MAPLE ROOT CEMETERY: “Probably The Most Interesting Cemetery…”
By Charles M. Vacca Jr.
Note: The PVPHS Cemetery Group conducted a tour of Maple Root Cemetery (CY135) as part of the RI Historical Cemetery Awareness and Preservation celebration. Here are the wonders entombed in that ancient, historic lot!
Back in October 1905, genealogist James Newell Arnold overcame a debilitating, crippling condition to travel by horse and buggy to Coventry gathering information for his 21-volume landmark “Vital Record of Rhode Island, 1636-1850”. “At Maple Root Church (c. 1792) is a cemetery, the lots are much neglected, the yard is enclosed by granite posts and iron rails…all in good order…”, he wrote.
Nearly 100 years later, John E. Sterling and Dr. Bill Eddleman penned in “Coventry Rhode Island Cemeteries”, “…This is a very old cemetery containing many crudely inscribed fieldstones for the earliest settlers in this area. This is probably the most interesting cemetery in Coventry…” Interesting indeed!
Although Maple Root may lack the grandeur of 18th century Monumentalism and Modern Plain Style, and notable individuals (i.e., just descendants of the Greenes from Quidnesset); it provides numerous examples of the earliest tombstone styles and symbols in Kent County.
The lot’s most western point, abutting Quidnick Reservoir, is the starting point of an evolutionary trail of tombstone styles and symbolism, including fieldstones (approx. 320 of the 1,100 burials); some sculpted as preview to later era carvings. Sterling observed Maple Root’s earliest burials in Sec. I, site of the oldest carved stone (i.e., John J. Greene, born at East Greenwich, 1688; died 1756). (Coventry’s oldest enscribed stone is of Susannah Bucklin (d. 1736) at CY34 Stone-Hammett Lot, Maple Valley Road.) The age of these fieldstones is uncertain; but most likely they do not predate King Philip’s War, 1675-76.
Unlike other local lots, Maple Root started as a “common burial ground”, similar to that in Newport, RI; aside from the family lots located throughout Coventry, and later proprietary cemeteries at Woodland (CY66) and Greenwood (CY59). Maple Root Baptist Church was established in October 1762 (the church building dates to 1797); apparently taking over this burial ground before the first proprietary lot was sold to Philip Johnson in November 1893. Research shows Maple Root Cemetery is no longer under the church’s ownership.
But walking through Maple Root, one cannot ignore the funerary symbolism engraved in its monuments. In “Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815”, former RI School of Design Prof. Allan I. Ludwig wrote, “The relationship between religion, symbol, and image is not easily drawn out. Stonecarvers did not consciously attempt to mirror theological dogma…Indeed, stonecarvers were almost always mute concerning their craft and the ministers had equally little to say about imagery.” Ludwig observed the use of any symbols went against colonial Puritan beliefs, stating, “The use of Dagons on Puritan gravestones is puzzling in the light of the fact that they were associated with paganism and the evil doings of Thomas Morton [a conservative Anglican bent on reforming the Puritan colony at Boston], and his merrymen.”
History recounts funerary art in Puritan New England started about 1640, extending to the late 18th century. And that coincides with Maple Root with the dawn of the “Death’s Head” period of 1670-1770. Meg Greene wrote that early New England burying grounds were “simply places to deposit the remains of the dead”. Those stones found in Sec. I in the form of crudely carved or faceless field stones adhered to the second biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images”. Nearby to John J. Greene’s crudely carved stone are those of Capt. James Greene (1686c-1771), whose stone depicts a less harsh winged skull sculpted by Johnathon Roberts (who sculpted the Martha (Cooper) Rice angel stone at CY171). Again nearby is son, Am. Rev. Lt. Isaac Greene (1724c-1796), with similar artistry.
Local historian Mathias Harpin wrote in “The High Road to Zion” that Searles Capwell “…grew up to be the ‘lumber king’ of western RI…an influential man in Coventry political affairs, serving on the town council and general assembly.” When he was called to rest in Oct. 1916; it was appropriate to adorn his tall polished granite tombstone in Woodland Cemetery with an urn, a sign of immortality. At Maple Root, the stone marking Sarah (Fisk) Knight (1835-1892) is adorned with similar immortality. Nearby, Olive Brayton (1775-1800) is celebrated with flowers on her tombstone. Different flowers symbolize diverse 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, completion and brevity of earthly existence.
The rise of secularism during the Federalist Era (c. 1790-1820) resulted in the use of such tombstone imagery of urns and willows. Those symbols, which can be found throughout Maple Root, are closely related in depicting grief (willow) over earthly remains (urn). But the weeping willow further emphasizes nature’s lament, mourning and remembrance. One of the most noticeable stones during this period is of George W. Fish (1796c-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.
East of the Fish stone is an oddity, but one seen in larger burial plots. Lucinda Cutting died in 1893, and her marker is a bluish gray metallic white zinc or white bronze. These sandblasted monuments were produced by the Monumental Bronze Co. of Bridgeport, CT from 1875 to 1912; exhibiting symbols of anchors, lambs, children, books or clusters of wheat. The convenience of these monuments was that a panel was inserted bearing upraised lettering of the individual’s vital data. Later on, these compartments were allegedly used by bootleggers during prohibition to stow away liquor!
Nearby are the brick mortar tombs of the Scott Family, Mary A. (Andrews) d. 1921; Curtis R. (1848-1932); and their daughter Lula May (1883-1924) ). There is only one other such tomb in Coventry, located at the Gibbs-Westcott Lot (CY06). These evolved from tabletop monuments, with the deceased’s remains buried directly underneath. In England, tabletop tombs indicated less affluent individuals.
Back to Sec. I, and the sad story of Calvin Rhodes Matteson (1846c-1864)…The son of Vurbadus (Verbadus) and Mary (Greene) Matteson, he enlisted in the 7th RI Reg’t Co. C at the age of 15 years; following the footsteps of brother James (1st RI Light Artillery Co. G, 1861) and half-brother Nicholas W. (7th RI Reg’t Co. F, 1862). While James survived the Civil War, Nicholas was killed at the Union defeat at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862. But Calvin, mustered out of service, re-enlisted in April 1864 with the 3d RI Calvary Troop G, which defended New Orleans. By Dec. 10, 1864, Calvin was discharged from service on a surgeon’s certificate and headed home on the steamship ‘North America’; which confronted turbulent weather off the Florida coast before sinking, sending about 140 of the 203 passengers to their death. Calvin Rhodes Matteson was among 24 enlistees of the 3d RI Calvary plunging to their demise; leaving a cenotaph in his memory at Maple Root Cemetery.
Just around the corner is the cenotaph of Nathaniel C. Greene (1841c-1864), son of Lawton and Dameras Greene of Warwick. Nathaniel was a ‘mule spinner’, when he enlisted with the 2d RI Vol. Inf. In June 1863, following his discharge in February on a surgeon’s certificate; Nathaniel enlisted with the U.S. Navy, assigned the lowest rank of landsman. In April 1864, his ship the USS Southfield was sunk by rebel ram Albermale off Plymouth, NC. He was taken prisoner and sent to the notorious Andersonville Prison or Camp Sumter, Sumter County, GA. The Confederate government decided in 1864 to remove Union prisoners to this site from Richmond, as the advancing Union army threatened to overtake their operations. Andersonville was a stockade facility of 16.5 acres which lodged 45,000 prisoners. Nathaniel Greene was among the 13,000 prisoners meeting their demise, having suffered from scorbutus or scurvy caused from starvation. His Maple Root monument reads: “Rest loved and brave soldier thy trials all past, Sleep peacefully under the daises at last.”
In the same family lot is located the burial of Martin Cornell (1832c-1864), son of Duty and Sarah (Wickes) Cornell of Summit. In April 1856 Cornell married Sybil Greene, sister of Nathaniel Greene. Following Sybil’s death in 1857 from consumption, Martin married her sister, Clara/Clarissa Greene. They raised a daughter Minetta, who died within a year of birth; and son, Martin B. (b. 1862), who tragically drowned in 1873. The son is buried nearby with a small stone bearing the carving of a lamb, sign of purity and gentleness. Martin served with the 7th RI Reg’t, participating in the major battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg and siege at Vicksburg. He served under Union Cmdr. U.S. 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 an Annapolis, MD hospital. His monument at Maple Root displays a waving flag, carved by notable local carver Orrin Spencer.
Maple Root Cemetery Sec. E is also the resting place of Elisha Greene (1814-1899) and neighbor of Martin Cornell. Elisha served as a musician with Co. H of the 2d RI Reg. Vols. Musicians were used by the armies to beckon the soldiers to battle; using one fifer and drummer per regiment. Nearby, William Potter (1845-1901) served with the U.S. Navy during the early days of the Civil War when Union Cmdr. Winfield Scott came up with his Anaconda Plan to blockade the Confederates along the Mississippi River, down to the Mexican Gulf and back up along the Atlantic seaboard, from exporting their main commodity of cotton. And then there was John Mitchell (1835-1910), who served in Co. B 5th Reg. RI Artillery, probably with RI Gen. Ambrose Burnside in repulsing the rebels in North Carolina.
A notable symbol of the Masonic Keystone Royal Arch Symbol can be found on the monument of Charles H. Potter (1848-1934). 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 1st RI Calvary during April 1865 for a three month stint. He later lived in Griswold, CT with his second wife Eliza Jane/Jennie Barrows following the 1870 death of his first wife Orminda. All three are buried at Maple Root, with Charles’ stone bearing the keystone symbol signifying the stone that holds together a stone arch.
Further along in Sec. D is found the small stone of Silas O. Haven (1841c-1887), who served in the U.S. Navy during the later stages of the Civil War. His 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. (Compare that with the Masons which displays a “G” for God, surrounded by a compass and builder’s square.) But Haven later found adventure on the high seas for 11 years as a whaler out of New Bedford, MA!
Perhaps the two saddest stories can be found nearby towards Harkney Hill Road. There is Meranda Fish (1839c-1840), whose stone displays a dove pecking at a rosebud surrounded by an upside down heart. Obviously, Meranda’s parents Joshua and Dinah Fish, buried besides 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 demise as this period was without modern remedies and medicines to combat the numerous maladies. Birds symbolized the spirit in the afterlife, and can be found elsewhere. More specifically, doves as engraved on the small heart-shaped tympanum stone of Mary Spaulding (d. 1760) in the Westcott Lot (CV40) off Flat River Road, testify to innocence, love, purity, and the Holy Spirit (Song of Solomon 8:11). Mary Spaulding died at the tender age of seven weeks, one day!
Still more tragic is that of Patie/Patty J. Johnson, born April 5, 1864, daughter of Philip D. Johnson and Tryphenia (Greene). An 1879 East Greenwich marriage register listed Patie (i.e., Patience Jane Johnson) as 14 years old when she married 27 year old Lauriston Battey. On Jan. 13, 1882, young Patie (Johnson) Battey died; following the Aug. 4, 1881 death of daughter Alice Maud Battey, less than a few months old from infantile cholera. Husband Lauriston was apparently so aggrieved by this series of events that he chose to not be entombed at Maple Root cemetery. Instead, Battey apparently moved to Washington Village and started a new family, before being buried in 1929 with his second family in Sec. C of Oakland Cemetery (CY69). A protruding rose, sign of the completion and brevity of life adorns Patie’s monument.
Bibliography: “carved clues” (origin unknown); “Coventry Rhode Island Historical cemeteries”, By Dr. Bill Eddelman and John Sterling (Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, MD1998); “Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815”, By Allan I Ludwig (Wesleyan Univ. Press, Middletown, CT 1966); “The High Road To Zion”, By Mathias P. Harpin (Harpin’s American Heritage Foundation, Inc., Pascoag, RI 1976); “Photo Gallery of Cemetery Symbols and Icons” Thought, By Kimberly Powel (2019) https://www.thoughtco.com/photo-gallery-of-cemtery-symbolism-4123061; “Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography”, by Douglas Keister (Gibbs, Smith, Salt Lake City 2004); “Symbolism in the Carvings on Old Gravestones”, Association of Gravestone Studies (2012); “Tombstone Symbols”, https://tn-roots.com/tndyer/cemetery/symbols.html