Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

From early school days, three pictures sta...

From early school days, three pictures stand out in my memory: the village smithy, the gleaners and Roger Williams’ meeting with the naked Indians who gathered on the shore to see those funny looking people who were wearing clothes. Williams wore tight black pants, a matching fitted coat and wide-brimmed hat. This was frightening to the Native Americans, but the man was smiling and holding out his hand in friendship as he stepped from the landing boat to their shore.

Roger Williams must have planned that moment well in advance. As a Baptist preacher, he intended to “save the soules” of these men. He probably said, “Hello, my name is Williams, what’s yours?” The Indian uttered a string of syllables, all joined into one word, that sounded like “Npenowauntawaumen.” Everyone must have laughed -- Europeans and Indians alike -- in great relief. Williams later learned that the long word was a sentence: “I don’t speak your language.” Williams soon learned to communicate with these natives and served as an interpreter and arbitrator for the others.

In order to put their sounds on paper he “translated” sounds into words that could be spelled with the English alphabet. Of course the natives were no help in this; they had no alphabet or written words! Thanks to this 17th century preacher, there is a dictionary or “Key to the Language of America.” And, thanks to my husband’s printer ancestor, Gregory Dexter of London, that 32 chapter volume was printed in 1643. The little book not only puts Indian sounds into the English alphabet, it includes intimate observations about how the natives lived. These comments helped Williams describe his unique experiences in the New World to the folks back home in England.

Returning to England in 1641, Williams arrived with a “rude lump of papers,” notes that he had completed and edited during the long ocean voyage. He took them to Dexter, a London printer, who was, like Williams, a sort of political dissident. The men became friends, and later Dexter came to Providence, R.I., and was a member of Providence’s first town council. Historians credit Roger Williams with forming the first democratic government, thereby setting an example for other towns to follow.

Let’s take a look at this “Key to the Language of America,” a valuable dictionary to the newcomers, to their relatives back in Europe and to historians. I’ve learned to overlook the unusual sentence structure and spelling, the fact that the printed “f” and “s” look just alike, and to decipher the unusual 17th century printing, which is difficult to read. This allows me to put Williams’ observations into Boone County language for my grandchildren. With this in mind, I repeat an incident from the “Key’s” chapter six, “Of the Family Businesses”

Before 1664, Roger Williams wrote, “I once came into a house and requested some water to drink. The father bid his son (of some 8 years) to fetch some water. The boy refused and would not stir. I told the father that I would correct my child if he should disobey me like this. Upon this the father took up a stick and the boy took up another and flew at his father. Upon my persuasion, the poor father made him smart a little, throw down his stick and run for the water. The father confessed the benefit of correction and the evil of their indulgent affection for their children.” Expect more on another Tuesday.

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