Forge Farm Cemetery, Potowomut, East Greenwich, RI

The Old Forge Farm is a magnificent household that I was blessed to visit. As part of a project in house museum planning and preservation, a group of us met with the wonderful Tom Greene, a descendant of the famous Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. The farm is where Nathanael was born, and beyond it lies a Greene family plot, surrounded by a beautiful old New England stone wall. The RI Historical survey says there are about 60 burials here with 25 gravestones.

The stones are a fascinating combination of old fieldstones and broken slate, as well as many white marble stones, along with some tall and imposing monuments highlighting the accomplishments of the Greene descendants.

Tom’s dog Harmony led the way into the cemetery:

Here are some of the older stones:

The voluminous text of Christopher Greene’s stone, son of Nathanael:

With the Forge Farm in the background, and the plot itself set back from the road, it is quite a peaceful environment. If you plan to venture there, be sure to stop by the farm and ask Mr. Tom Greene for permission – and he’ll have many stories and tall tales of his ancestors to share!

Cocumscussoc, North Kingstown, RI

Yesterday I visited the Narragansett Indian land in Rhode Island known as Cocumscussoc which became the original colonial/Indian tradepost in 17th century RI. Established by Roger Williams, the post was run by Richard Smith, who built a home here.

“Captain Richard Smith built what has long been designated as the “Old Castle,” within one-half mile of the village of Wickford. This, in 1639, was erected for the farm house of Captain Smith, and here the good Roger Williams, who also fled from persecution, often visited. The brave and just old Canonicus and also Miantinomo frequently visited Smith. This castle was built by Smith as a trading post or house, and as a protection against the troublesome Indians. It was fifty feet square, two stories high, and its walls were of rough stone, two feet in thickness. It was used as a garrison and fortification during the Indian war, and it was there that Captain Benjamin Church assembled his forces before marching to the great swamp fight, and after his victory, with the dead and wounded, burying some forty-two of the slain in one grave” – From USGenWeb article on the history of North Kingstown.

There exists today a large marker which stands as a memorial to the soldiers who died during the infamous Great Swamp Fight and are buried in this mass grave.

Known today as “Smith’s Castle”, the original house was burned to the ground during King Philip’s War, and soon rebuilt and remains today, having undergone several structural changes. It serves now as a wonderful house museum which preserves and collects documents and artifacts from the colonial through the Victorian period, each of the rooms reflecting a different period in the life of the house.

Also on and near the property are several small cemeteries – the Smith plot, the Updike plot (who inherited the house later), and also a large burial area of the slaves to the Smith and Updike families.

81 burials with 1 inscriptions

NOTE: Located near the Updike-Ayrault and Congdon lots near Cocumscussoc. Harris describes it “on plain north of the above yards in open lot quite an extensive burial yard of the colored servants of the above families.” Harris counted 72 large and 8 small graves all with rude stones. He speculates that there may have been more whose marks have been removed. ” – From the Historical Cemeteries of North Kingstown, RI.

I definitely would like revisit Cocumscussoc for further exploration – but right now February in New England is chiiiiiiilly!

Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, RI

Providence’s beautiful garden cemetery, Swan Point still inspires and is accessible to “leisure uses” that it was designed for – although not so many as there once were! Security guards constantly buzz about to make certain you don’t get TOO leisurely! No blading, biking, animals, no faster pace than a “brisk walk”, beverages and food items are frowned upon. It’s no longer the place to bring the family and dog to have a picnic or a jog through – but still magnificent nevertheless.

Swan Point was founded by Thomas Hartshorn in 1846, arising from the “vivid intellectual community composed predominately of Providence’s emerging middle class in the mid-nineteenth century”, according to Swan Point’s “A Historical Walking Tour”.

On my visit today the clouds dimmed the beautiful foliage that exists throughout the entire cemetery, but luckily the rain held off for the journey. To get to Swan Point, you venture down Blackstone Boulevard, it’s trolley tracks still running down the center, though no longer in use.

Once within the cemetery, it’s best to grab a map from the office, because it’s easy to get lost down the long winding paths. Of of Providence’s best and brightest lie buried here, and a look in every direction grants view of huge monuments with elegant and finely crafted sculptures. Since most American museums were not invented until the late 1800s, places like Swan Point are an excellent means by which you can view American art and sculpture.

There’s the original receiving tomb for the cemetery which was designed by Brown University grad Thomas Tefft.

There’s the John Rogers Vinton sarcophagus which was designed as a publicity push for the cemetery. Swan Point was looking for a way to bring in potential customers, so they offered a free burial to a war victim – and John Vinton fit the bill, having just recently passed away in the Mexican American War at the Battle of Vera Cruz. Note the cannonball which killed him sitting atop the monument.

There’s the Colonel John Stanton Slocum Stone, a soldier who died in the Civil War at Bull Run. His granite monument is carved with his uniform and military accoutrements draped in mourning over the stone.

Victorian art at its finest when it comes to the representations of the innocence of youth:

As Swan Point was expanding, they literally bought the road which used to pass through Providence to Pawtucket and up to Boston, and had it moved to where Blackstone Boulevard currently is today. “Old Road” now runs through the middle of the cemetery, one of the very few straight paths.

“Its secret lies in understanding and continually reinventing the delicate relationship between the natural and the created. Perhaps more than any other garden cemetery, Swan Point presents a comfortable amplitude for any visitor’s experience. The land undulates easily, seemingly spontaneously, and delightfully. The variety of specimen trees and shrubbery, both planted and native to the landscape makes this a tree lover’s dream.”

The Seekonk River was once a magnificent view from the cemetery, but now modern environmental regulations issue that any vegetation growth along watersides must remain there, in order to help prevent erosion, so the river is no longer as viewable. Still a pretty sight, however.

Overall, a pretty place to wander. The cemetery is still in use, a funeral procession was coming in as I was leaving the gates. “From its inception, Swan Point Cemetery has been a place for both the living and the dead. It is one of those rare places where both have always comfortably inhabited the same space.”

Happy Halloween!

My most favorite holiday, as you surely must be able to guess.

In honor of this day of terror, hauntings, and (yum) candy, I present to you this article from the Providence Journal on gravestones, which even includes an interview with Professor Robert Emlen, Brown University’s curator, and my current professor for the class “Gravestones and Burial Grounds”. What a perfect fit!

Sunday, October 31, 2004
LAURA MEADE KIRK Journal staff Writer

“As you pass by pray cast an eye
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so must you be
Prepare for death and follow me”

There’s no better time than Halloween to plan a trip to your local cemetery. But forget about looking for ghosts and goblins, or even the tipped-over tombstones that supposedly mark the graves from which vampires escaped. If you really want to get frightened, read the epitaphs on some of the gravestones — especially those dating to the early 1700s.

How’s this for a blunt reminder of your fate, as seen on the tombstone of Ceesar Wheaton, who was buried in the North Burial Ground in Providence in 1780: “Look on my grave as you pass by and learn of me that you must die.” Or check out the symbols on these historic gravestones, where the carvings range from crude images of skulls and hourglasses that have run dry to ornate images of winged cherubs and doves and even heavenly scenes. Of course, there are also plenty of more mundane grave markers — especially those of the last century, which merely cite the person’s name, date of birth and date of death.

But the trend lately seems to be a shift back toward more decorative gravestones, like those of our ancestors from the Victorian age. Advances in technology have made it easier and less expensive to have everything from laser-engraved portraits of the deceased to favorite song lyrics and images of the person’s hobbies carved into the stone or an attached plaque.

There’s a lot more to a cemetery than a bunch of stone markers, said Pierre Morenon, an associate professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College, whose students study burial places. “Graveyards are just really interesting places.” But, he said, as with most people, “a lot of our students have never been in one before and have never looked at them this way.”

BEVERLY BETHUNE FINDS IT unfortunate that many people think cemeteries are creepy. Bethune, the epitaphs expert for the Association for Gravestone Studies in Greenfield, Mass., sees them as a treasure trove of information. Each gravestone, she said, is like “a little personal history book” that tells a story about the person buried there, but also about the community.
The size, shape, lettering and designs ultimately reflect cultural and societal changes, as well as changes in religious beliefs over time, she said. Mornon agreed. “When you look at tombstones, you look at how people . . . want the dead to be remembered. It often, I think, reveals a great deal about the how the larger society functions.” Some people, he said, placed great emphasis on titles, or military service. Others gave little regard to a woman’s family, identifying her primarily as the wife of someone else. Even the size of the tombstone varied — with women and children receiving much smaller grave markers than the men during the 1700s and 1800s. There’s even symbolism in the placement of graves and headstones, noted Larry Stanford, who leads cemetery and ghost tours in Newport that are especially popular this time of year. For example, the top of a hill in a graveyard was considered the choice location, perhaps since it was closer to heaven, so that’s where many of the wealthy are interred.

And many of the earliest graves in the Common Burying Ground on Farewell Street in Newport are laid out like beds, complete with two gravestones — the larger one at the head and a smaller one at the feet. Stanford said most of the bodies were laid out with the feet facing east because of the belief that Jesus Christ will rise again in the east. They wanted to be propped up in that direction so they’d be ready to rise from their graves and follow him.

But Robert Emlen, a professor of American civilization at Brown University who teaches a course on gravestones and burying grounds, said many of the headstones in the North Burial Ground in Providence face west, likely because of the early Christian belief that “on Judgment Day the sun will rise in the west.”
REGARDLESS OF THE DIRECTION of the stone, most gravestones from a particular era feature the same sorts of symbols and epitaphs, Emlen said. The Puritans, for example, had a very stark view of death and dying. Hence, their gravestones tended to refer to the person “buried” there and often were adorned with dark images of grinning skulls and grim epitaphs warning others of their imminent demise.

“It’s as if the dead are kind of pointing the finger at the living and saying, ‘Straighten up and live right,” Bethune said. “. . . They definitely believed that Hell was a possibility for people who had not lived well. So they wanted to remind you while you were still alive to straighten up.” That view of death softened over time, Bethune said. So by the mid-1800s, gravestones often said such things as, “asleep in heaven” or “gone but not forgotten.” For children, a common epitaph was, “budded on earth to bloom in heaven. The images adorning gravestones also changed, she noted, with skulls giving way to winged cherubs and more hopeful signs such as a willow tree, which represents resurrection, or a dove, which is a messenger from God. Some even featured crude portraits of the individuals buried there.

Many of the graves from the Victorian era also were more ornamental than their predecessors, and the designs on the gravestone are similar to designs found on furniture and artwork of that period, Emlen said.

And it’s interesting to watch how language and lettering changed, with many of the earliest gravestones including references to “ye” instead of “the” or using a lower case letter f instead of the letter s. The earliest residents also were juggling two calendars, the Gregorian and Julian, so if someone died during the crossover between 1722 and 1723 on the two calendars, the date on their gravestone would read 172 2/3. It’s all symbolic of the times, he said. “Every age has something interesting in it” when it comes to studying gravestones of different eras, Emlen said.

EPITAPHS ALSO RAN THE GAMUT, from standard phrases to tableaus recreating the person’s entire life or death. One gravestone in Newport reads Life how short. Eternity how long. Another, memorializing two infants who had died, reads: Sleep on sweet babes and take thy rest. He called thee home. He thought it best. Some can be pretty dire, Emlen said, noting one that reads: Old age being come her race ends when God’s fatal dart he sends. “That doesn’t sound very benevolent — your race is over when God sends the fatal dart? That sounds petty scary,” he said.

Others have a variety of detail. One in the North Burial Ground in Providence describes how Capt. Allin Brown was captured by a British ship in the harbor of Newport, where he was infected with the Small Pocks of which he died May 4th, 1778, in his 57th year of life. One spells out the drowning of 4-year-old Hope Brown in 1768, saying: This babe was drowned. Her infant prattle delighted her fine parents. Unknown, she left their house and unsuspected, she fell into a watery grave and went to God.

Another stone there, in memory of Obadiah Brown, who died in 1762, reads: Descendant of a good family, he had strong mental powers guided with exquisite judgment. (He) was honest, industrious, frugal, temperate, affable, benevolent. A grave magistrate, kind husband, tender parent, a perfect pattern for master and all useful men.

Then, there’s a tribute to Patience Borden, which describes how she was commonly called Sterry, a free woman of colour and humble disciple of Jesus. She gave to the First Baptist Church in this town of which she was a member 230 dollars as a fund for the relief of the poor of color of that church. She died in 1811 and her contribution at the time must have been fairly significant for it to have been memorialized, Emlen said.

NOT ALL GRAVESTONES CARRIED images or epitaphs. Emlen said that the fanciest stones or those with the longest epitaphs may have belonged to families of wealth since stone carvers charged by the letter. On the other hand, many gravestones belonging to some of Rhode Island’s wealthy families were as stark as those belonging to a servant or slave. Ultimately, it was “a matter of personal preference,” Bethune said.

The carvings and sayings also serve as a reflection of the culture and beliefs at the time. For example, a tombstone in Newport marks the graves of two young children. On the cemetery marker, along with their names, is a crude carving of an arm, with the notation that the children’s mother’s arm had been amputated and buried there in 1786. Early Christians believed the body had to be intact to make the journey to heaven, Stanford explained. So when the woman died seven years later, she was buried next to her children — and her amputated arm.
(Contrast that with today, when it’s not uncommon for people to have their bodies cremated and their ashes scattered.)

But by the 1900s, the trend was toward plain gravestones without fancy carvings or epitaphs, Bethune said.
Morenon said one reason for that is that the early cemeteries were seen as landscaped areas where people could go and enjoy nature, while also paying tribute to the dead. “We don’t see that so much today. I think we’ve shifted much more to the view that a graveyard is a place where we house the dead. . . . I don’t think cemeteries are as much of a community place as they used to be.” Bethune agreed. “We tended to want to keep death out of sight, out of mind. . . . You got your name and your date on a slab and that’s it. No nothing.”

That’s changing, Emlen said. “In the last few years, there’s been a real revolution. . . . Technology and society has allowed us to do what we want to do” with gravestones. “There used to be a dress code of what was appropriate and what was not,” Emlen said. But today, almost anything goes. “In a way, we’re coming full circle,” Bethune agreed. “If you drive to a new section of a cemetery today, you may see a laser-etched portrait of the person [who died] and, on the back, see a eulogy and maybe a list of the children’s names. . . . You see more and more people using details on gravestones. Technology has made it more affordable.”

There’s also more of a move to memorialize the person, instead of just burying them and forgetting them, she said. “What we’re seeing now is an increase in personalization of the gravestones, which is very similar to what the Victorians did. They believed that the stone was a personal statement about that individual.” That statement can be anything from a favorite biblical passage to a song lyric; a recently placed stone in the North Burial Ground reads: Who loves ya, baby. The personalization also shows up in decorations on the stone. One in the North Burial Ground from 1986 features a country scene with a horse-drawn carriage pulling up to a farm house and the words: Home at last.

Humor is also finding a place on tombstones, Bethune said, noting that one gravestone in Oregon says: This wasn’t on my calendar. One of her favorites is an Arkansas gravestone for a doctor, which reads: Office moved upstairs.

Emlen said a well-known gravestone in Little Compton identifies a woman as someone who “should have been the wife of” someone else. Some epitaphs prove to be unfortunate, Bethune noted. For example, she said, she hates to see the popular Victorian-era epitaph “gone but not forgotten” on a stone that is broken or has fallen into ruin. Ironically, the fake gravestones commonly seen this time of year usually feature the epitaph RIP — short for rest in peace. “It’s on nearly all the fake ones, and you just don’t see that on the real thing.”

THOUGH TOMBSTONES HAVE CHANGED over the years, ultimately they’re all the same — serving as a lasting reminder of the dead and a warning to the living of what is to come. Consider this poem on the back of a tombstone marking the North Burial Ground grave of Ernest Lavell Tucker, who died in 2001. He’d written the poem himself, and his family paid to have it memorialized in a bronze plaque on the back of his grave. It reads in part: My life is so complicated, it’s like I’m just here to survive. Time is running out. I feel myself coming closer and closer to death every day. . . . We are definitely living in our last days. So now it’s just like what ever. Ultimately, the message isn’t much different from the verse penned on a gravestone in 1702 in the Common Burying Ground in Newport: Behold and see for as I am now, so shall thou be. But as thou art, so once was I. Be sure of this: That thou must die.

St. John’s Churchyard (formerly King’s Churchyard), Providence, RI

King’s Church was founded in Providence, RI in 1723. During the American Revolution it’s name was changed to St. John’s (no need for English loyalty anymore!), and the current church structure was built in 1809.

I love this churchyard, tucked away down a brick path along the historic houses of Benefit St. – if you are unaware of it’s existence, it is easy to stroll past it without even recognizing it. Stepping into the yard, you are taken back in history – it is easy to imagine Poe courting his love, Helen, who lived in a house just beside the churchyard, or Lovecraft, ninety years later, being spooked amongst it’s stones at some midnight hour.

From Lovecraft’s writings:

” About the hidden churchyard of St. John’s—there must be some unsuspected vampiric horror burrowing down there & emitting vague miasmatic influences, since you are the third person to receive a definite creep of fear from it . . . . the others being Samuel Loveman & H. Warner Munn. I took Loveman there at midnight, & when we got separated among the tombs he couldn’t be quite sure whether a faint luminosity bobbing above a distant nameless grave was my electric torch or a corpse-light of less describable origin! Munn was there with W. Paul Cook & me, & had an odd, unaccountable dislike of a certain unplaceable, deliberate scratching which recurred at intervals around 3 a.m. How superstitious some people are!”
-Letter to Helen V. Sully, 17 OCT 1933

“Poe knew of this place, & is said to have wandered among its whispering willows during his visits here 90 years ago. Last August I shewed this place to two guests, & we all sat down on an altar-tomb & wrote rhymed acrostics on the name of Edgar Allan Poe…”
-Letter to Frank Utpatel, 15 FEB 1937

Earlier today I revisited this lovely churchyard as part of AC125, and as usual, the rain soon followed. It was so cloudy during most of the visit that photographs were nearly impossible. It made for a neat view of the state house, though, rising from the mists downtown. There are always new things to explore and discover, and happily I ran across several unusual stones that I had not noticed before which captured my interest. It seems the BLODGETT family of Providence, RI in the early 1800s took a dramatic departure from the usual soul effigy / urn and willow motifs which were most common during this time period. Some of the children who died young have uniquely carved shapes that resemble Christmas trees, both right-side up and upside down. I have never seen such an icon on stones before. It most likely is a variation on a natural plant or tree, perhaps symbolizing to the same effect a willow tree, but it does not resemble such a tree at all. Perhaps further research into this BLODGETT family will reveal explanation. The family seems to be of a long line of Providencers (William Blodget 6 JAN 1775-24 JUN 1847, son of William Blodget and Ann Phillis Chace, married Mary Anne Power 23 FEB 1777 – 28 NOV 1840, daughter of Capt. Nicholas Power and Rebecca Corey), so I am not quick to jump to an “ethnic” or regional explanation. For now, it’s a mystery.

North Burial Ground, Providence, RI

An excellent primer before visiting this massive burial ground was “North Burial Ground, Providence, Rhode Island Old Section 1700-1848” by John E. Sterling. Through a lot of time, dedication, and the handy use of modern cemetery software and support of the RI Historical Society, Sterling created a record of burials for the older section. This was a huge undertaking, because although you can access about 16 gigantic books of interment records for about 73,000 individuals, these books only record from 1848 forward – yet the burial ground had been open since 1700! By 1848, there was already 22 acres worth of stones – that’s a lot of unrecorded burials! Sterling’s book, then, provide the vital facts about thousands of Rhode Islanders.

Visiting the North Burial Ground, as you might imagine, is an overwhelming experience. How is one ever to begin? Begin at the beginning, as they say. I normally head for the oldest part of a cemetery anyway, although the “oldest” area here is now surrounded by all sorts of time frames, with family plots giving a huge range of dates.

I had read that several years ago the cemetery was in pretty poor shape, but that through an overall push in the government to bring tourism back to Providence, and dedicated volunteers and asking nicely of the poor underpaid groundskeepers, the ground had been greatly improved. I’d say it worked, everything was neatly manicured, and the sheer size of the place just keeps the mind in a state of awe. Sure, people die – but in the city, there’s a LOT of people who die – which makes for a graveyard so large that you can see stones to the very edge of the horizon.

Generally when I visit a graveyard, I have one of several purposes
1) My own pleasure (sure it’s morbid, but if you are reading this, you know how interesting and FUN it can be)
2) Recording the epitaphs and positions of the stones. This is usually for small graveyards which have been forgotten and are in need of preservation.
3) Recording specific graves. This is usually for my own genealogical research, and involves larger graveyards.

But here at the North Burial Ground, I had no need to document preservation, nor did I particularly have a vested interest in particular lives of the silent community of the citizens of Providence, so instead I could simply focus on the design, the landscape, the humanity and realness of the city within this burial ground.

Usually it is the stories of the lives of people on the stones which strikes me, but here I was fascinated by the artwork. Providence was much more liberal than the Massachusetts towns of the same time, and that allowed for a greater freedom of expression on the stones. Icons and epitaphs still dazzled despite the years, so distinctly different from the usual Puritan stones I am used to studying.

There are just too many stones to absorb. But they are beautiful, and while I do not envy the work John Sterling and those RI chroniclers who went before him, I am in awe of the research they put forth to document the stones in the North Burial Ground. I highly recommend you take a visit there.