A History of Swan Point Cemetery












Swan Point Cemetery

Tour Highlights


Rhode Island



Italian navigator Giovanni Verrazzano is the first verifiable visit to Rhode Island by a European. He is in search of an all-water route through North America to China and in the employ of the French king Francis and several Italian promoters.


Demographers estimate that the region's existing Narragansett population numbers around 7,000 people at the time of European contact. These Indians subsist on farming, fishing, and hunting. Roles are strictly defined in Algonquin society; in addition to childbearing, females plant, harvest, prepare food, and build wigwams. Men fish and hunt.

1622 - 1703

Arthur Fenner is one of the earliest English settlers in the area now known as Swan Point Cemetery. His land includes the Slate Rock, the landing spot of Roger Williams. It is near the present Power, Gano, and Williams Streets. He expands his holding to East Manning Street. He names his property "What Cheer Farm" after the local traditional Indian greeting "What Cheer." Henry Browne owns a tract near Swan Point that extends west near present-day Cole Avenue. His son Richard and grandsons William and Richard inherit the property which includes two houses--a gambrel-roof brick on the ground of Butler Hospital today and a gable-roof, wooden building known as the Cole Farmhouse at 12 Cole Farm Court.


William Blackstone is considered the first European settler in Rhode Island.


First Church is organized at Providence.


July 8: Charles II grants the Charter of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations. It remained the constitution until 1842.


May 5: The colony's seal is established--"Mottoe, Rhod Island and Providence Plantations," and "Hope" above an anchor.


March 30: A few houses and out buildings in the northerly section of Providence are reportedly burned by Indians.


Providence is incorporated as a county.


Providence population reaches 1,446.


Providence population is 3,196.


October 20: William Goddard establishes Providence's first printing press, The Providence Gazette and Country Journal.


Brown University is incorporated: "An Act for the Establishment of a college, called subsequently Rhode Island College, is enacted by the General Assembly." In 1804 the Trustees re-name this institution Brown University after its benefactor John Nicholas Brown, Jr.


June 9: Considered by some as the "first real blow for freedom" in the American Revolution as it predates the Boston Tea Party, the Burning of the HMS Gaspee occurs near Warwick. The British Gaspee's commander Lieutenant William Dudingston requires that all other ships lower their flags as a sign of respect. When the colonial vessel Hannah refuses, the Gaspee chases it across shallow waters which leaves the British ship stranded on a sandbar. That night, 64 Rhode Islanders board the ship, take the crew prisoners, shoot Dudingston, and set the vessel on fire.


Swan Point Cemetery

Tour Highlights


Rhode Island



The importation of slaves is prohibited.

Moses Brown quits the family business when the business practices of his partners challenge Brown's ethics. He leaves the Baptist Church to join the Society of Friends. In 1779 they form a "Monthly Meeting School," and Brown ensures its longevity by donating land and providing support to build a school building that opens in 1819.


Providence renounces the British Crown.

July 4: "The Declaration of Independence" announces the Revolution of the United States of America.


April 23: Cessation of the Revolutionary War for Independence.


Rhode Island farmers burn their grain, dump their milk, and let fruit rot in their orchards in a strike directed against Providence and Newport merchants who refuse paper money, which has depreciated to the point of being virtually worthless. The strike has little effect, since 90 percent of Rhode Islanders raise their own food.


Blind composer Oliver Shaw helps found Psallonian Society for sacred music. Read his bio as part of the tour.


Rhode Island refuses to participate in the War of 1812.


September 23: A great gale rocks Rhode Island.


Providence's population increases to 11,784.


Dexter Asylum is established in the will of Ebenezer Knight Dexter who leaves no heirs. Upon his death he leaves his estate "for the benefit of the poor of Providence" and stipulates that the family farm be set aside as an "asylum farm" for indigents who are former landowners or descendants of landowners. Unlike other asylums which require residents to earn their keep through farm labor, Dexter specifies that hired hands be brought in to work and farm produce that is sold at local markets. The profits are used to run the asylum until 1963 when the land is sold to Brown University and developed into athletic facilities.


Quaker Elizabeth Buffum marries Samuel B. Chace and becomes an abolitionist. Read her bio as part of the tour.


Reformer Thomas C. Harshorn notes that Providence's public cemeteries are in a "deplorable condition" and begins plans for Swan Point Cemetery.

November 29: A group of noncommissioned "officer conspirators" from the Imperial Russian Army's military academy revolts against Russian rule in Warsaw. It is also known as the November Uprising or the Cadet Revolution. They are joined by large parts of Polish society but the movement is eventually crushed. Edward B. Bohuszewicz, one of the soldiers, immigrates to Providence. Read about him on the tour.


September: Providence is incorporated as a city.


The first railroad line connects Boston and Providence.


Swan Point Cemetery

Tour Highlights


Rhode Island


1841 - 1843

Thomas Dorr, an elite land owner, and working people without land form the Rhode Island Suffrage Association. Thousands participate in a Providence parade for electoral reform and form a “People’s Convention” to author a constitution without property requirements for voting. In 1842 they organize an election on the new constitution and 14,000 vote for it, a clear majority indicating the new charter should be adopted. However, elite Rhode Islanders fear Dorr's growing strength after he runs in an unofficial election for governor and wins 6,000 votes. The state's governor enlists the promise of federal troops from President John Tyler. On May 3, 1842, Dorr holds an inauguration with a parade. At its end Dorr's "People's Legislature" attempts to attack the state arsenal, but its cannon misfires. Dorr flees but is arrested one year later, tried for treason and sentenced to life. His sentence is later reduced after he serves twenty months. In between his attack and ultimate capture, Dorr returns to Rhode Island where hundreds of followers are ready to fight for the People’s Constitution. However, there are thousands in the state's militia ready to defend it. Martial law is declared. One rebel soldier is captured, blind-folded, and placed before a firing squad, which fires blank bullets. A one-hundred person strong militia is taken prisoner. One prisoner describes being bound by ropes into platoons of eight, marched on foot 16 miles to Providence, “threatened and pricked by the bayonet if we lagged from fatigue, the rope severely chafing our arms; the skin off mine… no water till we reached Greenville… no food until the next day… and, after being exhibited, were put into the State prison.”


January 1: Amasa Sprague's murdered body is discovered. The false conviction and execution of his presumed killer leads to a moratorium on Rhode Island's death penalty. Read more about him on the tour.

Butler Hospital, also known as the Rhode Island Asylum for the Insane, is incorporated using money set aside by Nicholas Brown and contributions by Cyrus Butler. Read about it on the tour.


In 1846 Thomas C. Hartshorn, an educator and reformer, purchases 59 1/2 acres in North Providence adjacent to the Butler Hospital, which at the time serves as the city limits boundary for Providence. The land is flanked by the Seekonk River on the east. The region is considered swamp land and the first road going through the area in 1684 runs from Dexter's Lane to Morris Avenue and Olney Street. The Providence engineers Atwater and Schubarth plot 109 groups on the land, each averaging 4,000 square feet in area and on October 20, 1846 86 groups are sold, totaling 860 lots, and costing $13,000. It is designed as a "rural cemetery," a concept that emerges from progressive views on public health, nature, and spirituality. The old custom of creating city bound cemeteries is considered unsanitary.


Gas lighting illuminates Providence streets.

The Swan Point Cemetery Company is incorporated in 1847, with a board of management consisting of the following-named gentlemen as trustees: Chairman, John J. Stinson; Secretary, Benjamin White; Treasurer and Actuary, Thomas C. Hartshorn; Keeper of the Grounds, Christian F. Johnson; Trustees, John J. Stinson, Henry Anthony, Richard J. Arnold, Gideon L. Spencer, Benjamin White, Thomas C. Hartshorn.

July 2, 1847: Swan Point Cemetery grounds are consecrated with services conducted on "the eastern slope" by Reverend Nathan B. Crooker (Saint John's Episcopal Church), Reverend Samuel Osgood (Westminster Congregational Church), and Reverend John P. Cleveland (Beneficent Congregational Church). President Francis Wayland (Brown University) gives the dedicatory address. Music is provided by the Beethoven Society.

Thomas A. Tefft designs the brownstone-faced Romanesque style receiving tomb near the center of the Cemetery on Cedar Avenue. He designs a lodge in the same vicinity but it is razed in 1909. Read Tefft's bio on the tour.

"All proper persons were admitted on foot on weekdays, but only lot owners and their friends on Sundays. Tickets issued to lot owners were required for the admission of persons in carriages or on horseback. Neither dogs, guns, nor refreshments were allowed within the gates. No smoking on the grounds was prohibited. Visitors were require to 'observe the proprieties of a place consecrated to the tender association of the living with the dead; and abstain from inuring trees and shrubs, not plucking even the violet that springs by the grave of a child; for it is an emblem of immortality, for the consolation of bereavement and sorrow."

August 9. John McLaughlin purchases a monument for his son Timothy. The monument bears the inscription "Timothy, the first person buried at Swan Point Cemetery. Born July 8, 1843. Died August 17, 1845." It is located near the old entrance in group 101.


Under the direction of Colonel Nehemiah S. Draper, the First Congregational Society moves its burial grounds to a 5 acre tract and the remains of 660 adults and 327 children are relocated in the move.

May 12: Major John Rogers Vinton is interred. It is the first military funeral at the cemetery. Read his bio as part of the tour.

Providence's Union Passenger Depot is completed. It is designed by freshman Thomas Alexander Tefft  (under the supervision of James C. Bucklin) from Brown University. Read more about Tefft as part of the tour.


"Pastors Rest" is erected to dedicate a marker to the remains of Reverend Enos Hitchcock and his family. He is the pastor of the First Congregational Society from 1783 - 1803.

EARLY RULES: Land owners must place bound stones at the corners of their lots. They are permitted to erect monuments, family vaults and sepulchral monuments at their discretion but cemetery personnel recommend that foundations be built 3 1/2 feet below ground, but the construction of tombs, wholly or in part above ground, is subject to the approval of the board of directors. No wooden fences are allowed around lots. Graves are to be dug and closed by the superintendent but owners can dig graves on their own lots. A charge of seven dollars is made for the construction of a brick or cement grave covered with slate stone. Land for a single grave might be obtained on ground appropriated for the purpose for eight dollars, including digging, closing and sodding. Entombments are permitted in the receiving tomb at no cost to prospective lot purchases for a period of fifteen days, after which a charge is made."


Swan Point Cemetery

Tour Highlights


Rhode Island



Waterborne transport improves when the United States Army Corps of Engineers surveys the Providence River and dredges a channel south of Fox Point to a depth of ten and a width of one hundred feet, allowing the Port of Providence to accommodate larger vessels.


Rhode Island prejudice against Irish Catholic immigrants peaks, with James Y. Smith's election and William W. Hoppin's governorship in 1855. Providence mayor Smith is in the "Know-Nothing" Party, a secret nativist organization based on an anti-immigrant platform. Some of the party's more zealous adherents even attempt a raid on St. Xavier's Convent, home of the "female Jesuits" also known as the Sisters of Mercy. The angry mob disperses when Bishop Bernard O'Reilly and an equally militant crowd of armed Irishmen confront them.


The General Assembly's new charter is granted, and the corporate name changes to 'The Proprietors of Swan Point Cemetery.'


The Board of Directors negotiates with lot owners of the West Burial Ground in order to acquire title to those lands, aggregate seven acres and deed lots in exchange at Swan Point. By 1875, 418 lots are exchanged for lots in older cemeteries and these lots are "widely scattered through the old portion of the grounds, with concentrated areas in the southeast section between Forest and Side Hill Avenues, in the east section between Beach and Willow Avenues, and in the west section bordering Prospect Avenue.


Public transportation begins between Swan Point Cemetery and the Arcade on Westminster Street by way of an "an omnibus," which makes three trips daily during the summer.

Erastus D. Palmer sculpts an urn for the grave of W. B. Welden. This monument is also known as the Knapp-Fisher-Welden monument. Read more about Erastus D. Palmer as part of the tour.


Providence provides major support for the Union Army during America's Civil War. Providence provides almost half of the 23,236 men Rhode Island sends to the front lines, and its manufacturing industry provides blankets, uniforms, guns, and sabers.

July 14: Soldier Sullivan Ballou writes his farewell letter to wife Sarah. Read more about him as part of the tour.


The cemetery acquires more land, extending the grounds northerly to the present city line with a total area of about 103 acres between the Neck Road and Seekonk River. The Ravine, the Ellipse, and a circular pond are added to the grounds.


Future Rhode Island political boss Charles R. Brayton is appointed a lieutenant of the Third Regiment in the Union Army on October 9. Read his bio on the tour.


Architect Alfred Stone designs a gatehouse and bell tower near the cemetery's entrance on Neck Road.


September 8: A great gale destroys many trees.


Eight miles of avenues are constructed. "Family monuments erected during this period reflect both the current styles of monumental art and the tastes of individuals. The most prevalent materials were granite and marble, with the occasional use of Nova Scotia stone, slate, and sandstone. Among the most conspicuous monuments are the obelisks, shafts and columns, rising to varying heights, some severely plain and others decorated with sculptured figures, urns, and elaborate carving. Early death is symbolized in some cases by upraised columns, cut-off shafts, and broken pitchers." (Cady)


Walter Scott gives up the newspaper business to invent the diner. Read his bio as part of the tour.


The city of Providence is subdivided and its boundaries re-drawn; Swan Point Cemetery is now part of Providence.


Ambrose Everett Burnside, whose unusual facial whiskers add “sideburns” to the language, is elected a United States Senator. Read his bio as part of the tour.


George Henry Corliss reaches a career pinnacle when his steam engine provides Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition with a 1600-horsepower, 700-ton steam engine that delivers all of the power for the fair's entire six-month run -- including power for the 8,000 smaller machines on display. Read his bio as part of the tour.

The cemetery switches from oxen to horses to do work. The Pawtucket water system is extended to the cemetery, allowing for the cemetery to build a fountain and stock it with goldfish. The remnants of this fountain is the "Boy and Girl Fountain" just north of the lodge.

327 unidentified bodies are re-interred in a lot at Swan Point near the gate house--the bodies are from the West Burial Ground.


Swan Point Cemetery

Tour Highlights


Rhode Island



The Rhode Island School of Design is founded.

A bell is forged by Frederick Fuller's brass and bell foundry on South Main Street for the bell tower and hung at Swan Point Cemetery.


In 1878 author Albert J. Wright describes Swan Point Cemetery: "Of the many interesting and beautiful localities which environ the city of Providence, there is none in which natural scenery is more befitting, none better adapted to the requirements of a sepulchre of the dead, than that comprised within the limits of Swan Point Cemetery. Respect for the dead is one of the noblest attributes of our nature; and the beautiful cemeteries that are being established and consecrated as the final resting-place of the departed, give evidence of the affectionate interest the living cherish in these beautiful repositories of their honored dead. Not upon unknown ground, but in consecrated lots, we lay the bodies of our loved ones, and the hand of affection still scatters fresh flowers over their graves, and, as in life they were the objects of our kindest regard, so are their remains the subject of our dearest thought and tenderest care, in these ever-growing cities of the dead.

'A place where the forms of our loved ones rest;
Where contemplation is nature's guest.'

"This lovely spot, secluded from the busy haunts of active life, with its picturesque scenery and boundaries, washed by the beautiful Seekonk River, in whose placid surface is mirrored the giant forms that overhang its wooded shores, forms indeed a fitting place for the repose of the departed. A visit among these sacred altars of the dead, has an influence upon the sentiment of veneration, and serves to harmonize and refine the hearts of the living; for reflection brings the thought, that ere long we, too, will be lying beside the now mouldering relics of what was once so dear to us. May the zeal that has already been manifested, in this enterprise, know no abatement, and all of its varied interests experience no decline."

From the Swan Point Cemetery superintendent's report: fifty people work in and about the grounds. Between 50 and 60 lots are sold in 1876, using 2,700 square feet. 1,700 feet of avenues and 2,000 feet of paths are constructed. In 1877, the cemetery's census shows 470 internments.

New entrances to the cemetery open at Fountain Avenue and at the North End of the grounds.


A private telephone line is installed at the cemetery, connecting the superintendent's office with the Providence Telephone Company.


The Knights of Labor establish themselves in Providence. On August 23 over 2,000 members march in Providence and to advocate for a "Labor Day."


For eight seasons Providence is one of 8 cities in America with a professional major league baseball team. The Providence Gray's play at Messer Park near Onleyville and win two National League championships.

Stone, Carpenter and Willson design a "rustic shelter" northwest of the rock pond that is accessed by a flight of steps near a bronze tablet with the inscription: "Benjamin Anthony Memorial, erected by his wife Sara W. Anthony, Stranger, rest."


The Dell is improved by the introduction of water that allows for a cascade to descend from it. The Forty Steps are built-- it is a stone path bordered with ferns and rhododendrons from Forest Avenue to Ridgeway Avenue.


H. W.S. Cleveland from Chicago, Illinois is consulted as a landscape gardener as part of a proposal to extend Butler Avenue and develop the cemetery's privacy. Under his direction the cemetery created a boulevard 200 feet wide, starting on Butler Avenue, near Blackstone Park, following to North Street at a distance of 1 3/4 miles in 1887.

June 14: The death of minstrel and "character delineater" Harry Bloodgood, also known as Carlos Mauran, is announced in the New York Times. Read his bio as part of the tour.


Feminist Anna Carpenter Garlin Spencer serves as president of Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. Read her bio as part of the tour.


The Ravine at the northeast corner of the grounds has stone steps, rhododendrons, kalmias, azaleas, adromedas, daphnaes, heath, and clematis added as landscaping features.


A new entrance to the cemetery is opened at Blackstone Boulevard and allows the passage of two carriage ways and two foot paths. Iron gates are installed at the entrance and rhododendrons, holly, and other privacy trees and shrubs are planted along the length of the boulder wall.


Swan Point Cemetery

Tour Highlights


Rhode Island



Providence's population increases to 175,597.

"FiveᅠIndustrial Wonders of the World" are celebrated by Providence: the world's largest tool factory, the Brown and Sharpe Factory, Nicholson File factory, the Corliss Steam Engine Company, the American Screw factory, and the Gorham silverware factory. Read about the Brown family from the Brown and Sharpe Factory on the tour.


Stone, Carpenter and Willson design a new receiving tomb west of Neck Road and south of Holly Avenue. The entrance front was built of Weymouth seam face granite and Indiana limestone. A marquee of bronze and wired glass was added in 1905.


The Butler Avenue trolley line is extended over Blackstone Boulevard.


July: Artist Robert Nisbet runs away with Marguerite Metcalfe, the wife of a painter, and causes a minor scandal in the art community. Read his bio as part of the tour.

November 4: Future artist, architect, and city planner David Aldrich is born. Read his bio on the tour.


Nearly 225,000 people live in Providence.

Arnold Buffum Chace visits Egypt and begins a lifelong passion for its culture. Read his bio as part of the tour.


The cemetery adopts a comprehensive plan prepared by the Olmstead Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts to develop the grounds between Neck road and Blackstone Boulevard. The developed areas are widened to allow for automobiles.


November 23: E.E. Caduc notes with surprise a flock of starlings at Swan Point Cemetery. He notes he has seen the birds as late in the year as early December.


A bell tower is erected in the yard next to the office building.


60,000 telephone customers in Providence.

C. M. Eddy publishes "Sign of the Dragon" in Murder Mystery. Read his bio as part of the tour.



Providence textile workers number 34,000, the largest amount of workers in the industry's history in the city.

A tract of land west of Blackstone Boulevard is plotted for residential development by the Blackstone Boulevard Realty Corporation.


Edgar John Lownes requests that Austrian sculptor Isadore Konti create a casting of "Genius of Immortality" for his grave. Read more as part of the tour.


Providence's first radio station WEAN opens.

H.P. Lovecraft writes "The Horror at Red Hook" which begins to express his racism against new immigrants. Read about his bio on the tour.


In order to supply jobs for out-of-work men, the Cemetery increases its hiring quota and cooperates with the Providence Emergency Unemployment Committee. The extra workers aid in sub soiling, grading, and development work.


A chapel is erected for the improved office building. The chapel is designed by John Hutchins Cady.


After a petition to close the portion of the Neck Road that runs through the cemetery, the Board of Alderman resolve to abandon the road and let the land revert to the abutting owner.


The cemetery is able to close at night with the exception of those at Butler Hospital who have right to travel through the cemetery.


Swan Point Cemetery asserts that cadavers are property. See, e.g., Pierce v. Proprietors of Swan Point Cemetery, 10 R.I. 227, 238 (R.I. 1872) (holding that a corpse could "be considered as a sort of quasi property"); see also Pollard v. Phelps, 193 S.E. 102, 107 (Ga. Ct. App. 1937) ("[A] quasi property right belongs to the husband or wife, and, if neither, to the next of kin)."


The total number of Providence's textile workers drops to 12,000.

September 21: A hurricane wreaks havoc on the cemetery and 1,053 trees fall or are uprooted. 744 trees are injured and require pruning. In addition, a barge was washed ashore on the River road and part of the retaining wall is destroyed. It requires two years to repair all of the damages wrought by the hurricane.

The hurricane hits Providence with a giant tidal wave, flooding the city with seven feet of water and drowning 4 people downtown.


The cemetery feels the effect of the war as employees enlist or are drafted into military service. Grass cutting is completed by high school boys. The cemetery loans trucks and donates several tons of old iron scrap metal towards the war effort. Over 40 officers and employees participate in purchasing war bonds.


September 14: A storm destroys the marquee of the receiving tomb and uproots many trees.


World War II comes to an end and so does the economic prosperity of Providence where parachutes, boot heels, trench knives, and combat-cargo vessels are made for the war effort.


The cemetery conducts a census and notes a total of 4,466 burial lots are sold where 27,134 bodies are interred. 4,000 of the bodies are from the West Burial Ground and other cemeteries.

The cemetery constructs a crematorium and a columbarium. Both buildings have seam face granite and limestone trim.


Swan Point Cemetery

Tour Highlights


Rhode Island



Providence's population is 248,674.


Pitcher Louise Arnold enjoys her most productive season as she posted a 10-2 record for a league-high .833 winning percentage. She also hurled a no-hitter, tossed 32 consecutive scoreless innings, and completed nine of her twelve starts. Read her bio as part of the tour.


Ice skater Dudley Richards takes a temporary hiatus from skating to serve in the United States military. Read his bio as part of the tour.


WPRO-TV (later WPRI-TV) begins broadcasting as a member of the CBS network.


Providence River Bridge is completed.


May 10: The New York Times lists the Cemetery's tulips as worth visiting.


A near-riot after a Sly and The Family Stone concert injures 25 people and sends 50 more to the jail. It is the worst incident in the city during a period of unrest in the country over opposition to the war in Vietnam and emerging civil rights.


Hockey player Andrew John Branigan is inducted into the Rhode Island Reds Hall of Fame. Read his bio as part of the tour.


The opening of the Providence Civic Center is the beginning of a revitalization of Providence as it shifts its major industries from "goods" to "services."


A Christmas display catches fire and destroys Aquinas Hall at Providence College, killing ten people. It is the worst fire in the city's history.

Composer Oliver Shaw is listed as one of Rhode Island's early composers as part of the bicentennial celebration. Read his bio as part of the tour.


April: Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., is indicted on federal criminal charges. Of those 27 charges he would be convicted of just one and sentenced to nearlyᅠ5 years in prison.


David Cicilline is elected mayor of Providence. He is the first openly gay mayor of a United States state capitol.


Blackstone is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Providence, its median income is nearly four times the city average.

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