Sincere thanks go to John Sterling and Deby Nunes for their contributions to the content of this page.
You can view the Rhode Island Historic Cemeteries Database online at http://www.rihc.info.
Cemetery records for many Rhode Island cities and towns are available in the first floor Reading Room. Most pre-1900 Rhode Island cemetery records can be accessed via the Rhode Island Cemetery Database. If you are seeking cemetery records for towns in other New England states or New York, please search the card catalog under the name of the town in which the cemetery is located.
The library’s computerized Rhode Island burial records, known as the “Rhode Island Cemetery Database 1647-1900”, are available on a computer station in the Reading Room. Printing is available for $.25 per copy. The database contains over 421,000 inscriptions from 3,046 Rhode Island cemeteries. Because it contains 17th, 18th, and 19th century cemeteries it does not include many of the large Catholic cemeteries. It is arranged by county and then by town and offers many search options, including searches by individual, burials in natural or alphabetical order, custom searches by surname, maiden name, date, and veteran status. The Rhode Island Veterans’ Cemetery is included in the database. Eight books have been published from this project, covering cemeteries in Coventry, East Greenwich, Exeter, Hopkinton, Middletown, North Kingstown, Providence, and Warwick. Information concerning the cemetery lots, such as location, history, and number of burials, may be available in the database, but is more likely to be covered in the above mentioned books.
An online version of the database is available at rihc.info; this version is more up-to-date than local versions,though the local version includes some queries and reports that are not available on the web. For a list of Rhode Island libraries which have the database see http://ricemeteries.tripod.com. To save time, you may want to consult the online index at home before coming to the library to use the database.
History of the Project
In 1950, a state cemetery commission headed by Ralph Mohr was set up to find and register historical cemeteries throughout the state. By 1958, the commission had found 1,704 cemeteries and marked them with the familiar white “Rhode Island Historical Cemetery” signs. (The signs have no connection to the Rhode Island Historical Society.) From about 1970 to 1990 Edwin Connelly, as part of his duties at the Rhode Island Veteran’s Administration, continued this program of registering historical cemeteries. Mr. Connelly also listed all of the veterans in these cemeteries to aid groups placing flags on Memorial Day. By the time he retired in 1990, 1,862 historical cemeteries had been registered. In 1990, a group that eventually grew to forty volunteers under the direction of John Sterling set out to record and computerize all of the gravestones in historical cemeteries around the state. Mr. Sterling’s volunteers have now found, registered, and recorded the gravestones in 3,046 cemeteries.
Additional details concerning the transcription project can be found on the Rhode Island Cemeteries Database Home Page.
Gathering the Data
The first step in compiling the database was to enter all early transcripts that could be found. Some of these date from the 18th century, but the bulk of the lists derive from the 19th and 20th centuries. They include:
- the James Arnold collection 1890-1920 (1500 cemeteries)
- Charles and Martha Benns 1930-1940 (1000 cemeteries)
- Rev. Frederic Denison 1869 (75 Westerly cemeteries)
- G. H. Richardson 1890s (50+ Newport, Portsmouth and Middletown cemeteries)
- Dr. Henry Turner 1890s (30+ Newport cemeteries)
- Blanche Albro 1970s (150 West Greenwich cemeteries)
- Marjorie Pendleton 1970s (40+ Charleston cemeteries)
- F. T. Calef 1920s (several large cemeteries)
- Irene Nebiker 1980s (North Smithfield cemeteries)
- Henry Sayles 1920s (Glocester cemeteries)
- Nellie Brownell Potter (Scituate cemeteries)
- Ethel White (some Providence County cemeteries)
About 130 transcripts from many different locations were added to the database. The transcripts’ accuracy ranged from about 80% to 95%, with an average of about 90%; therefore all of the data had to be checked and updated by visits to the cemeteries. Many of the cemeteries had to be located, registered, new location descriptions written, and the gravestone data checked and corrected. This work is still going on and will not be complete for many years. The database now includes about 95% of the pre-20th century gravestones in Rhode Island. The database indicates which gravestones have been checked and therefore have a higher degree of accuracy. For instance, 2% to 3% of marble stones, which deteriorate quickly, can not be completely read. Therefore the data on these stones should be used carefully. Be cautious with gravestones where the legibility is listed as “poor.”
Grave Markers and Stone Carvers
The earliest burial listed in the database is 1647 (Gov. John Coggeshall in Newport). It is extremely rare for a 17th century grave to be marked, perhaps 1 in 10,000. For instance, the grave of Roger Williams was not marked with a permanent marker; it probably had a wooden grave board that has long since rotted away. Most of the 17th century gravestones in the state are located in the Common Burial Ground in Newport and many of those were imported from Boston. The first known gravestone carver in Rhode Island was John Stevens who came to Newport in 1704. His shop is still in business in its original location on Farewell Street in Newport. Information on the Stevens shop and other Rhode Island and Massachusetts carvers can be found here.
In any century, a grave may have had only a wooden marker which has not survived to the present day, or was marked with only an un-carved field stone. Thus, a cemetery can have more burials than surviving markers. When searching the database for information concerning a particular cemetery, pay close attention to the number of transcriptions vs. the number of burials.
The Unique Nature of Rhode Island Burial Grounds
People coming to Rhode Island for the first time are usually surprised at how rural the state is and at how many cemeteries are scattered throughout woods and fields. The majority of the cemeteries listed in the Cemetery Database are small family lots that have been abandoned for many years and can be difficult to access. Additionally, most are not owned or maintained by any church or town. They are owned by descendants of those buried in the lots, usually by reservations placed in the deeds when the land was sold. These burial grounds remain from earlier centuries when Rhode Island settlers, unlike those of the other New England colonies, buried their dead on private family land instead of in central community locations such as a town green.
The political and religious history of the Rhode Island colony is behind this practice. Rhode Island was the only colony to have separation of church and state. In other colonies, each town was to some extent a parish of the church. New towns were formed by splitting off a second or third parish. The center of town was the green, where all public buildings were located, including the church. When taxes were collected, they were used to pay the minister’s salary. Residents of the town were buried around the church.
In Rhode Island, which was founded on the principle of religious tolerance, the churches were much smaller, and there were many scattered throughout the towns. Therefore the town green system did not develop (with the exception of the few towns that were originally part of Massachusetts, like Little Compton). Churches included 7th Day Baptists, Six Principle Baptists, Episcopal, Quaker, Jewish, Congregational, and splinter groups like Ann Hutchinson’s followers. Most of these churches did not have cemeteries and most towns, except the large port towns with small house lots like Newport, Bristol, and Providence, did not have large cemeteries until about 1850, or 100 to 200 years after the other colonies.
There are 3,200 cemeteries in Rhode Island, of which 3,046 have been found and registered and perhaps 500 are well maintained. The rest are abandoned and overgrown in the woods. Some are one half to three quarters of a mile from the nearest road.
Rhode Island has a higher density of cemeteries by 6 to 10 times than the other Atlantic coast states. For the genealogist, this is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that you can not walk through the well manicured cemetery next to the big white church on the town green and see your ancestor’s gravestones. The cemeteries are often hard to find and when found are often filled with briars and poison ivy. The best scenario is that the cemetery is on your ancestor’s farm and can indicate where he or she lived. The cemetery’s location can be used in conjunction with land deeds to help you determine the extent of your ancestor’s property.
The library may have information which could be helpful in locating a particular cemetery, but in most cases only a general location (such as the nearest road) will be available.
Contact information, such as office personnel or telephone listings, does not exist for the majority of cemeteries in the Database. The State of Rhode Island has no central authority designated for the oversight or maintenance of its historic burying grounds, nor do local town or city governments. Additionally, the Rhode Island Historical Society has no jurisdiction over or ownership of such grounds, nor is the Society responsible for the placement of historical designation markers. Markers are issued by the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter, Rhode Island. The owners of a given historic cemetery are considered to be the descendants of those buried in the cemetery.
If you have concerns about construction activity on or near an historic cemetery, or questions concerning maintenance, please contact the state archaeologist at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission. Vandalism should be reported to local police.