Efforts underway to inventory, preserve Portsmouth's historic cemeteries

Many smaller plots located on private property

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PORTSMOUTH — Dead men may not tell any tales, but the burial plots marking their final resting places are rich with local history.

That’s why town officials and the Portsmouth Historical Societyp are both working toward preserving and improving the upkeep of local historical cemeteries, many of which have fallen into neglect. 

While the larger historic cemeteries are located on church or town land, many smaller plots are scattered around on private properties. Some residents may have the remains of a local Revolutionary War soldier buried in their own backyard and not even know it.

To help remedy the situation, the Town Council wants to adopt a new ordinance that would grant modest tax abatements to property owners who agree to do light maintenance work on cemeteries on their land. 

More than 20 private homes in Portsmouth have historical cemeteries, according to Town Administrator Richard Rainer. The ordinance, if approved, would grant a $100 tax abatement to those homeowners who agree to mow, trim or weed those plots.

“It’s supposed to incentivize them to keep it up,” Town Planner Gary Crosby said.

First, however, he needs to identify those cemeteries and determine whether they’re on town or private property. The data will be entered as an inventory in the historic section of the Comprehensive Community Plan, which the town is currently updating.

“There are four or five or six different lists of cemeteries in town that have been compiled by a variety of people,” Mr. Crosby said during an informal tour of several local cemeteries Saturday morning along with members of the Portsmouth Historical Society, which is planning an upcoming lecture on historic burial plots. “What I’m trying to do is gather them all up and coordinate them and then get them on a map.”

After that, the town needs to decide what he next step is, he said.

“I need to determine whether they’re on private property or on town property so we can make some policy decisions about the ones that are on town property. What are we going to do with them? We’ve been neglecting them for decades and we need to start thinking about that,” Mr. Crosby said.

And what if a homeowner isn’t so enamored with that 250-year-old headstone poking up from his backyard? “What if there’s a property owner who’s not interested in keeping it up? That’s the big question mark,” Mr. Crosby said.

Historical society survey

Working in parallel to Mr. Crosby is the Portsmouth Historical Society, which wants to put together a team of volunteers to survey local cemeteries later this spring for its own inventory. 

They’ve also tapped the expertise of Jacob Begin, senior historic preservation specialist at the R.I. Department of Transportation. Mr. Begin came along with Society members and Mr. Crosby on the cemetery tour Saturday in preparation for a lecture he’s tentatively scheduled to present here May 13 for “Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Restoration/Awareness Day.”

Mr. Begin said he prefers to do his presentations onsite, using a mirror to illuminate stones during his lectures in these “outdoor museums.” He told Society members that residents get more interested in preserving local historical cemeteries once they hear about their special carvings and symbols.

“Maybe they’ll see a small cemetery, pull over and try to figure out what all the stones mean,” he said.

Mr. Begin told Society members that historical cemeteries attract a diverse crowd — everyone from older residents interested in genealogy to younger folks who either like the old burial plots’ aesthetics or are into ghost stories.

Some burial plots date to 1600s

Here are just a small sampling of some of Portsmouth’s historical cemeteries.

• The large and active St. Mary’s Episcopal Churchyard surrounds the church off East Main Road in the south end of town, with its oldest stone dating back to 1797.

• Portsmouth Cemetery off Turnpike Avenue, also large and still active, is not the property of the Town of Portsmouth as was once believed by some. According to the R.I. Historical Cemetery Commission, it was originally started by the Methodist Church.

“Hessian’s Hole,” supposedly containing the graves of Hessian soldiers who died during the Revolutionary War, is located just south of one of the holes on the Carnegie Abbey golf course.

• Union Cemetery, located south of Union Street on the east side of East Main Road, was started by the Portsmouth Christian Union Church, which was houses in the building now used as a museum by the Portsmouth Historical Society. There are many interesting Victorian stones and several elaborate cast metal markers here, according to the state cemetery commission.

 Portsmouth Friends’ Churchyard is located behind the church that bears its name at the corner of Middle Road and Hedly Street, near Town Hall. This cemetery contains burials from the 1600s, although they aren’t marked.

• You’ll find some interesting stones in the Giles Slocum Lot, the oldest dating back to 1703. The cemetery is located opposite the barns on town-owned Lower Glen Farm.

• The tiny John Cook, Jr. Lot is located behind a stone wall in a cow pasture on the south side of Glen Road. One tombstone is from 1691.

• Two Revolutionary War veterans are buried in the Thomas Potter Lot, located behind 235 Carriage Drive. 

• Another example of a small cemetery located on a private homeowner’s property is the small Capt. Clarke Cornell Lot on Young Drive. The oldest burial dates from 1758 and the lot contains a beautiful gravestone for Priscilla Clarke that was created by the celebrated carver John Bull (1734-1808) of Newport.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.