On March 22, 1860, a group of enterprising amateur historians set about excavating the grave of Roger Williams. I realized this today when I looked at the accession card for the item they found, and subsequently presented to the Society. This is, of course, the famous Root. (1898.3.1)
Williams’ grave has fascinated Rhode Islanders since the 18thcentury, when Ezra Stiles wrote of the debate over the exact location of the grave.
There is some uncertainty as to the last altho the grave may be ascertained within ten Rods
Ten or a doz y ago the T of Prov voted to erect a Monum1 upon his Grave and appointed a Committee Gov Hopkins D Gov Sessions M Moses Brown & present L Gov Bowen who examind the two places Traditions & Evidences I now conversed with Gov Bowen &Mr Brown
All Tradition agrees that he was buried on his own Home Lot & near his own Dwell house whose Cellar I saw
Gov Hopkins was of opinion it was the Grave at the North corner of the House within two paces the others rather doubtful…”
Stiles’ diary can be found on Google books.
The doubt continued, despite Stiles’ sketch, and in 1860, Henry T. Arnold was among the men who witnessed the “exhumation.” In 1919 he wrote to the Society’s Curator, Howard M. Chapin, and described what he saw.
“I went up the lane, now called South Court Street, between the Mansion House and the Roger Williams Place and saw the grave open, looked down and saw the apple tree root in the grave undisturbed. There was the apple-tree between the grave and the house; there was the root which had taken the shape of the body of Mr. Williams. It was near the fence on the lane, and not far off was the old well. That root is now in the rooms of the Rhode Island Historical Society. I count it fortunate that I saw it in situ as it lay with the head toward Benefit Street and after many years have again looked upon the historic root which has been so carefully preserved.” (RIHS Collections, XII, p. 128)
The root is indeed in the “rooms of the Rhode Island Historical Society,” for it is on display at the John Brown House Museum. It’s a popular item, and no matter how unlikely it is that an apple tree “ate” Roger Williams, school children love to think of it that way, and it is a story worth of cable TV.
152 years after Henry Arnold observed the apple tree root, it can still be seen off Benefit Street. It’s just several blocks south of where it was found.
~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections