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Rhody Radio episode transcription has been been made possible by the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grants for Libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.


A Tour of Historic Maple Root Cemetery

A photo of a historic cemetery in autumn, with yellow and orange leaves on the trees.


Lauren Walker: [00:00:00] You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online. Hi, I'm your host Lauren Walker from the Rhody Radio Crew and Coventry Public Library. For the library, I recently planned a tour of a local Coventry Cemetery guided by Charles Vacca and Maureen Buffi of the Pawtuxet Valley Preservation and Historical Society Cemetery Group. The tour was really interesting and I thought I would bring it to all of you Rhody Radio listeners as a podcast

Using information generously provided by the tour guides, I'm retracing our steps through to share with you all the fascinating history there interred. It's a perfect crisp fall day. In spite of the busy road beside it, the cemetery is beautiful and peaceful. Leaves cover the ground and crunch beneath my feet as I walk. The paths here have been more or less improvised by the PVPHS Cemetery Group and there are still some uncovered stones and protruding tree roots so I have to watch my step.

Our tour guide let us know at the beginning of the tour that there are several sources of information regarding the cemetery. In particular, there is vital record of Rhode Island, 1636 to 1850, written by James Newell Arnold in 1905, and Coventry, Rhode Island historical cemeteries by John E. Sterling and Dr. Bill Eddleman, both in our collection at Coventry Public Library. Although Maple Root may lack the grandeur of some other cemeteries with more notable individuals, it provides numerous examples of the earliest tombstone styles and symbols in Kent County.

I'm crunching my way over to the cemetery's westernmost point Aquidneck Reservoir where we begin the tour. This is the starting point of an evolutionary trail of tombstone styles and symbolism, including field stones which are simple stones, sometimes left natural and some roughly sculpted, but not carved with names, dates, symbols, or any information. [00:02:00] These are simple grave markers influenced by the puritans' avoidance of embellishment and emphasis on humility.

These field stones make up approximately 320 of the 1,100 burials here. The age of these field stones is uncertain but most likely they do not predate King Phillip's war which is from 1675 to 1676. Unlike other local lots, Maple Root started as a common burial ground similar to the one in Newport Rhode Island where anyone could be buried, particularly those who did not have family lots or anywhere else to go. Near these stones, we find Maple Root's oldest carved stone that of John J. Greene, born at East Greenwich 1688, died 1756.

Near John J Greene's crudely carved stone are those of Captain James Greene, circa 1686 to 1771, whose stone depicts a winged skull sculpted by Jonathan Roberts and his son, American revolutionary Lieutenant Isaac Greene, 1724 to 1796, with similar artistry. In this same area, we have the grave of George W Fish, 1796 to 1816, with a rising or setting sun with what appears to be vines of ivy.

The rising sun symbolizes new life while a setting sun indicates the end of one's earthly existence. This is also a good example of a grave with a headstone and a footstone. We learned that although it isn't really the practice anymore, headstones always used to face west. The body would be laid with the head toward the west and the feet toward the east so that the body itself would face East. It was believed in Christianity that as the sun rises in the east, the sun of God would also come from the east. It has also been said that when facing east, the dead would be able to greet each new day.

Unlike today when we only have headstones, there used to be footstones as well to mark both ends of the grave. [00:04:00] Both stones would face outward so the headstone with the name of the deceased as well as dates and any other inscriptions would face west and the footstone, often with only the initials of the deceased, would face east. GWF is inscribed on George Fish's footstone.

The rise of secularism during the federalist era, 1790 to 1820 resulted in the use of such tombstone imagery as urns and willows. Those symbols which can be found throughout Maple Root are closely related in depicting grief, the willow, over earthly remains, the urn, but the weeping willow further emphasizes nature's lament, mourning, and remembrance. Walking a little further, we have the stone marking Sarah Fisk Knight, 1835 to 1892 which is carved with a weeping willow and an urn.

The sun shines on the gravestone filtering through the trees that overlook the reservoir and I think that there are worse ways to spend eternity than perched here with this view. Nearby, Olive Brayton, 1775 to 1800, is celebrated with flowers on her tombstone. Different flowers are used to symbolize different meanings. Laurel signifying fame, victory, or triumph, poppies indicating eternal sleep, Ivy immortality, oak symbolizing maturity or death at a ripe old age, power, and authority, and the rose, the brevity of earthly existence. Walking toward the center of the cemetery, we come to a cast iron gated fence, the only gated plot in the cemetery where the Cutting family is interned.

Here we have an oddity for Maple Root, although it is more commonly seen in larger burial plots. Lucinda Cutting died in 1893 and her marker is a bluish-gray, metallic white zinc or white bronze. It's metal. You [00:06:00] can hear that it's hollow when I knock on it. These sandblasted monuments were produced only by one company, the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut from 1875 to 1912, exhibiting symbols of anchors, lands, children, books, or as depicted on this one, clusters of weed.

The monument is basically a template and the panels could be customized with a symbol and the name and information of the deceased. The metal panel has raised lettering rather than engraved and it screws onto the monument. During prohibition, it said that these panels would be unscrewed to hide liquor inside of the hollow monuments.

Nearby are the brick-and-mortar tombs of the Scott family. Mary A. Andrews died 1921, Curtis R, 1848 to 1932, and their daughter Lula Mae, 1883 to 1924.

There is only one other such tomb in Coventry located at the Gibbs Westcot lot CY06. These above-ground graves are more common in places like New Orleans where it's impossible to dig a grave without hitting water. Walking a little further toward the northern edge of the cemetery, we come to the gravestone and sad story of Calvin Rhodes Matteson, 1846 to 1864. The son of Verbatus and Mary Greene Matteson.

He enlisted in the seventh Rhode Island Regiment Company C at the age of 15 years following the footsteps of brother James and half-brother Nicholas W. While James survived the Civil War, Nicholas was killed at the Union defeat at Fredericksburg on December 13th, 1862, but Calvin mustered out of service, reenlisted in April 1864 with the third Rhode Island cavalry troop G which defended New Orleans.

By December 10th, 1864, [00:08:00] Calvin was discharged from service on a surgeon certificate and headed home on the steamship North America, which hit turbulent weather off the Florida coast and sank, sending about 140 of the 203 passengers to their deaths.

Calvin Rhodes Matteson was among 24 enlistees of the third Rhode Island cavalry who were lost at sea that day. This is not technically a headstone as there is nobody interred here, but a cenotaph in his memory.

Just around the corner, is the cenotaph of Nathaniel C Greene, 1841 to 1864, son of Lawton and Damaris Greene of Warwick. He may have been related to the revolutionary war General Nathaniel Greene whose homestead is here in Coventry, but it's not the same person. Nathaniel was a mule spinner when he enlisted with the second Rhode Island volunteer infantry.

In June 1863 following his discharge in February on a surgeon certificate, Nathaniel enlisted with the US Navy assigned the lowest rank of landsman. In April 1864, his ship, the USS Southfield was sunk by rebel ran Albemarle off Plymouth, North Carolina. He was taken prisoner and sent to the notorious Andersonville Prison or Camp Sumter in Georgia.

Nathaniel Greene was among the 13,000 prisoners who met their demise here having suffered from scorbutus, now called scurvy, caused from starvation. His Maple Root monument reads, rest, loved and brave soldier by trials all passed, sleep peacefully under the daisies at last. In the same family lot is located the burial of Martin Cornell, 1832 to 1864 Son of Duty and Sarah Wicks Cornell of Summit.

In April 1856, Cornell married Sybil Greene, sister of Nathaniel Greene. Following Sybil's death in 1857 from consumption, Martin married [00:10:00] her sister, Clara or Clarissa Greene. They raised a daughter Mineta who died within a year of birth and son Martin B, born 1862 who tragically drowned in 1873. The son is buried nearby with a small stone bearing the carving of a lamb, a sign of purity and gentleness. Martin served with the seventh Rhode Island regiment, participating in a major battle of Antietam, Fredericksburg and Siege of Vicksburg.

He served under Union commander Ulysses Grant during the last year of the war before suffering a lethal head wound at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in May 1864, dying at Annapolis Maryland hospital. His monument at Maple Root displays a waving flag carved by a notable local carver Orrin Spencer. This section is also the resting place of Elijah Greene, 1840 to 1899, a neighbor of Martin Cornell. Elijah serves as a musician with Company H of a second Rhode Island regiment.

Musician were used by the armies to beckon the soldiers during battle using one piper and one drummer per regiment. Elijah was 86 years old when he passed in 1899 which is impressive as the average life expectancy for a man at this time was about 46 years. A notable symbol of the Masonic keystone royal arch symbol can be found on the monument of Charles H. Potter, 1848 to 1934. Born in Warwick or Coventry, Potter moved to Westerly by 1860, living with his father George W, and working as a factory operative.

Potter enlisted in the first Rhode Island cavalry during April 1865 for a three-month stint. He later lived in Griswold, Connecticut, with his second wife Eliza Barrows following the 1870 death of his first wife Ormenda. All three are buried at Maple Root with Charles's stone bearing the keystone symbol signifying the stones that hold together a stone arch. [00:12:00] Further along in this section, is found a small stone of Silas O Havens 1841 to1887, who served in the US Navy during the later stages of the civil war.

He's stone is marked with that of the three chains of the Odd Fellows, a 19th Century organization of general contractors. The three rings symbolize friendship, love, and truth. Perhaps the two saddest stories can be found walking back toward Harkney Hill Road. There is Miranda Fish, 1839 to 1840, who's stone displays a dove pecking at a rosebud, surrounded by an upside-down heart. Obviously, Maranda's parents, Joshua and Diana Fish, buried beside their daughter, were heartbroken by her early death.

Although a cholera epidemic hit the region during the mid-1840s, it is uncertain the exact cause of the young girl's death. Birds symbolize the spirit in the afterlife and can be found on headstones elsewhere. More specifically, doves symbolize innocence, love, purity, and the holy spirit. Still more tragic is that of Patie J. Johnson, born April 5th, 1864, daughter of Phebe and Phillip D. Johnson. When Patie, short for Patience, was only 14 years old, she was married to 27-year-old Lauriston Battey. Two years later she gave birth to daughter Alice Maud Battey.

Alice only lived for five months before dying of infantile cholera. A few months later Patie herself died at age 17. Her husband Lauriston apparently moved to Washington Village and started a new family before being buried in 1929 with his second family in Oakland cemetery, CY69. A protruding rose, a sign of the completion and brevity of life, adorns Patty's monument and her daughter, Alice's gravestone, stands just behind hers.

With [00:14:00] this sad tale, we conclude our tour of Maple Root Cemetery. Of course, any cemetery will have it's share of sad stories, but we can at least take solace in the fact that this cemetery is a very peaceful place for these souls to rest, and the PVPHS cemetery group continues to work to preserve Maple Root and other cemeteries like it. The works used to research this tour are listed with the episode information.

Thank you to Maureen Buffi of the PVPHS cemetery group who has tirelessly researched many of these individuals and worked with numerous local residents in clearing the once much-overgrown Maple Root Cemetery. Thank you also to Charles Vacca for providing me with this tour information so that I could share these stories with our listeners.

If you want to find out more about the PVPHS cemetery group or would like to volunteer with the group to clean up and restore local historical cemeteries, visit Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island center for the book and brought to you by library staff and community members all around the ocean state.

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