Celebrating & Preserving Rhode Island’s Historic Cemeteries

by Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA, PLA

The walled burying ground of the Noyes family dating back to the early 1700s is still maintained by descendants of the Noyes family. / image: Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA, PLA

Rhode Island Historic Cemeteries Awareness and Preservation Weeks
April 1 – May 31, 2022

Rhode Island has 39 cities and towns, and all have historic cemeteries within their boundaries. These historic cemeteries provide a window into the developmental patterns of each community and demonstrate the social and economic growth, as well as the changes that have occurred throughout each community.

The Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries maintains a website that provides members and other interested parties with information about historical cemeteries as well as a comprehensive database to search historical cemeteries by location (map), by cemetery, or by gravestone. The website also provides valuable information about gravestone conservation, the history of the database, a handbook about Rhode Island’s Historical Cemeteries and the rules and regulations for maintaining them:

Every year the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries holds an “awareness and preservation week” where members of the Commission and other advocates invite the public to learn about historical cemeteries and to address maintenance issues throughout the state. This work entails weeding, pruning of trees, and repair of headstones and includes training volunteers in the proper care and maintenance of these historical cemeteries.

The Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) holds an annual historic preservation conference every April. In 2022, the RIHPHC is partnering with the RI Historical Cemeteries Commission in promoting RI Historical Cemeteries Awareness and Preservation Weeks. (The Rhode Island Chapter of ASLA is also helping to promote these two month-long series of events.) Between April 1 and May 31, 2022, events will be held throughout Rhode Island that provide education and awareness into Rhode Island’s history through the preservation of its historic cemetery landscapes.

Some of the events include:

  • A tour of God’s Little Acre, Newport, RI – the oldest documented extant African heritage burying ground in the US.
  • A day of historic cemetery programs in Bristol organized by the Bristol Historical & Preservation Society (tour, demonstrations, exhibit, and more).
  • Tours of the Free Burying Ground and amphibian habitats in Providence’s North Burial Ground.
  • Tours of Silas Casey Lot at the historic seventeenth century Casey Farm in North Kingstown.
  • Tours of “Birds and Burials” at Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown.
  • A gravestone conservation workshop at the Pascoag Cemetery in Burrillville.
  • Dozens of volunteer clean-ups.

The historic cemeteries of Rhode Island vary in size and composition. Some are designed landscapes, such as Riverbend Cemetery in Westerly, designed by Arthur Shurcliff, and Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, designed by H.W.S Cleveland in 1886 for the cemetery board of directors. Some are vernacular burying grounds located within family-owned properties like the Noyes Family Farm in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. I had the pleasure of working with a team of ecologists and landscape architects on a Baseline Environmental Study of the Noyes Family Farm where we discovered the ruins of an eighteenth century sawmill, the cellar holes of two eighteenth century homes, and the extant family cemetery that is well maintained and neatly defined by a perimeter stone wall (see photo above).

The gravestone of Ann, an enslaved African child. Gravestone carved  by the John Stevens Shop of stone carvers, Newport, RI. / image: Keith Stokes

Cemeteries also provide insight into the history and development of a community. Two examples are God’s Little Acre in Newport, one of the oldest African American cemeteries in the US, and the North Burial Ground in Providence.

Newport is one of Rhode Island’s oldest cities and it was one of the capitals of the state until 1900. God’s Little Acre Cemetery is located along Farewell Street among the other burying grounds and cemeteries of Newport. In walking through this cemetery, one views gravesites of both enslaved and free African people. Many of the individuals buried here helped to build the city of Newport, either through their physical labors (blacksmiths, rope makers, carpenters, stone masons, etc.) or through their intellectual and spiritual endeavors (ministers, preachers). Many of the gravesites include individuals who served this nation in military positions starting with the Revolutionary War and the defense of Newport against the British.

There are over 267 gravesites in God’s Little Acre, and many have elaborately carved headstones which were carved by the Newport stone carving studio of John Stevens. The Stevens family trained their enslaved Africans in gravestone carving. One of them, Pompe Stevens, was responsible for many of the headstone carvings.

Notable gravesites in God’s Little Acre include:

  • Cuffe Gibbs (1728-1768) – brother to Pompe Stevens.
  • Arthur Flagg (1733-1810) – a rope maker and member of the Free African Union Society and the Seventh Day Baptist Church.
  • Duchess Quamino (1739-1804) – a West African woman, famous as the “pastry queen” of colonial Rhode Island, who was influential in the life of William Ellery Channing, a foremost minister in the Unitarian Church.
  • Peter Quire (1806-1899) – A free African- American abolitionist, missionary, and cobbler who founded St. John the Evangelist Church in Newport (1865).
North Burial Ground: a view of the gravesites of Americans who fought in the Civil War. / image: Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The North Burial Ground includes over 150 acres within the urban setting of Providence and was established in 1700. This cemetery is a reflection of Providence’s history and development. Notable gravesites here include:

If any one is traveling to New England between April 1 and May 31, 2022, we urge you to check the list of events being held during Rhode Island Cemeteries Awareness and Preservation Weeks.

Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA, PLA, is the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Liaison for the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and Principal Landscape Architect at Landscape Elements LLC.

One thought on “Celebrating & Preserving Rhode Island’s Historic Cemeteries

  1. Will Green March 31, 2022 / 1:47 pm

    Timely and valuable information

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