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Native Americans as Active Agents
Digital History ID 72

Author:   Roger Williams


Although most of New England's settlers were Puritans, these people did not agree about religious doctrine. Some, like the Pilgrims of Plymouth, believed that the Church of England should be renounced, while others, like Massachusetts Bay's leaders, felt that the English church could be reformed. Other issues that divided Puritans involved who could be admitted to church membership, who could be baptized, and who could take communion.

Disagreements over religious beliefs led to the formation of a number of new colonies. In 1636, Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), a Cambridge, Massachusetts minister, established the first English settlement in Connecticut. Convinced that government should rest on free consent, he extended voting rights beyond church members. Two years later, another Massachusetts group founded New Haven colony in order to combat moral laxness by setting strict standards for church membership and basing its laws on the Old Testament. This colony was incorporated by Connecticut in 1662.

In 1635, Massachusetts Bay colony banished Roger Williams (1604-1683), a Salem minister, for claiming that the civil government had no right to force people to worship in a particular way. Williams had even rejected the ideal that civil authorities could compel observance of the Sabbath. Equally troubling, he argued that Massachusetts's royal charter did not justify taking Indian land. Instead, Williams argued, the colonists had to negotiate fair treaties and pay for the land.

Instead of returning to England, Williams headed toward the Narragansett Bay, where he founded Providence, which later became the capital of Rhode Island. From 1654 to 1657, Williams was president of Rhode Island colony.

In Rhode Island, Williams found allies among certain Indian tribes. Like other colonial leaders, he would play off different tribes against one another (not unlike the way tribes would play off the French and English). The Sachem (chief) of the Mohican Indians, Uncas, allied himself with English settlers in Massachusetts but sometimes fought other tribes allied to the English, such as the Narragansetts. In this letter Williams writes to Winthrop about Uncas holding three Narragansett ("Nayantoquits") and five "friends," apparently captured in battle or raiding. Miantonomi of the Narragansett, an ally of the English and friend of Williams, was sent to get the prisoners.

Prior to this letter, Miantonomi had received permission from the English to fight Uncas. In 1643 Governor Winthrop would allow Uncas to execute Miantonomi, whom he had defeated in battle. Uncas managed to defeat neighboring tribes in war, and thus helped to more firmly establish English hegemony in New England.

The nineteenth-century American novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) would give the name Uncas to the title character in his classic tale of Indian-white friendship and conflict, The Last of the Mohicans, which he set a century later in time, amid the French and Indian War.


As I lately advertized to Mr. Gov[erno]r...Consultations so Continue, about the 3 Nayantaquits [Narragansetts] prisoners with 5 friends at Qunniticut....

The Monhiggin [Mohican] Sachim [leader] Onkas refuseth to part with his prey. And whereas, Miantunnomu [Miantonomi, a Narragansett ally of the English and friend of Williams] was going up to Monhiggin himselfe with a Sufficient Company for three Runnawayes, Onkas [Uncas] sent word th[a]t it was yr Wo[rshi]ps plot to bring him into [th]e Snare at Monhiggin that there [th]e Quinnitcut English might fall upon him.

Miantunnomu still promiseth me to Come over to you, & his purpose (to his utmost) to bring them with him: my occasions lead me within these 4 or 5 dayes to Qunnipiug when (the Lord so permitting): I purpose [propose] to goe up to Monhiggin & try the utmost my Selfe: The yssue [issue] of all is in th[a]t Everlasting Hand, in which is o[u]r Breath & o[u]r Wayes,

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Roger Williams to Governor John Winthrop

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