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The Yankee Express

Where are the remains of Rhode Island’s first settler? A mystery in two parts

Aug 09, 2023 11:53AM ● By Chuck Tashjian
By Thomas D’Agostino

The title of this story poses an enigma in regard to the history of the Ocean State. So do the events that follow. If you visit Cumberland, Rhode Island, you will see a town rich with the history of industry and economic growth. Its mill houses and factory buildings that grace this parcel of land abound with stories and legends that are common to  America’s youth. One portion of the town’s history is filled with a mystery that spans centuries.
If you visit the village of Lonsdale, a section of Cumberland, take a trip to the Ann & Hope Mill Outlet. It was once the largest outlet store in the state as well as a monument of history in itself. Take a walk a little north of the 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, the Reverend William Blackstone, sometimes spelled Blaxton. There is one small problem, however, he is not resting there. Where is he then? Well, that is what we would all like to know. His story after his death is more interesting and mysterious than his achievements of being first founder of Rhode Island, alleged first founder of Boston, Massachusetts, and a minister of the Anglican Church.
Reverend William Blackstone settled in Shawmut, now Boston, in 1628. He became the solitary inhabitant after the rest of his fellow settlers left the area. But, it wasn’t long before he was sharing the real estate with the Puritans. Over the next couple of years, the two co-existed in somewhat harmony. Reverend Blackstone soon had his share of the Puritans and in 1635 sold his land on what is now Beacon Hill and Charles Street. He then headed south towards present day Rhode Island. With his belongings, which included at one point, the largest library in New England, (it was one of the most extensive libraries of the new world), he settled in present day Cumberland. There he built a home removed from all other colonial influence and lived in his sought-after solitude of himself and his library. He called his home “Study Hill.” He is also credited with starting the first apple orchard in Rhode Island on his piece of real estate. 
Reverend Blackstone lived in peace among the local Indigenous Peoples as a self-imposed recluse until 1659 when he wed Sarah Stevenson of Boston. They had one son together named Johnathon. Sarah died in 1673 and the reverend would follow two years later in 1675 at eighty years of age. He was buried near his home on Study Hill which was marked by two boulders abreast of a quartz stone marker. Shortly after, the 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. It was then that a group of citizens gathered around the overgrown 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 as time took its toll and the weeds grew high hiding William Blackstone’s grave from common sight 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. This meant leveling 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 so 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, respected 
Providence undertakers, Miles and Luther, exhumed the grave of William Blackstone only to find a few pieces of bone, some bone dust and the remaining nails from what once held together his long since deteriorated coffin. These artifacts were put in a special lead sealed box and were prepared for reburial. Witnesses to this historic act were Mr. Gammell and a descendant of the Reverend Blackstone, a Mr. Lorenzo Blackstone.
Three years later the company decided it was going 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 expenses of erecting the monument that would relate the history, in their words, (as accurately as possible) the life and attributes of William Blackstone. The Lonsdale Company had no objections. Now is where things begin to get sketchy and plans go awry. 

The solution to the puzzle of the missing minister will be revealed in the next issue.