2017-04-06 / Front Page

Burial Walking Tour Shines Light on History

By James Merolla


The engraving of wings is a symbol of the afterlife. It is notably less terrible than the earlier skulls and crossbones. Scholars have long been debating the exact meaning of the winged cherub, but in a generic sense it might simply mean the soul in flight, leaving this earthly realm. 
(NTW File Photo) The engraving of wings is a symbol of the afterlife. It is notably less terrible than the earlier skulls and crossbones. Scholars have long been debating the exact meaning of the winged cherub, but in a generic sense it might simply mean the soul in flight, leaving this earthly realm. (NTW File Photo) There is nothing common about Newport’s Common Burying Ground. As locals walk their dogs, jog or stretch around the ancient stones, many are oblivious to four centuries of local history that dates to 1666.

Here lies the final resting place of Ida Lewis, who was keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse for 39 years and was credited with saving at least 18 lives. The site includes the grave of Duchess Quamino, once active in the African Free Union Society. And there is the area that has been dubbed “God’s Little Acre,” where you will find the headstone of Cuffe Gibbs that was carved by his brother, Pompe Stevens.

The Common Burying Ground may be the most historic burial site in Rhode Island, if not in all of New England. It stretches across 10 acres and has nearly 8,000 gravestones. The slate stones, dating mostly from the 1700s, are both historic artifacts from Colonial times and exquisite examples of early American folk art.

You can get a look at all this rich history on Saturday, April 15, when members of the city’s Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission (HCAC) debut a free, family-friendly self-guided tour of the grounds. There will also be an Open House, and HCAC members will be available to answer questions and provide general guidance.

Comfortable walking shoes are recommended. Visitors should start at the welcome table at the Warner Street entrance, where there will be tour information and refreshments.

“We hope anyone interested in Newport’s history who loves old graveyards and appreciates antique works of art will join us for the event,” said Lewis Keen, a commission member. “The tour should be fun. You can visit the graves in any order you wish, while following the map should make it feel like a treasure hunt.”

The HCAC hopes to increase awareness of the site and its importance to the city’s history. While not all graves are marked, there are 7,986 documented gravestones. The HCAC has identified 17 graves that are worthy of special attention, featuring them on the self-guided tour.

What are Keen’s favorites among the carved relics? “There are so many stones that tell incredible stories and are impressive works of art,” he said.

He listed as his favorites the stones for John Stevens, the Newport Gardner family and the Langley children.

“The [Stevens] stone is beautiful,” he said. “He was the founder of the carving family in Newport.

One of his sons carved the stone, which I find quite touching.

“While Gardner is not buried here, he was such an important resident in Colonial Newport. The unusual [Langley children] stone portrays the sad conditions resulting in the high rate of infant mortality in the Colonial world. It’s a work of art created by local carver, John Bull.”

The oldest stones are for John and Harte Garde. “The stones and the remains were originally on the family property on Thames Street and moved here before 1800,” Keen said. “The oldest burials on this site are for Mary Cranston (1666) and John Cranston (1669).”

The city of Cranston is named after John Cranston.

After last year’s state recognition of historic cemeteries, Rep. Anthony Giarrusso, R-East and West Greenwich, introduced a bill to declare April 15 “Historic Cemetery Restoration/Awareness Day.”

“It helps [HCAC] in our mission to increase the public’s awareness of the importance of our historic burying grounds,” Keen said. “It also sends a message to local governments that our historic burying grounds are important and worthy of being considered as assets for planning purposes.”

The site is owned and maintained by the city of Newport under the direction of Scott Wheeler, the Supervisor of Building and Grounds. The HCAC became active last June to help the city preserve, protect and promote public historic burying grounds.

While there have been a few “mappings” of the burying ground over the years, Keen said there is not an easily referenced document for the public to access. “One of our initiatives for the coming years will be the exploration of GPS or GIS to help people navigate the site,” he said. “Until then, the self-guided tours and guided tours offered by the Newport Historical Society are available.”

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