The Common Buryinq Ground and Island Cemetery Newport, Rhode Island

The Common Burying Ground was given to the city in 1640 by Reverend John Clarke.
Clarke ‘was one of the founders of Aquidneck Island and served as its first medical doctor.
Reverend Clarke organized the first Baptist Church in Newport and in 1663 he obtained the colony’s ‘charter from Charles II. After 1836 the Burying Ground included a small cemetery to the, southeast known as the Duck Factory Cemetery. The cemetery was established on the site of the postrevolutionary textile factory for its former employees by funds obtained by the sale and demolition of the factory.

By the early 19th century land for family plots was scarce in the Common Burying Ground and there was a need for a new cemetery.  In 1836 the town of Newport purchased a tract of land which was the beginning of the Island Cemetery. The following year, Henry Bull and William W. Freeborn were appointed to lay out the new cemetery.  In 1848 ,the town conveyed the lands, their care and development to the Island Cemetery Company.
Several additions have been made to the original purchase including Willow Cemetery, a small, private burial ground to the southeast.

Every town’s cemetery contains the remains of its citizens and reflects its local history. The Common Burying Ground and Island Cemetery are the resting place of people important in the history of the city, state and nation. Some of our early political leaders buried in the Common Burying Ground are William Ellery, a signer of the Declaration -of Independence, and Henry Marchañt, who first introduced the concept of separation of church and state at the Continental Congress. There are four colonial governors: Richard and Samuel Ward, also Samuel and John Cranston. In the Island Cemetery there are four 19th century governors interred: William C. Gibbs, William C. Cozzens, Charles C. VanZant and George Peabody Wetmore.

Common Burying Ground In Newport Rhode Island

Common Burying Ground In Newport Rhode Island

The Common Burying Ground and Island Cemetery are located at the northern end of Farewell Street beyond the center of 18th and early 19th century Newport. Islandcemetery surrounds the Common Burying Ground on the north  and east. Beyond the two cemeteries, to the west of Farewell Street, are the Braman Cemetery, which is a private Jewish Cemetery, and the public North Ground Cemetery.  To the north, across
Van  Zandt  Avenue, there is a 20th century addition to the Island Cemetery and to the east, a mid 19th century Catholic cemetery. The crowded and
seemingly haphazard layout of the Common Burying-Ground with its modest,  low headstones stands in marked contrast to the park-like layout in the Island Cemetery with its individualistic and frequently grandiose monuments.

The Common Burying Ground, founded in the mid 17th century, is divided into two sections: one for freemen and one for slaves. Two roads curve across the cemetery; the northern road serves as a boundary between the the two areas. The freemen section to the south contains the greatest number of stones,  many of them grouped in family plots, as well as the oldest stones in the Burying Ground. In the northern slave section there are fewer stones with more space surrounding each.

The Common Burying Ground contains three thousand memorial monuments; of these, eight hundred date prior to 1800. The earliest extant markers are from the 1660’s. The most common late 17th and 18th century marker form is blue slate with a central broad crest and subordinate flanking crests.  The John Ward head stone carved by William Mumford in 1698 exemplifies late 17th and early 18th century gravestone ornamentation. Within the -central arched crest is a round-eyed death figure with wings. The lateral arches each contain a blank circle within a circle at the top of the crest and four circular leaf designs below. The inscription  carved entirely in capitals beneath the central arch states:


Beginning in the mid 18th century a second monument form, the ledger stone, became stylish. The ledger stones in the Common Burying Ground measure approximately three feet by six feet and rest horizontally on a three or four inch foundation. The Hon. Richard Ward monument carved by John Stevens II in 1767 typifies the ledger stones. Centered at the head of the stone is the Ward coat-of-arms which is a cross flory with a crudely drawn griffin’s head for a crest. A geometric rosette is carved on each corner of the stone. The epitaph fills the remaining space.  It discusses Governor and Mrs. Ward’s virtues, their religious affiliations and his life as a public servant.  The lettering is both upper and lower case.

During the late 18th century, the variety of ornamentation increased. Often the symbols were more personal and the decorative detail more stylistic.  The stone signed by John Stevens III in 1779 for Pompey Brenton, a slave, is representative of this ornamental evolution. Within the central arch is the picture of a curly-headed, broad-nosed angel with fluffy clouds to either side. A baroque border surrounds the crest and epitaph. The calligraphy is upper and lower case.

The gravestOnes of the 19th and 20th centuries generally continue to be of the same modest proportions as the earlier stones. Marble and granite are-used as well as slate. A notable exception to the modest profile of the Burying Ground headstones is the tall, marble column erected ih 1870 in memory of the- Honorable Joseph Anthony and his wife Anne.  The column rests on a large, rectangular base with an inscription on each
facade. Above the corinthian capital is a statue of a man with a hand over his heart and the other resting on a cane.

In recent years the Common Burying Ground has been overgrown with brush; neglect and vandalism has resulted in stones being overturned. However, the early stonecutters chose their materials carefully and worked the stone with such skill that their artistry remains in excellent condition. A program has begun to record, catalogue and research the cemetery stones.

The avenues of the Island Cemetery were laid out during the 1830’s in a regular grid system in line with the Common Burying Ground and Warner Street boundaries. Plots purchased later to the north and east were designed according to a grid system which parallels Van Zandt Avenue. The latter section includes four circles which adds to the scenic quality of the cemetery. The cemetery is located on a hill overlooking the Common Burying Ground to the west with the Point section of Newport and the harbor in the distance.

There are three late Victorian buildings in the Island Cemetery. The cemetery office 1901-1902 on Warner Street was designed by Herbert Wilson. It is a one-and-a-half story brick structure with a broad arched entrance and a central clock tower.  The temple form receiving vault was designed by Edwin Wilbar in 1894.  The Richardsonian-Romanesque Belmont Memorial Chapel, 1886-1888, is the work of George C. Mason and Son. The
Chapel is constructed of rock-faced brownstone. Its picturesque massing of tall dormers, entrance portico and belfry make it a focal point of the cemetery.

Before the Belmont chapel stands a bronze statue of August Belmont by J. Q. A. Ward. Given to the city by Belmont’s son Perry, it formerly stood in Eisenhower Park. The circular Belmont lot includes an exedra and sarcophagus executed in marble. This 1891 Beaux-Arts’ monument is the work of Richard Morris Hunt. A second sarcophagus stands in the center of the lot and is the tomb of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, August Belmont’s
father-in-law. Other family monuments surround it.

Several family lots are noteworthy for the landscape architecture that defines the area as a private sanctuary. A squarely trimmed privet hedge borders the turn of the century Wetmore family lot and divides it in half. Cypress trees mark the entrance. The back edge of the east section is lined with evergreens. In front of the trees is a large tablet with the inscription “Wetmore.”  The gravesites are defined by a bed of pachysandra and small headstones. The west half of the lot contains a ledger on a high base marking the grave of Anne Derby Rogers Wetmore Sherman, the wife of William Watts Sherman. Granite curbing surrounds the entire lot. The setting is serene and simple.

There are many forms of monuments in the Island Cemetery. Besides the traditional segmental arch stone there are elaborate sarcophagi,  religious statues, crosses and obelisks. The most prominent obelisk is the Oliver Hazard Perry monument erected by the city of Newport in 1826. The tall, slender monument is located on top of an artificial mound.  Perry’ s family is buried on the slope around him. An iron fence surrounds the plot which – borders the Common Burying Ground. One of the largest obelisks in the cemetery was built in memory of Major General Isaac Ipcalls who was killed “while rallying his command” during the Civil War. The 1862 obelisk is tall and unusually broad.

Among the many sculptural monuments, the St. Gaudens angel executed in granite over the 1884 grave of Alfred Smith is the most outstanding. The angel stands holding a tablet inscribed with a Biblical verse above its head. The wings extend upward and curl along the edge of the tablet. The angel’s robes fall in heavy folds to its feet. The grave extends forward and a large scallop shell rises from the base.

The 20th century portion of the cemetery is concentrated at the northern end behind the Belmont Chapel. The stones here are more uniform in size and spacing than anywhere else in either cemetery. The manner in which the cemetery has been developed and maintained perpetuates the park-like atmosphere intended by ‘the 19th century designers.

Many of the nation’s distinguished military leaders are buried here. They are Oliver
Hazard Perry and his brother, Commodore Matthew C. Perry. The Island Cemetery is also the burial place of Richard Morris Hunt, one of the outstanding architects of the Victorian period. The Burying Ground is also distinguished for the excellence of its stonework. The stonecutters William Mumford, John Stevens I, II, and III and John Bull are among the first American sculptors. Their works are considered masterpieces of colonial art. The craft and art of stonecutting was introduced to Newport during the late 17th century by William Mumford, a Boston stonecutter.

By 1705 Newport had a stonecutter of its own, John Stevens, the founder of a large family of craftsmen. Mumford’s influence on John Stevens I is evident in the skull with hanging teeth design and later the tall wings on many of the stones attributed to him. His son, John Stevens II, developed designs of his own. He frequently carved a small cherub with wings.His work is outstanding for its masterful carving and calligraphy. The combination of upper and lower, case lettering first appears in the Common Burying Ground On the stones carved by John Stevens II.  The third John Stevens’ work is characterized by a bold, provincial, baroque style. According to Allan Ludwig, a noted scholar of New England graiiestones, John Stevens III’s stole-clad figures on the border panels of the Captain Nathaniel Waidron stone,  1769, are the “earliest in New England to bear the unmistakable imprint of the neoclassical style.”  The Steven stone cutting shop was run by descendants of the Stevens family until the early 20th century. John Howard Benson purchased the shop and today his son carries on the tradition. It is one of the oldest, continuous businesses in the country.

The work of John Bull, a contemporary of John Stevens II, is similar  to the Stevens work but is distinguishable by its spatial quality and figures of greater artistic sensitivity. The stone cut by Bull for Charles Bardin in 1773 contains the image of a god-like figure rising over turbulent waters. Ludwig states that this is the “only extant representation of God in New England.” The gravestone art of the Common Burying Ground is not only beautiful but it is also extremely important historically to enable study of the entire configuration of 17th and 18th century stone carving.

The Common Burying Ground and the Island Cemetery, when considered together, ‘reflect the history of Newport and the part it has played in Rhode Island’s and the nation’s history for three centuries. As early as the raid 19th century., Newporters recognized their cemeteries as historic sites. In 1840 the town voted to spend $500 of the Island Cemetery profits for the care of the Burying Ground. Two years later undertakers were
first appointed to be responsible for the graves in the old graveyard.

Newport’s Common Burying Ground and Island Cemetery present this nation’s social and artistic development in microcosm. They contain not only the graves of our political, religious and commercial leaders but also sailors, shopkeepers, farmers and the slaves. As a resting place for everyman and anyman, the two cemeteries reflect Roger Williams concept of-brotherhood.

The State Of Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission – National Register Of Historic Places Nomination Form


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