Introduced and annotated by David Norton Stone and Christopher Martin

An illustrated account of dubious veracity.

(Click on images to embiggen).

The Settlement of Rhode Island, written by Charles T. Miller and illustrated by Walter F. Brown, was published in 1874. It is a spoof history of Roger Williams' arrival in Rhode Island after being banished from Massachusetts. The illustrated poem bears little resemblance to history, and the illustrations often bear little relation to the text. However the book provides a window into what Rhode Islanders thought was funny in the 1870s and some of it even elicits a chuckle today. The message, to the extent that The Settlement of Rhode Island can be said to have one, is that Roger Williams' spirit entered an apple tree and caused havoc centuries later. The mole on Roger Williams' head (best seen in the cover illustration at right) may explain why he is so often depicted wearing his pilgrim hat.

The title page (below) includes two more depictions of Williams. Not only is he front and center, but he's also in the upper left corner, all but hidden behind a copy of his 1644 tome The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, in which he argues for a "wall of separation" between church and state. This idea, controversial at the time, would later be included in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The title page also offers an explanation (if not an excuse) for the bizarre depictions of Native Americans on this, and in the pages that follow. As indicated by the note being reeled in by the fellow with the nose ring in the upper right corner, the poem is meant to be recited to the tune of "The King of the Cannibal Islands," a well known song at the time. A band strikes up that tune in Herman Melville's first book, Typee (1846), and the phrase the "King of the Cannibals" even appears in Moby-Dick. It is an unfortunate choice for the contemporary reader, however, who does not know the song, and is confused and offended by the racist "cannibal" depictions of the Narragansetts Williams encounters.

Here's one modern interpretation of the song by the Homestead Pickers:

Lastly, there are delightful portraits of the authors at the bottom of the title page. The dandyish Brown is depicted on the right in the act of painting Roger Williams. Miller is on the left, his hair standing on end with the effort of literary creation. He is surrounded by books that bear the names of members of the Narragansett Club, an organization that reproduced early volumes of Rhode Island history, including works by Roger Williams. The Settlement of Rhode Island is far from being a work of scholarship, however. Take special note also of the frog sitting near Miller. This is a clue as to how the authors met.

Anne A.A. Perkins sent a copy of The Settlement of Rhode Island to the Providence Journal in 1932. The newspaper published the poem, along with her reminiscences about the author Charles Thurber Miller, who was an old friend of her parents. She explained that Miller wrote the Frog Opera, which was presented at The Providence Opera in her childhood. She said that many children in the city took part in the production, one of whom later became her music teacher.

Walter Brown was also involved with the Frog Opera company, according to a profile of the painter and illustrator that appeared in the Providence Journal on June 11, 1933, a few years after his death. This explains why, as you will see, a page dedicated to the Frog Opera appears in The Settlement of Rhode Island.

We have been unable to discover much about the poet Charles T. Miller other than that he lived from 1830 to 1876 and wrote light verse. Anne Perkins' letter to the Providence Journal stated that in 1932 relatives of Mr. Miller were living, but not in Providence. Her letter also provides a bit of precious authorial commentary about The Settlement of Rhode Island straight from the poet: "Mr. Miller used to say that the reference to the monument meant that there was none then, and the reference to the college boats meant that there were none. I think there was at that time a tumbledown boathouse on the banks of the Seekonk somewhere. Slate Rock is of course at the foot of Williams Street."

Walter Francis Brown was born in Providence on January 10, 1853. He graduated from Brown in 1873, with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. The Settlement of Rhode Island was one of his first works. He began his career with comic illustrations for magazines, but eventually moved to Paris to study at l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts with the painter Gerome. His skill increased to the point that Mark Twain selected him to illustrate A Tramp Abroad. He visited and painted the Isle of Rhodes, Egypt, Greece, and Africa. He first visited Venice in 1882, and soon afterwards made it his permanent home. He became well-known for his colorful and charming paintings of Venice's lagoons, canals and palaces, a far cry from his illustrations in The Settlement of Rhode Island. In 1885, he married Louise Beckwith, whose own experiences in Venice were of great interest to people at home in Providence during World War One.

Walter and Louise Brown lived in the Palazzo da Mula in Venice, and Louise distinguished herself with war relief work. She taught Venetian women and girls new skills like lace making and toy making. The lace was later sold at the Handicraft Club in Providence. Germany had traditionally been the home of toy making, but Mrs. Brown's committee borrowed all the toys they could find and took them apart to learn how to copy them. One little rabbit later produced in Venice was a copy of one she had bought in Providence in 1914.

Mrs. Brown made the news in Providence on December 19, 1917, when a poison bomb fell on her palazzo during the German bombardment of Venice. The bomb crashed through the roof to the cellar and, although the bomb didn't explode, the house was covered in a bright yellow powder, which gave everyone in the house a yellow face and swollen arms, hands, and feet. Tragically, "[t]he powder also ate and destroyed the pads on the feet of Mrs. Brown's pet cat and turned the animal's fur from white to yellow, which color it remains." Mrs. Brown was one of the last two English speaking people in Venice at the time. Her husband was visiting Providence when the bomb fell.

Walter Brown died in Venice in November 1929 of arteriosclerosis, followed by Louise in 1932. The couple did not have any children. It is unknown whether their yellow cat survived them.

Such is the sum total of our information on Miller and Brown. Now on to the poem!

The Settlement of Rhode Island
by Charles T. Miller
illustrated by Walter F. Brown

Did you ever hear the story told
Of Roger Williams, the preacher bold,
That settled this State in the days of old
This little State of Rhode Island?

In sixteen hundred thirty-six,
Roger Williams got into a fix,
By saucing the Governor of Massachusetts,
And skedaddled away to Rhode Island.

Brown's style in The Settlement of Rhode Island is almost comic book-like at times, with some pages broken up into panels, not all of which have anything to do with the literal text of Miller's poem. The first image on this page is an example. New York photographer Napoleon Sarony was well known for his portraits of the rich and famous of his day, and here Brown imagines the result if Roger Williams had ever posed for a photo.

Next, Williams is shown preaching his "erroneous" and "dangerous opinions" before an audience of less-than-captivated parishioners.

In the lower left corner of the page, Williams appears to harangue a bar patron as the long arm of the law reaches for his shoulder. Williams, in fact, escaped Massachusetts just ahead of authorities sent to arrest him in January 1636.

The image of Roger Williams doing a flying split and thumbing his nose to Massachusetts as he skedaddles away to Providence is our favorite in the book.

The governor who Williams "sauced," by the way, was John Haynes, who was the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635-'36. He presided over the General Court that found Williams guilty of sedition and heresy in October 1635.

He crossed, as everybody knew,
Seekonk river in a birch canoe;
Just to save the tolls that were due
On the bridges above and below him.

The college boats are always out,
They'd have taken him over, I have n't a doubt;
But Roger was mad and stuffed it out
And "paddled his own canoe."

The idea that Roger Williams rowed to Rhode Island to avoid tolls is surprisingly relevant, given the recent controversy over the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls.

The bridge on the left is the 1874 incarnation of Washington Bridge. The bridge on the right is India Point Railroad Bridge which, at the time the poem was written, was covered for part of its length. You can see a train approaching from the right.

At bottom, Brown presents some amusing caricatures of the members of a Brown University crew team. Walter Brown was especially interested in contrasting the Rhode Island of 1636 with that of 1874. The reference to the college boats meant that there were none in 1636, according to the author of the poem, Charles Miller.

When, on Slate Rock, a footing was found,
The Abbey Origines were sitting around;
And Roger, thinking he'd like to sit down,
He quietly asked "What Cheer?"

Roger Williams appears to have arrived in the Providence of 1874, complete with advertisements for Miller's The Frog Opera and Tockwotton House (which is still around today, in its beautiful new building in East Providence). Photos from the period show that the posting of such bills was so common as to constitute a form of visual pollution; here, even Slate Rock itself is appropriated for promotional use.

Another form of pollution is hinted at by the huge clouds of smoke generated by the hookah-smoking natives. Providence was a manufacturing powerhouse in 1874, and smoke that belched from wood- and coal-fired furnaces was an ever-present feature of the city-scape.

Williams' trunk is addressed to City Hotel (1832-1903), which was located on Weybosset Street, about where the Johnson & Wales main quad is now.

The authors presume that the Narragansetts who welcomed Williams did not understand his famous words, "What Cheer," as a greeting, but as a demand for a chair.

The Indians thought it exceedingly cool,
And said we have neither chairs nor stool;
So sit on the rock, you fussy old fool,
As all the rest of us do.

This page riffs on the legend that Roger Williams first stepped ashore at Slate Rock. Williams displays all the confidence he can muster, while at left, a pair of Indians, dressed in elaborate Elizabethan-cum-native costume, haughtily observe the scene. The man wears a feather duster for a headdress; the woman has an arrow incorporated into her headgear.

Note the Native apple seller at right—a foreshadowing of further fruity folklore?

They asked him if he'd "have a hack?"
Would they "black his boots" or "carry his pack?"
But Roger was mad and answered back,
That—he thought—he guessed—he'd foot it.

So he took his pack and trudged over the hill,
Where he settled down with a right good will,
And set up a Bank and a Flouring Mill
And an Office to Insure it.

Once again, these verses have more to say about the Providence of 1874 that that of 1636. The author seems to be implying that a stranger arriving in town might find himself accosted by every sort of service provider—cab driver, bootblack, porter—in quick succession. Also, even by 1874, Providence was seemingly overrun by businesses named in honor of the state's founder.

By the sweat of his brow, I've heard it said,
He paid his way and earned his bread;
And when he gets sufficiently dead,
They'll put a monument over him.

In his old age, Roger Williams rowed to Newport from Providence to debate George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, about the principles of the Quaker religion. The poem and illustrations here establish the prodigious energy and output of Williams.

The reference to the park and the monument means that there was none, at least when Williams was alive. We're enjoying Roger Williams Park today, though, even if the city of Providence initially balked at the gift of the land from a Williams descendant because it was too far from the city center. The 1871 bequest would have been fresh in the minds of the authors when they wrote and illustrated this piece, although development of the land would not begin for another four years. Those big bugs are an indication of how wild and remote the property was perceived to be at the time.

The fan held by Williams reads, "BUYE Mr. Williamf his new KEY to Ye Indian Language," and refers to his pamphlet, published in 1643, entitled A Key into the Language of America. In it, Williams offered the first study, in English, of the Narragansett language.

"N.B.C." on Roger's back could be a reference to the Narragansett Bay Company, chartered in 1827 and still in business as of 1874, ferrying passengers between various points on the bay. A passing ferry in the illustration bolsters this interpretation. Or it could refer to the Narragansett Boat Club, established in 1838 and still going today, described on its website as "a premier social and athletic organization of Providence's East Side." Chief among the club's activities were/are rowing and sculling. Roger's oars in the illustration resemble sculling oars, and they rest in specialized oar locks that are not found on a simple canoe. So too, the profile of Roger's "canoe" is narrow and tapered like a sculling shell. Did Brown intend both interpretations to be perceived by the contemporary reader?

They buried him carefully, away from harm,
In a quiet old orchard on his own farm,—
'twas right in back of Governor Dorr's barn.
And supposed that he'd keep quiet.

This touching depiction of Williams' funeral adds a sudden note of sobriety, which is undercut by Miller's text, suggesting that even death wouldn't still Roger Williams.

It should be noted that Williams' grave site came first, predating Sullivan Dorr's 1809 mansion by 126 years. Sullivan Dorr was the father of Thomas Wilson Dorr, who, in 1842, was elected "The People's Governor" in an extralegal constitutional convention.

But a jolly old apple tree rooting around,
Seeking for phosphates under the ground,
Followed his back bone all the way down
And old Mother Williams's too.

What's bred in the bone, the flesh will show,
What's bred in the root, the fruit will know;
For two hundred years this fruit did grow
'Till posterity ate him up.

The bones of Roger Williams and his wife gave strength—and spirit—to the apple tree nearby. Brown has fun depicting changes in fashion as men and women enjoy the fruit of the tree through the ages here.

Bone meal is used as an organic fertilizer for plants, so its reference here is appropriate. As for "bone flour," the illustrator may be alluding to the line from the fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk," in which the giant threatens to grind Jack's bones to make his bread.

In 'forty-two he got up a war
By having got into Governor Dorr,
By eating the apples, just as you saw;
So there was another row.

Roger Williams takes the heat for starting the Dorr Rebellion (1841-'42, scenes from which are depicted here) because Williams' spirit entered Thomas Dorr through an apple from the tree near the grave. There is a poem by Henry B. Anthony about the Dorr Rebellion called, really, The Dorriad, if, like us, you enjoy your history in verse.

Supporters of Dorr were naturally called Dorrites, and Walter F. Brown couldn't resist the visual pun in the upper left corner. Those advocating for the status quo were derisively called Algerines, after the Bey of Algiers who had been deposed a decade earlier. The Bey's autocratic rule was equated with that of Rhode Island under the Royal Charter of 1663, so an Algerine is depicted here as a hotheaded Berber.

In the upper right corner, The Royal Charter of 1663 is ready to scrap with the People's Constitution. Notice that the Charter is depicted as a dandyish aristocrat, while the Constitution has the look of a working class grunt.

Neither side comes off well in the bottom section, where both appear to be the gang who couldn't shoot straight. The inclusion of the grazing bovine may be in reference to a legend that the only casualty in the Dorr War was a cow.

'Tis Williams's fault we all know now,
Apples have always caused a row
From Adam's time, way down to now;
So they dug Mr. Williams up.

This page plays with the idea of apples causing trouble throughout history: from Adam and Eve, to the Apple of Discord, to the Eleventh Labor of Hercules, William Tell's target practice, Sir Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, and a play on words suggesting that paring apples might lead to pairing of a different sort.

Brown shows his familiarity with popular conceptions of Darwin's theory of evolution here in his depiction of an ape Adam and Eve, only three years after the publication of The Descent of Man.

When Roger Williams's grave was opened in 1860, just a decade or so before the publication of The Settlement of Rhode Island, all that was found in his grave was an apple tree root in the vague shape of a man. The root is now in the possession of the Rhode Island Historical Society and can safely be called its coolest asset.

So they dug up the roots and the coffin nails,
To be planted again in boxes or pails;
And unless a big stone monument fails,
This time they'll keep him down.

This is a glorious illustration of people at play around a statue, presumably of Roger Williams, in a conception of a future Roger Williams Park. As mentioned above, the land for the park was bequeathed in 1871, and planning for the design didn't begin until 1878. But by 1874 numerous ideas for the park would have already been floated, most certainly including a statue of the founder of Rhode Island and a final resting place for his scant remains. In fact, the statue of Williams that stands in the park today dates from 1877. His remains, meanwhile, remained restless until 1939, when they were interred beneath a much more monumental statue at Prospect Terrace.

These illustrations show Brown's love for a good visual pun, but also include more unfortunate and distasteful stereotypes, none of which has anything to do with the poem.

We wish we knew more about Roger Williams' little dog. Brown depicts him going everywhere with his master, even to bed.

Just in case you want to sing along, the book ends with the sheet music to "The King of the Cannibal Islands."

David Norton Stone is the author of The Quahog Trilogy: Clamcake Summer (2012), Stuffie Summer (2013), and Chowder Summer (2014). A graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School, Yale, and the University of Connecticut School of Law, Stone lives Warwick.

Christopher Martin is the curator of the website you are reading now. His credentials and character are sketchy. He grew up and went to school in a place that is Not Rhode Island, but has since learned the error of his ways, and now resides in Johnston.

This article last edited March 15, 2015

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