colony in Rhode Island grew, it started to encroach on the territory of Plymouth. Williams petitioned for and received a colonial charter. As Rhode Island continued to grow in population, he developed a reputation as a peacemaker and a diplomat of sorts between the New England colonists and the native people living there. In 1675, however, open conflict between the Indians and colonists—known as King Philip’s War—began, squelching Williams’s trade relationship with the Narragansetts. He lived the rest of his days in Rhode Island with no church and no money. However, he remained a professor of religious tolerance until his death.

Document Analysis

A Key into the Language of America was written while Roger Williams traveled back to England to obtain a charter for the Rhode Island colony. In some of his opening comments, he states that he wrote the text initially to satisfy his own memory. After all, he reflects, he spent a few years living in hardship among the Indians by Narragansett Bay, experiencing their language, culture, and traditions firsthand. He states that it would be a shame if he did not create some sort of documentation of the knowledge he gained during this time. Furthermore, he argues, his fellow colonists might find such a primer on the Narragansett language useful should they themselves encounter these natives.

The willingness of Roger Williams to bridge the gap between American Indians and Europeans through linguistic communication reflects the relatively peaceful and friendly relationship that existed among these parties. In fact, relations between colonists and Indians were amicable during Williams’s time. This relationship would nonetheless become strained because of the diseases brought to America by the colonists. Williams did his part to protect the integrity of the friendship, although as more Indians died, their numbers in proportion to the settlers dwindled over time.

Williams believes that his key would be the first of its kind. Indeed, he says, many of his contemporaries in the New England colonies had commented on their experiences in the region’s wilderness, but no one had, to date, attempted to document the language spoken by the native tribes living there. Although Williams says that he is describing these dialects, he acknowledges the fact that one key (in this case, to the language) could open a box with “a bunch” of keys. In other words, his book would introduce not only the Indian tongue to the rest of the world, it would introduce the people as well. A Key into the Language of America was therefore a diplomatic document of sorts, bridging the cultural and social gaps that existed between the two worlds.

Roger Williams’s work goes beyond a simple glossary or text on the Narragansett tongue. Although it does provide some assistance in this front, Williams also uses the text to help readers understand and even appreciate the cultures, traditions, and morals of the Narragansetts. In this regard, Williams is not only breaking new ground with a first-of-its-kind tutorial on the Narragansett language, he is also providing an as-yet unseen guide to Indian culture.

The author begins by commenting on the world into which he had arrived after being forced into exile. In Narragansett Bay, he was about two hundred miles from the French and Dutch colonies and was even at a considerable distance from the Massachusetts Bay colony. There were a great many Indian tribes found in the New England wilderness, each of which had its own distinct dialect. The Narragansett (which means “people of the small point”) tribe was the largest of the tribes found in this region, although there were others, including the Wampanoags, Massachusets, the Niantics (Nehantics), and the Nausets. However, Williams states, while these dialects were different from one another, there were similarities in linguistic tone. Knowledge of the basic patterns of the Narragansett language could help colonists communicate effectively with any of the myriad tribes in the region.

A Key into the Language of America is divided into four general parts. In the first part, Williams attempts to identify and distinguish between the various tribes in the region. He comments on the derogatory names the colonists have for these groups, including “savages,” “wildmen,” “barbarians,” and “heathen,” and provides for the reader the true names of these tribes (thus elevating the natives’ social status nearly to that of the colonists themselves). This undertaking is particularly important and indicative of Williams’s respect for the people with whom he had lived for several years. Williams had arrived in this region with the same ignorance of the American Indians that his European counterparts demonstrated. After living among the Narragansetts, witnessing many different ceremonies, and building relationships with them, he chose to honor them by seeking to undo such ignorance.

Interestingly, Williams points out that, although the Narragansetts likely demonstrated ignorance of English and European cultures, generalizations about these newcomers were not similarly derogatory. Rather, their view of these incoming visitors was somewhat neutral, an application that was reflective of their culture. Williams says that, before Europeans arrived in America, Indians did not have a word to distinguish themselves from other tribes or groups; they all fell under a general term, Ninnouck, which signifies “people.”

Williams steps aside from his identification of the various tribes with whom he interacted in the area in order to recall a query he received several times from his Indian hosts. They asked him why Europeans refer to their people as “Indians” or “natives” rather than by their tribal names. Williams explained to them the mistake made by Christopher Columbus and his crew two centuries prior. Columbus left Europe in search of a route to East Asia and India, specifically. When he arrived in the Caribbean, he and his men assumed the people he met there were therefore Indians. Although this error was likely quickly corrected, this nickname for the indigenous peoples of America persisted over the following centuries. According to Williams, when he answered his hosts, they simply assented to the word’s continued use, at least in terms of distinguishing them from Europeans.

In the next section of Williams’s book, he offers his thoughts on the origins and lineage of American Indians. Although he states that, like the English and other Europeans, the Indians were from the same distant lineage initiated by the biblical figures of Adam and Noah, he also comments on the fact that they clearly developed along a different path than did Europeans. Williams apparently struggled with obtaining the genealogical and migratory histories directly from the Narragansetts. Their god, Cawtantowit, created the land and water of the region, and the people were created and placed there by the same, according to Williams’s hosts.

Because these American Indian tribes did not keep written documentation of their history in the manner by which Europeans did, but rather handed down history from generation to generation through oral tradition, Williams could not separate fact from myth. He therefore turned to European scholars and leaders, such as the governor of the nearby Dutch colony, to offer their “wise and judicious” thoughts. These individuals speculated that the Indians were descendants of the natives of Iceland. The evidence supporting this theory included the fact that the Indians referred to one of their princes as Sackmakan, which is similar to the name applied to a prince in Iceland. Williams adds that these individuals believed that the Indians came from somewhere in northern Scotland (“Tartana”) and proceeded westward through Iceland and, ultimately, to America.

In this section, Williams also comments on what he sees as insecurity among the Indians about Cawtantowit, when he is compared to the Christian god. Williams mentions that the American Indians see the Europeans’ clothes, books, and belongings as blessings. Since Cawtantowit did not provide such rich trappings to the Indians, Williams’s account recalls, the Indians believed that the Christian god must be more powerful than Cawtantowit. Williams reassured them by telling them how, 1,600 years prior, Europeans were at the same stage of cultural development as the American Indians were in the mid-seventeenth century. Williams states that, once they learned this fact, the Indians quickly developed an interest in following the Christian god in the hopes that their development would be hastened in the same manner by which the Europeans had been helped.

In his speculation regarding the true origins of American Indian tribes, Williams finds a great deal of common ground between Indian culture and the Judeo-Christian traditions. He observes that they anoint their heads and give dowries in the same way that Jews do. Furthermore, Williams even sees a similarity between the Narragansett language and Hebrew.

Williams continues to find similarities between the two worlds, even in a somewhat obscure practice. He suggests that the Indian practice of sequestering their women during their menstrual cycles is similar to a Jewish tradition. This observation leads him to recall how the Indians themselves asked if this practice of theirs was familiar to Europeans. This question spurs Williams to find more commonalities. From the practice of naming constellations to a story of a man who had the power to perform miracles and who bore a resemblance to Jesus Christ, Williams sees more than a few areas in which the Indian and European cultures share enormous similarity.

An important part of the Narragansetts’ religious ideals, according to Williams, is the southwest. It is in this direction that the great god Cawtantowit may be found and that the Indians believe that they will go when they die, Williams states. In fact, the author says, the Indians believe that the farther they go from the southwest, the less likely it is that they will prosper, as their corn will grow less and less. Williams believes that such a notion suggests that these peoples are “lost.” He states that he does not dare offer criticism of this religious notion. Then again, as a man of God, Williams advocates for any such “lost” people to join his faith and pursue Christian salvation.

Then again, Williams acknowledges that during his interactions with the Indians, he also came to understand their own values and traditions. In his desire to learn the language of his hosts, Williams came to respect the different nations and tribes of the New England region. He even befriended a number of them, including the leader of the Pequots, a man he identifies as Wequash.

Williams had met Wequash as he continued his efforts to spread Christianity (as well as build relationships with the Indians). Wequash was, according to Williams’s account, very interested in the Christian faith. Williams taught him extensively on the tenets of Puritanism, especially the notion of salvation through Jesus Christ. Wequash’s embrace of these ideals affected Williams—in Williams’s view, many people (even the Europeans who practiced Christianity from childhood) professed to pray to Jesus Christ but still lacked true conviction. Wequash, on the other hand, took his teachings to heart. In Williams’s estimation, Wequash was dedicated to undoing what Williams saw as a lifetime of “inward hardness” in his heart. In A Key into the Language of America, he recalls that he traveled to Wequash’s side as his friend lay on his deathbed. Wequash, Williams recounts, continued to pray to Jesus Christ and better himself even as he lay dying.

Williams’s key was designed as a guide to understanding the language of the Indians in the region where he had resided (specifically, the Narragansett language, as it was the most widely spoken dialect of the region). However, Williams states that he purposefully avoided generating a dictionary or framework of grammar simply because both undertakings would be extremely voluminous. He points to the fact that, in the Narragansett language, there are often two and as many as six words for the same item in English.

Rather, Williams chose instead to focus on pronunciation, arguing that accents, tones, and sounds are the “life of all language.” Indeed, he points to the fact that that the Narragansett language may be comprehended by Europeans when they take into account the accents placed on certain words. A Key into the Language of America provides a framework whereby key words are broken down syllabically, with Williams placing accents on the proper syllables. For example, the Narragansett word ascowequássin may be spoken with the accent on the syllable quáss.

Williams’s work then provides a table of key phrases used in dialogue with the Narragansetts. Each chapter features such a table, with the Narragansett word or words on the left and the English equivalent on the right. These chapters also offer his assessments on a particular Indian cultural, religious, or spiritual concept in addition to introducing the Narragansett language.

Embedded in each of his areas of observation is what may be described as a critical (and almost satirical) perspective on the relationship between the Europeans and Indians. One such example is the aforementioned discussion on the terms the Europeans had for American Indians. His main point on this topic is that the “wildmen” in question were commonly treated as degenerates in the face of the more “refined” European settlers. In fact, he argues throughout his book, the American Indians possessed a singular nobility and cultural distinctiveness which, although considerably different from English culture and traditions, was worthy of respect. Williams developed this attitude during his many interactions with the Narragansetts, taking part in their traditions.

To be sure, Williams remained true to his Christian faith and tradition, continuously proselytizing among the Narragansetts. However, Williams was also a man who had been cast out of the upright English colony in Massachusetts, forced to live in the wilderness or be carried back to England as a heretic. His excommunication came in response to his criticism of the apparent dominance of the church in a world filled with many different faiths. As he arrived in Narragansett Bay, however, he was saved from starvation and suffering during the New England winter by the tribes who lived there. The Indians took Williams and his followers in during this difficult period, giving them shelter and access to their long-held traditions.

Williams’s experience as a branded heretic and his subsequent interactions with the Narragansetts likely only emboldened his critical eye. Indeed, A Key into the Language of America is seen as a guide to understanding the Narragansett language and a social study, imbued with a disdain for the English, Dutch, and French notion of the Indians as savages.

Roger Williams’s efforts to facilitate communication between colonists and the Narragansetts would later prove invaluable. Williams had bonded with one of the most economically and militarily powerful tribes in the region. A few decades after he wrote A Key into the Language of America, open military conflict broke out between the English colonists and the Wampanoags of southeastern Massachusetts. The Wampanoag leader Metacom (who was known to colonists as King Philip) called upon the Wampanoags to engage the ever-encroaching English colonists. Williams had become known as the colonists’ unofficial ambassador to the Narragansetts—this position helped the English avoid, at least for a time, conflict with the well-equipped tribe. Later, the Wampanoags sent to the Narragansetts its elderly, women, and children for protection while they fought. The Narrgansetts provided shelter for these people, refusing to hand them over to the English. The Narragansetts would eventually break their neutrality regarding King Philip’s War, choosing to meet the colonists in open conflict. Williams, on the other hand, pulled away from his ambassadorship and returned to his home on Narragansett Bay to live outside of the political and military conflicts that had arisen.

Essential Themes

Roger Williams was a man of faith but not an adherent to contemporary theocracy. His defiance of the Puritan church’s governing authority resulted in his being driven out of Massachusetts and into the wilderness. There, his life was threatened by the harsh winter weather before he was taken in by the Narragansetts. As he and his American Indian companions developed a strong friendship, his faith led Williams to attempt to draw the Narragansetts into the Christian fold. Over time, however, he also grew to respect and appreciate their culture and heritage.

A Key into the Language of America serves as a sign of Williams’s appreciation of the Narragansett society, written so others will appreciate many different aspects of their way of life. He provides an outline of the accents and tones employed by the Narragansetts, creating the first such guide to American Indian languages. However, his approach to this tutorial is not to attempt to create a glossary—an undertaking that he explains would be far too difficult due to the abundance of Narragansett words and phrases. Rather, he describes the language in the same way in which he learned it himself, by carefully studying the tones and accents used by his hosts. By calling upon his experience and familiarity with the American Indians of this area and using this knowledge to share with his fellow Europeans, Williams is validating his eventual role as a true diplomat to the Narragansetts, bridging the gulf between the colonists and the natives.

Williams’s attitudes regarding religious freedom and, therefore, his critical view of what he saw as an elitist European view of the Indians, are also evident throughout book. Indeed, Williams takes such notions to task by presenting the Narragansett way of life as worthy of respect rather than derision. He elevates American Indians above the notion of savages, even suggesting that many of their religious and cultural traditions are comparable to those of Christian Europeans. In this regard, Williams again breaks new ground, casting a light never before seen on Indian life.

A Key into the Language of America provides evidence of Roger Williams’s long-standing and visible preference of religious and cultural freedom over theocratic government. It is this respect for other religions and traditions that helped build Rhode Island’s reputation as a bastion of diversity. Later, Williams’s ideal of the separation of church and state would be added to the US Constitution, building into that pivotal document the same appreciation for different ideals that Williams demonstrates in his guide to the Narragansett language.

  • Huetteman, Susan. “Roger Williams (1603–1683): First Author and Founder of Rhode Island.” NCTE American Collection. National Council of Teachers of English and ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre, n.d. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • “Roger Williams.” Freedom: A History of Us. PBS, 2002. Web. 15 May 2012.
  • “Roger Williams.” Roger Williams National Memorial. National Park Service, 2012. Web. 15 May 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Cesarini, J. Patrick. “The Ambivalent Uses of Roger Williams’s A Key into The Language of America.” Early American Literature 38.3 (2003): 469–94. Print.
  • LaFantasie, Glenn W. “Liberty for the Soul.” American History 42.1(2007): 24–29. Print.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Roger Williams: The Church and the State. New York: Norton, 2007. Print.
  • Rubertone, Patricia E. Grave Undertakings: An Archaeology of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001. Print.
  • Teunissen, John J., and Evelyn J. Hines. “Roger Williams, Thomas More, and the Narragansett Utopia.” Early American Literature 11.3 (Winter 1976–77): 281–95. Print.

Categories: History