A historian uses a wide array of techniques to open up the secrets of a primary, archival source, including exploring when, why, and for whom the document was created, questioning possible bias or the point of view of the writer, and even analyzing handwriting and paper. However, sometimes the very tool needed to even begin such research falls outside of the historian’s toolbox, and he or she must turn to another discipline to supply the missing method. That is exactly what happened when then-director of the John Carter Brown library (and NEQ board member) Ted Widmer turned to a group of Brown University undergraduates to crack the strange code found in the margins of a leather-bound book once belonging to Roger Williams, theologian and founder of Rhode Island. One undergraduate’s specialty, mathematics, provided the method for solving this mystery and revealing original, unknown writings by Williams.
As Slate Magazine details, Williams’s book has been in Brown’s possession since 1817, but it wasn’t until 2011 that a group of undergraduates tried their hand at translating the obscure characters once a computer failed to do the job. That group included senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who diligently applied statistical analysis along with historical research to Williams’s invented language. Over the course of a year, he succeeded in breaking the code and unveiling an expression of Williams’s beliefs in religious freedom, including his questioning of the morality of forcing conversion on Native Americans.
Working with an archival source—seeing and smelling the original paper and ink with which someone long ago once wrote—bridges the past with the present, making history immediate and alive. The act of cracking Williams’s code has also bridged disciplines that are usually on different sides of academia, math and history. Roger Williams would no doubt be amazed to know that, nearly three hundred and thirty years after his death, an undergraduate mathematician would find the key to unlocking his code.
To learn more about Roger Williams, his banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his admirable support of Native American autonomy, read Jonathan Beecher Field’s Whitehill Prize-winning essay, A Key for the Gate: Roger Williams, Parliament, and Providence, from our September 2007 issue.