Tuesday, April 4, 2017

OUR RHODE ISLAND ROOTS #3: Roger Williams-A Man Rooted in Liberty

(Williams-Winsor and Williams-Olney)

9th GGF: ROGER WILLIAMS (1631 English immigrant)
To commemorate the 300th anniversary of Rhode Island, a monument was erected in Providence’s Prospect Terrace Park to honor its founder (and my 9th great grandfather) Roger Williams.  Topped with a 15-foot granite statue, the monument now serves as the final resting place for the remains of my illustrious ancestor.  I use the word “final” because his original burial place -an apple orchard behind his home lot in Providence- was the scene of a most unusual grave-robbing.
Roger Williams died in 1683 and was quietly buried in a humble grave on his property in the community he named Providence.  This was common practice at the time since public burial grounds were not  established in Providence until 1700.  If not for the efforts of a local community leader intent on locating the overlooked graves of Williams and his wife Mary, the grave-robbery might never have been discovered. 
Here’s how the story goes:  In 1860, Zachariah Allen went in search for the forgotten graves located near the ruins of the Williams’ home.  Upon locating the site of probable interment, he unearthed what remained of two disintegrated coffins.  With the exception of bits of wood, coffin nails, and small fragments of Mister and Mistress Williams, all that remained was Biblical dust.  Or was there more?
Imagine the amazement of Mr. Allen as he looked down upon the open grave to see that one coffin had been invaded by an apple tree root.  Now, this was no ordinary, wandering tree root.  No.  This root almost seemed inspired.  Tracing its path, it appeared to have entered the coffin where Roger Williams’ head would have been laid to rest.  But, curiously, the root continued straight down where his spine would have been, branching off as legs and -if that wasn’t enough to convince the onlooker- each long branch end pointed up in foot-like tips.   Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up! 
Although Mr. Allen reverently scooped up and preserved the dust from Roger Williams’ grave, which was temporarily placed in an urn and deposited in a mausoleum of a descendant of Williams …he also felt compelled to remove the most peculiar grave-robbing root, too.   Just in case you don’t believe me, you can see it for yourself discretely displayed in a museum not far from the Roger Williams monument. 
I discovered this story by chance while researching my ancestor under such headings as “Williams Root,” “Who Ate Roger Williams” and “TheTree Root that Ate Roger Williams.”  Despite its macabre nature, and my slightly irreverent reference to a grave-robber, I prefer to imagine the amazing discovery more symbolically.
To me, the slightly anthropomorphic apple tree root aptly symbolizes the fact that Rhode Island is, indeed, “rooted” in Roger Williams, the man, the nonconformist, the visionary.   Banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony for his strong views contrary to Puritan New England governance and beliefs, Roger Williams was firmly committed to the place where he could practice and share liberty-infused “new and dangerous” concepts – concepts we now hold as inalienable rights as Americans.  Roger Williams was a man rooted in liberty.

In his own words:  
"What are all the contentions and wars of this world about but for greater dishes and bowls of porridge? But here all over this colony a great number of weak and distressed souls, scattered, are flying hither. The Most High and only Wise hath provided this country and this corner as a shelter for the poor and persecuted according to their several persuasions. And as to myself in endeavoring after your temporal and spiritual peace, I humbly desire to say, if I perish I perish. It is but a shadow vanished, a bubble broke, a dream finished. Eternity will pay for all." -Roger Williams

An excellent short biography can be found at the National Park Service's ROGER WILLIAMS NATIONAL MEMORIAL website.

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