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The Yankee Express

Where are the remains of Rhode Island’s first settler?

Dec 04, 2020 03:03PM ● By Thomas D’Agostino

The Blackstone House, Boston, by Edwin Whitefield, 1889

This story is the strange history of William Blackstone’s grave. I have enjoyed this account for many years and want to share it with everyone. Enjoy.

   The Northern Rhode Island town of Cumberland is rich with the history of industry and economic growth typical of early New England. It’s mill houses and factory buildings, including the now defunct Ann & Hope Mill Outlet, grace this parcel of land abound with stories and legends common in the region’s youth. But there is one part of the town’s history that seems too strange to be true. 

If you visit the village of Lonsdale, a section of Cumberland, take a walk a little north of the old Ann & Hope parking lot and you will see a monument in a little square. This monument is the final resting place of Rhode Island’s first white settler, Reverend William Blackstone. There is one small problem, however, he is not resting there. Where is he then? Well, that is what many would like to know. His story after his death is more interesting and mysterious than his achievements of being first founder of RI, lone settler of Boston, Massachusetts, and a minister of the Anglican Church. Reverend William Blackstone (Blaxton) came to what is now Boston, Massachusetts with the Gorges expedition in 1623. Unfortunately, the rest of the expedition found it much too difficult to survive in such wilderness and either returned to England or joined colonies already established. Reverend Blackstone remained as the solitary settler of Boston, then called Shawmut. A Puritan expedition landed across the bay in 1629, but saw much hardship. Blackstone invited them to share in the bounty of his land. Over the next couple of years, the two co-existed in somewhat harmony. Reverend Blackstone soon had his share of the Puritan populous and sold his land, now Beacon Hill and Charles Street, packed up his belongings and headed south towards present day Rhode Island. He settled along the banks of the Blackstone River in 1635, built a home, planted an orchard and named his new paradise, Study Hill. His home included at one point, the largest library in New England, (it was one of the most extensive libraries of the new world). He is also credited with cultivating the first American apples called “Yellow Sweetings.”

   His home, in present day Cumberland, was completely removed from all other colonial influence and other than befriending the local tribes, he lived in the wanted solitude of himself and his library. He would become the first white settler in the region now called Rhode Island. 

Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, and well deserved of recognition for his achievements as well, would venture to this parcel of the Union in the year of 1636 to stake his claim in history one full year after William Blackstone came to forge the territory. Blackstone and Williams disagreed on many theological matters but became lifelong friends. He would often venture to Providence to perform sermons on the Sabbath. His mode of transportation was quite irregular for the times. In place of a horse, he rode a trained bull. 

   Reverend Blackstone lived in his self-imposed recluse until 1659, when he wed Sarah Stevenson of Boston. They had one son together named Johnathon. Sarah died in 1673 at the age of 48 and the reverend would follow two years later in 1675 at the age of eighty years. Blackstone was buried on Study Hill next to his faithful bull. The graves were marked by two boulders abreast of a quartz stone marker. Shortly after, King Philip’s War broke out among the colonists and Indians, and the very natives he lived in harmony with, burned his estate to the ground.

It wasn’t until 1855 when the saga picks up again. A group of citizens gathered around the rough-shod grave to pay tribute to their founder and raise money to have a proper,  more modern monument planted in the place of the antiquated rock pile. Donations were taken but the monument never materialized. Neither did any refunds to the charity givers. 

Many years would pass and time took its toll as the weeds grew high hiding William Blackstone’s grave from common sight, leaving it all but forgotten until The Lonsdale Company, owned by the firm of Brown and Ives decided to expand their operations by building a mill on the Blackstone River. The plans included the leveling of Study Hill and moving Reverend Blackstone’s remains to another place. Luckily, a certain William Gammell was not only one of the directors of the Lonsdale  Company, but the president of the Rhode Island Historical Society. When the Ann & Hope Mill was to take the place of Study Hill, it was he who saved the remains of William Blackstone from being totally dug up and lost. At least, for a while.   

A special meeting was held on July 26, 1886, where it is written that on May 6, 1886, reputed Providence Undertakers, Miles and Luther, exhumed the grave of William Blackstone only to find several pieces of bone, some bone dust and the remaining nails from what once held together his long since deteriorated pine coffin. These artifacts were put in a special box, sealed with lead, and prepared for re-interment. Witnesses to this historic act were Mr. Gammell and a descendant of the Reverend Blackstone, Mr. Lorenzo Blackstone.

  Three years later, The Lonsdale Company decided to erect a monument in honor of the great reverend. Yet at another meeting held on July 26, 1889, the descendants of Mr. Blackstone resolved to bear the expense of erecting the monument in order to relate the history, in their words, (as accurately as possible) the life and attributes of their ancestor. The Lonsdale Company agreed to this arrangement. From then on all accounts regarding William Blackstone’s burial and monument became sketchy at best.

According to Amelia Daggert Sheffield who had taken her father’s accounts and edited them for the book “A Sketch Of The History Of Attleborough From Its Settlement To The Division,” thebox containing Blackstone’s remains was to be buried under the building and the monument erected in his name. Now, would this mean that the monument would be in the building or near it? Would the bones really be buried under the building, or under the monument?

The monument, as described by Mrs. Sheffield, stood a few yards from the original grave which was now covered by the Ann & Hope Mill. In her own words from the aforementioned book, “It is of granite about twelve feet high, the base five or six feet square and the shaft a foot or more smaller, tapering slightly. It is within the enclosed grounds of the mill, surrounded by the vivid green of a beautiful lawn, being the only object on it.”

The front has a cross on it bearing the Reverend as being buried there as well as founder of Boston and first white settler of RI. The other three sides boast the rest of the achievements during his life, when he settled in RI, and when he died. Pretty typical of an honorary monument. 

As for his bones, a certain G.W. Pratt was entrusted to hold onto the wooden box which had been sealed with lead and metal bands until the mill was completed and the monument erected.

   For many years the remains of Preacher Blackstone rested with his monument in the industrial clamor of whirring textile machines. The “Spirit of the Gentle Sage” as he was called, was most definitely out of his environment in this noisy habitat. The grave remained untouched from 1889 to the 1940s when the textile industry began a southward migration in search of cheaper labor. Ann & Hope’s majestic walls soon held but memories and ghosts of the industrial revolution. As for the monument, the grass grew wild and the stone fell into neglect.

This was short lived, however. World War II thrived and new role was given to the mill as a repair depot for armory of the Navy. Now the monument had a new dilemma. The hustle and bustle of trains loading and unloading heavy equipment threatened its existence. The First Presbyterian Church of Cumberland suggested the monument be relocated to a piece of their land for further preservation. The Navy agreed and in 1944 William Blackstone’s monument was moved to its present location on Broad and Cumberland Streets overlooking the rear of the great mill. 

Were his remains moved with the monument? It was then unclear whether they had been dug up and relocated. It was unclear if they had ever been buried under the vast stone to begin with.   The elusive box of bones and nails can be traced into the late 1940s when James Furay, Ann & Hope’s plant manager was overseeing a digging project to extend utilities to a newly constructed cottage that was to be used as an office. While digging, the backhoe unearthed a box. It was sealed in heavy lead and the corners had been soldered tight. Upon opening it the crew found some bone fragments and very old nails. The box had been buried north of one of the north towers which was razed during renovations to the mill after the war. 

Most likely unaware of what they had discovered, the box was placed in a store room until the 1960s when Ann & Hope went through another expansion. It was then that Furay’s old office and store room were cleaned to make way for a new structural enclosure. He originally intended to give the box to the Rhode Island Historical Society but never got around to it. No one knows what became of the box from there. It obviously was not reburied under the monument when the obelisk was moved to its present location.


Thomas D’Agostino and his wife Arlene Nicholson are seasoned paranormal investigators, authors, and co-organizers of Paranormal United Research Society. You can find out mo