William Greene Roelker (1886 – 1953)

“Live by faith and not on figures”

William Greene Roelker, Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society from 1940 – 1953, was a great force while heading the Society; with his ancestry tracing back to the earliest settlers Roger Williams, Simon Ray, Richard Waterman,  John “The Surgeon” Greene, Capt. John Whipple, John Sayles, Rufus Barton and William Almy, to governors Samuel Gorton, Joseph Jenckes, and the many William Greenes…we can see that leadership was in his DNA. (Click here to read more – Governors for Three Hundred Years)
Following in the footsteps of his librarian predecessors, Clarence Brigham and the great Howard M. Chapin, Roelker was up to the task of expanding and enlarging the Society’s housing and holdings when he moved from Librarian to Director. His conviction that “a local historical society owed a duty to the whole people of its state, and, as a corollary, that the community owed the society the duty of helping in its support” drove him into immediate action and within months had doubled the Society’s membership. During his tenure, Mr. Nicolas Brown gifted the Society with the John Brown House. As the head of a Society that had, seemingly overnight, went from a small institution to a large one; he oversaw additions not only to buildings but collections as well.
One of his progressive visions was for a new library building on the grounds of the John Brown House.

Roelker’s Director’s Report, published in the January, 1953 issue of Rhode Island History held so much promise…but was followed in the July, 1953 issue with his death announcement:
Sadly, he was injured in a car accident on May 22, 1953 and died on May 29th.

His legacy lives on; on Sunday, January 12, 1958 a room in the John Brown House was named in his honor – the plaque still hangs today.
Recently, a grandson of Roelker visited the RIHS Robinson Research Center and looked through papers collected and donated by the family. While we do not have any of Roelker’s own original manuscript materials, his name can be found as the author of many books and articles in the stacks as well as in the RIHS Archives Collection. We do hold his father’s law papers and the family collection has many gems and interesting pieces of history. I am pleased to share some of the wonderful items that have been passed on by this generous and expansive family!
William Greene Roelker (Jr) c. 1904

66 Cooke Street, Providence RI, estate of William Greene Roelker (Sr.)

William Greene Roelker (Sr) (1854-1911) Portrait from Men of Progress
(To read the excerpt from Men of Progress, click here: Men of Progress)
Obituaries relating to the death of William (Sr.)

Governor William Greene House, corner of Division Street and Love Lane, East Greenwich, RI residence of William Greene Roelker (Jr.)

(For more about the house click here: History of East Greenwich)
The family collection includes hundreds of letters, photographs and hand-written genealogies of the many branches of what is an extensive family tree. Following are a few samples.


Letter from Catherine Ray Greene (1799-1875) to her brother William Greene (1791-1883) on the death of their father, Ray Greene (1765-1849)
Genealogy copied from the Flagg Family Bible

Letter written by George Ellsworth Koues (1849-1919) to his son-in-law William Greene Roelker

Transcript of a speech given by Anna Rossiter (Koues) Roelker (1887-1974), wife of William (Jr)

The following photos were found unidentified in the collection, but our super talented staff was able to identify a few of the woman based on the style of clothing they are wearing and comparing with other, identified photos.

From left: “Nancy” Roelker, Anna Rossiter (Koues) Roelker, ???, ???, Helen Roelker


To view a super extended genealogical spreadsheet, click here…Genealogy
~ Jennifer L. Galpern, Special Collections Research Associate

Special thanks to the new Deputy Executive Director Richard Ring for providing me with his transcription of Lawrence C. Wroth’s tribute speech to William Greene Roelker which can be found in the Papers of Lawrence C. Wroth (Series II, 1997 gift, Box 5, Folder 6) at the John Carter Brown Library.
William Greene Roelker Family Papers MSS 451
William G. Roelker Papers MSS 689

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