If we hadn't blown it up and sold it for souvenirs, this would be our Plymouth Rock.

Slate Rock Park, Gano Street, Providence

This monument is located on a little parcel of land called Slate Rock Park, named after the ledge where Roger Williams and a handful of his followers are thought to have first stepped ashore in the late spring or early summer of 1636. The park, donated to the city by the heirs of Governor James Fenner, is also sometimes called What Cheer Square or Roger Williams Square.

Williams and company had been forced to leave their original settlement at Rumford, on the east side of the Seekonk River, after being notified that the land already belonged to Plymouth Colony. While Williams was on friendly terms with the governor of Plymouth, he was a wanted man in the powerful Massachusetts Bay Colony. Knowing that Massachusetts's reach extended well into Plymouth, Williams had no choice but to leave immediately. So Williams and his friends packed themselves and all they could carry into a single canoe and took off, regretfully leaving their newly planted fields behind.

When they arrived on the west side of the river, they had the good fortune to be met at Slate Rock by a number of friendly Narragansett Indians, one of whom greeted them with the phrase "What cheer, netop?"—essentially, "What's up, bud?" in a mixture of old English and Narragansett. Williams stepped from the canoe to the Rock, where he explained his predicament and asked the Indians if they knew of a place where he and his company could settle.

The Indians directed the group to continue down the river, around the point to the west, and up another small river to a cove. There, they were told, they would find a suitable spot to live. Williams gratefully took the advice. In the fullness of time, the little settlement he established by the cove became the city of Providence.

This is a very nice little story, one that is only slightly diminished by the fact it's probably not entirely true. Scanty historical evidence suggests Williams had only one companion with him that day, a young man named Thomas Angell who was something between a servant and adopted son. What's more, it's likely Williams never set foot on Slate Rock, but that he held his conversation with the Indians by means of hand gestures and shouted phrases from out on the river. The conversation could, in fact, have taken place anywhere along the river south of Rumford. If so, the original landing place of Roger Williams would actually be near the spring at the present-day Roger Williams National Memorial.

Veneration of Slate Rock as the official landing spot may have begun no earlier than 1821, shortly after Plymouth had celebrated its bicentennial. Plymouth had Plymouth Rock, the site where tradition stated that the Pilgrims had first set foot in the New World, so why shouldn't Providence have a rock, too? Such imitation is perhaps even more appropriate when you consider that the Pilgrims actually landed first on Cape Cod before proceeding across the bay to the spot that would become Plymouth. It can't be proved any one of them ever stepped on Plymouth Rock, either.

The whole Roger-Williams-meeting-the-Indians episode was first recorded in a deposition given by seventy-year-old Theodore Foster in 1821. He based his version on conversations he'd had with Stephen Hopkins as long as fifty years earlier, making his story a third-hand account, at best. His version never mentioned Slate Rock, but at the time, the ledge would have been very prominent along the shoreline—a natural choice for anyone who, having heard Foster's account, might have set out to find a place to connect with Williams.

Edward Lewis Peckham noted in 1872 that Slate Rock was "nearly concealed by washings from the hill above," and that, should anyone take the trouble to reveal it, "its surface will be found covered with the engraved initials, and even whole names of former visitors, most of whom are passed away." In 1912 Peckham's nephew, Stephen Farnum Peckham, tells us further that

When I returned to Providence in 1880, the Rock had been blasted to pieces, portions containing names had been distributed to the few survivors of those who had carved them, and the bluff had been graded over where the Rock once was.

Parks Department Deputy Superintendent Robert McMahon confirmed this tale in a 2007 Providence Journal article. He said it happened in 1877, when city workers used a bit too much dynamite while trying to uncover more of the rock. With Slate Rock in little bits, plans to enshrine it in a Plymouth Rock-like pavilion had to be abandoned, and the present-day monument, designed by Frank Foster Tingley and sculptor E.C. Codman, with plaques cast by Gorham, was erected in its place in 1906. The Providence Association of Merchants and Manufacturers footed the bill. While the monument looks like a pedestal, it was never meant to hold a statue, and never has.

All those broken bits of Slate Rock didn't go entirely to waste. Florence Simister notes in Streets of the City that the Natural History Store, located at 258 Westminster Street during that period, offered pieces of slate, reputed to be from Slate Rock, in its catalog. They cost from ten cents to $2.50 per chunk. One could purchase them "in plain pieces or cut in bas relief representing [Williams's] landing, the present monument in the park, and so forth."

Pieces of Slate Rock can still be seen in a few places in Providence. Several slabs are embedded in the floor of the vestibule of the Central Baptist Church, located at 372 Wayland Avenue. Another piece is on the quad just inside Brown University's Waterman Avenue gates. It's set into the rear of a pedestal supporting a large statue of the Brown University bear. It's likely there are numerous souvenir pieces lurking in the attics and basements of Providence, as well.

Over the last century, additional filling and land reclamation have moved the shore of the Seekonk River a quarter mile east of the traditional landing place. Whatever's left of Slate Rock now lies several feet below the granite monument. A ball field and the meeting hall of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 57 at 141 Gano Street pretty much obscure any view of the river.

The monument originally had four bronze plaques. On the west side was a bas relief depicting the meeting between Williams and the Indians, as well as a small bronze emblem bearing the seal of the State of Rhode Island. The other three sides included information about Williams, his arrival at that spot, and a relevant Williams quote. In 1989 the park was rededicated and a fifth plaque was added in commemoration. But then, in 1996, the original four plaques were removed after one was vandalized. They reportedly remain in storage at the Parks Department as of this writing (2015).

Update, July 2016: The monument's plaques have been restored!

Photos courtesy of Rhode Island Maps, Monuments, Memorials, and Markers.

Monument Inscriptions

Gano Street side

BELOW THIS SPOT THEN AT
THE WATER'S EDGE STOOD
THE ROCK ON WHICH
ACCORDING TO TRADITION
ROGER WILLIAMS, AN EXILE
FOR HIS DEVOTION TO
FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE,
LANDED 1636.

ROGER WILLIAMS LANDING
Rededicated to Roger Williams
The Founding Father of Providence
1989
Joseph R. Paolino, Jr., Mayor
Nancy L. Derrig, Superintendent of Parks

Power Street side

AND HAVING OF A SENSE OF
GOD'S MERCIFUL PROVIDENCE
UNTO ME IN MY DISTRESS
CALLED THE PLACE PROVIDENCE
I DESIRED IT MIGHT BE FOR
A SHELTER FOR PERSONS
DISTRESSED FOR CONSCIENCE

ROGER WILLIAMS

(facsimile of his signature)

Roger Street side

At top, the Rhode Island State seal. Below, a bas relief by E.C. Codman, entitled "The Landing and Welcome by the Indians." This was replaced by a stone tablet with the text from the original Gano Street plaque in 1989.

Below the plaque, carved into the granite of the monument:

LANDING PLACE OF
ROGER WILLIAMS

Williams Street side

TO THE MEMORY OF
ROGER WILLIAMS
THE APOSTLE OF SOUL LIBERTY
FOUNDER OF THE
STATE OF RHODE ISLAND
AND
PROVIDENCE PLANTATIONS
THIS MONUMENT IS DEDICATED
BY THE
PROVIDENCE ASSOCIATION
OF
MECHANICS AND MANUFACTURERS
1906

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow 10 minutes

Hours: year round, dawn to dusk

Finding it: take Route 95 to Route 195 East; take exit 3 for Gano Street and take a right at the end of the ramp; Slate Rock Park is a couple of blocks up on the left, across from 141 Gano Street.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to water or plundering hellhounds. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited August 7, 2016

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