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Warwick’s Cemetery Commission Seeks Lost Graves, Preserves Known Plots

[CREDIT: Warwick Cemetery Commission] Chair Pegee Malcolm and Public Archeology Lab's Peter Mair Removing cemetery stones at WK26 located on Airport property.
[CREDIT: Warwick Cemetery Commission] Chair Pegee Malcolm and Public Archeology Lab’s Peter Mair Removing cemetery stones at WK26 located on Airport property.
WARWICK, RI — It was standing room only at the Warwick Public Library on Wednesday, Aug. 17, as members of the Warwick Historical Cemeteries Commission reported on its progress and gave an overview of its important work.

Pegee Malcolm, chair of the commission, who has been involved with the organization for 10 years, has visited almost every cemetery in the city, and noted that Warwick Historical Cemetery # 1 [WK001], Lakewood Burial Ground, is her favorite. There are 166 cemeteries in 124 locations in Warwick, some having been moved from their original location to another cemetery (including nine that have been moved to Brayton Cemetery in Apponaug, seven moved to Pawtuxet Memorial Park Cemetery).

Malcolm showed photos of some of her favorite gravestones and other favorite cemeteries, showing the variety to be found. Some of the smallest cemeteries have only a single grave, like the “Thomas C. Mattson Lot,” or WK027.

Another, WK090, the Warwick Poor Farm lot located on Asylum road, has only markers with numbers – she credits Councilwoman Donna Travis with finding a list of those interred there, former residents of the Warwick Asylum. Other cemeteries contain slaves as well as slave owners and slave traders, Revolutionary war heroes, early settlers of the City and former governors.

Malcolm also spoke of the relationships she’s forged with local schools, including students from Toll Gate High School’s “Urban Sociology” class, working with teacher Tim Hayes, to encourage interest of younger residents in the commission’s projects.

The commission also continues its search to find so-called “lost cemeteries.” Inventories of the City’s cemeteries were taken in the late 1890s, by James N. Arnold in his multi-volume “Vital Record of Rhode Island, 1636 – 1850,” in the 1930s, by Charles and Martha Benns, and in the 1990s by John Sterling

The commission also continues its search to find so-called “lost cemeteries.” Inventories of the City’s cemeteries were taken in the late 1890s, by James N. Arnold in his multi-volume “Vital Record of Rhode Island, 1636 – 1850,” in the 1930s, by Charles and Martha Benns, and in the 1990s by John Sterling (which, after four years of research, resulted in a book, “Warwick, Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries,” in 1997).

Commission member Mark Brown described how some of the lost cemeteries have been located, noting that of the 23 cemeteries listed as lost in Sterling’s survey, five have been since been located and verified, and seven more have been identified and will be investigated in coming months. One was recently located near Buckeye Brook, enumerated as WK161, with eleven burials.

“Locals literally almost tripped over it,” said Brown. Another resident was moving a large bush on his property and found a gravestone in a large hole – and contacted the Commission. Now enumerated as WK166, on private property located near Wildes Corner, the gravestone of Sarah Wilson, who died in 1879 at the age of 16, was found in 2015.

Other locations of “lost cemeteries” have been found through research of historic maps, City plot and lot maps, land evidence books at the City Archives, a historic “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map,” and the “Rhode Island State Atlas” published by D. G. Beers & Co. in 1870. Recorded in Arnold’s inventory and found once again in 2000, WK160, the “Ishmael Rhodes Lot,” was located using an engineering map when the property, near Sand Pond, was being developed. A Lippitt burial ground was found and located after finding mention of it in a published Lippitt genealogy. Another lost lot may have been paved over during the widening of Post Road.

Other “lost cemeteries” have been mentioned in Oliver Payson Fuller’s “History of Warwick, Rhode Island, from its Settlement in 1642 to the present time,” published in 1875. Another book on the history of Potowomet gives hints to the location of two more lost cemeteries.

Brown said Warwick’s first public burial ground has been identified after much research by Felicia Gardella, president of the Warwick Historical Society. It was found that in 1663 the City mandated a site be set aside for this purpose, and has been identified as land located behind the firehouse at the corner of Sandy Lane and West Shore Road. The site, now known as WK165, which has no gravestones or markers visible will be probed and investigated but is possibly the burial place of Stuckley Westcott, who died in 1676, and that of his wife, who died in 1670. The site was recently cleared by volunteers from Student Veterans of America, and was also the subject of two back-to-back Eagle Scout projects in 2015.

The Commission was recently in the news when airport expansion necessitated the removal of gravestones at a cemetery located on airport property along Main Avenue. The monuments of cemetery # WK026, the “Peter Freeman Lot,” were found to be too tall. The stones were recently removed to another location, after PAL, or Public Archeology Laboratory, based in Pawtucket, did “the prep work,” explained the Commission’s Maria Pease. (See the Commission’s Facebook page for photos and watch video of the removal, conducted on July 16.)

Colin Parkhurst spoke about his passion – geocaching, and its relation to the maintenance of Warwick’s historic cemeteries. He acts as a liaison between the Commission and the geocaching community. “Geocaching has had a positive effect on historic cemeteries,” he explained,

The stones have been recorded and will be reassembled in the exact same orientation. Brass plaques and flat markers will be inserted over the original graves at the Main Avenue site. “The airplanes won’t be running over dead people, I promise, it’s really just a height problem,” said Pease, as she described the history of the project, going back to 2011. “The stones have been preserved, a conservator was hired, making any necessary repairs, transcriptions were made – the information is the same,” she explained of the new markers. “An interpretive panel will also be erected at the new site,” she added. “There will be more access – you won’t have to call the airport to visit the new site.” The fence will also be moved to the new site, along Main Avenue near the intersection of Industrial Drive, next to a detention basin.

“It’s not easy to move stones,” Pease said, estimating that a cubic foot of granite weighs approximately 175 pounds. A crane was used to lift the largest stones.

Pease also described work conducted in cemetery WK052, the Greene Lot, located on Eton Avenue in Conimicut. A Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) had been obtained, and PAL came out and “scraped the topsoil,” to locate the exact graves to re-align gravestones which had been moved. The archeologist also located five previously unknown burials, with no gravestones. Before and after photos were shown of the cemetery.

Colin Parkhurst spoke about his passion – geocaching, and its relation to the maintenance of Warwick’s historic cemeteries. He acts as a liaison between the Commission and the geocaching community. “Geocaching has had a positive effect on historic cemeteries,” he explained, noting that GPS coordinates have been gathered “so that the cemeteries will never be lost again.” There are about 20 geocaches in Warwick and he says visitors to the cemeteries note fallen trees, vandalism and also volunteer for cleanups, removing saplings and overgrowth, assessing conditions and sometimes even re-setting fallen stones. He showed a logo – CITO, standing for “Cache in, trash out.” He described a recent event held at a cemetery located near the Showcase Cinema, “we ended up finding a few new graves,” and a relationship was created with the cinema for future maintenance of the cemetery.

Parkhurst is now working on projects with historic cemeteries in Cranston.

Speaker Sue Cabeceiras thanked the many volunteers who help the Commission with its mission, “to formulate and develop plans and programs to restore, rehabilitate and maintain Warwick’s historical cemeteries,” but noted that more help is needed.

The Commission meets on the first Tuesday of each month in the City Hall Annex Building at 6:30 p.m., and meetings are open to the public.

Beth Hurd
Author: Beth Hurd