Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

The first meeting of American natives and ...

The first meeting of American natives and European intruders was a sort of extraterrestrial encounter. The Europeans called the natives “savages,” “wild-men,” “pagans,” “barbarians,” “heathens,” and “Indians.”

The Indians accepted that name for themselves after they understood the reason for it. However, they had no words for “European,” or “white man” or “intruder.” They were awed by these weird beings with faded-out skin, who babbled unintelligible sentences and who covered their body with clothing. Natives were fascinated that the intruders used metal knives. The Indians, therefore, made up a word to describe the newcomers: “Chauquaquock” which meant “knife-men.”

Roger Williams, more than any other person in his area, learned to talk readily with the American Indians. Because of this he frequently negotiated, mediated and acted as interpreter for the colonists who needed to communicate with the natives. People urged him to write, in English words, the meanings of Narragansett words.

When he sailed off to England in 1641, he began to write a “rude lumpe” of information because, “what a pitie to bury those materials in my Grave at land or Sea.” He felt it necessary to write this “key” or dictionary, “since it pleased God to bring that mighty continent of America to light.”

Williams was warmly accepted by the Indians, mostly Narragansett, and he had news for them: He intended to convert them to Christianity. He was surprised to find them hospitable and courteous, sometimes even more so than his countrymen. Having noted that they “live like Foxes, Beares and Wolves, or Lyon in his Den,” he ends his observation with this rhyme: If Nature’s Sons, both wild and tame, Humane and courteous be; How ill becomes its Sonnes of God To (lack) Humanity! This was an important message for the 17th century -- and for us.

Williams traveled in a radius of about 200 miles and was a surprise overnight guest of the natives, at mealtimes and at night. He was often given the warm bed while his host went out to sleep under a tree. He often traveled with groups of men and gives the following account:

Parched meal is a ready, very wholesome food which they eat with a little water, hot or cold. I have traveled with neere 200 of them ... miles through the woods. Every man carried a little basket of this at his back and sometimes in a hollow leather girdle about his middle, sufficient for a man three or four days. With the Aupummineanash (parched corn meal) and their bows and arrows, they are ready for war and travel at an hour’s warning. With a spoonful of this meale and a spoonful of water from the brook, I have made many a good dinner and supper.

Williams also tells of the Tree Eaters, who live a few hundred miles inland. They plant no corn but, instead, live on “beasts” and the dried bark of chestnut, walnut “and other fine trees.” These people are the terror of their neighboring natives, who identified them to Williams as “Cummohucquock.” This meant that they were not only “mihtukmecha kick” (tree eaters) they also sometimes ate the flesh of men. The Englishman had hope, however, that in time they would learn reform, subdued by the “Sonne of God.”

Williams went seriously about the attempt to “save their soules.” His “Key to the Language of America” is a little brown leather book with gold letters, printed in 1643. I have held and read from a rare original volume at the British museum and library. We have a photocopy of that rare, 32-chapter treasure.

Let’s not take our heritage for granted. Life was not always a piece of cake.

Click here to return to the index

 Subscribe in your RSS reader

Copyright © 1994-2010 Sue Gerard. All Rights Reserved. No text or images on this website may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author, except small quotations to be used in reviews.