Rhode Island Resources

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

As a school student, I was always curious about the founding of Rhode Island. Growing up in Massachusetts, I had learned that the first settlers who traveled from Holland and England did so in order to practice their religion free from persecution. Apparently, however, while seeking such freedom for themselves, they were not prone to extend it to others. An illustration of their rigidity is found in the experiences of Roger Williams, (ca. 1603-1683/84), who, with his wife, Mary Barnard, had arrived at Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the winter of 1631. As a minister in England, Williams had become persona non grata due to his strong advocacy of freedom of religion, and was smart enough to realize that a change of venue was necessary. Once in Massachusetts, he preached both at Salem and at Plymouth, but quickly ran afoul of the Puritans because of his views, and fled the colony to escape a court-ordered deportation back to England. He settled at the head of Narragansett Bay on land that was, at the time, still part of Plymouth Colony. This area had been explored in 1614 by Dutchman Adriaen Block, for whom the island (Block Island) off the colony’s southern coast was named. (Williams was not the first settler, as William Blackstone had arrived there in 1634.) Purchasing lands from the local Indians, Williams named his new settlement “Providence,” and during a trip to England in the late spring of 1643, he requested a charter for his new colony. Williams would serve as governor from 1654 to 1658, and the colony would continue to attract settlers thanks to its policy of religious tolerance, accepting Quakers in 1657 and Jews in 1658. Thanks to the efforts of Newport preacher, John Clark, the charter was finally granted in June 1663, when Charles II issued the Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Rhode Island has enjoyed some unique moments in American history, including a prohibition against the importation of slaves in 1774; a 1784 emancipation act stating that all children born after 1 March of that year would be free; the establishment of the first successful United States cotton mill in 1790; and a refusal to participate in the War of 1812. As always, it is important to understand the history of any location new to your research. In this case, an understanding of the historical context will prove important when researching genealogical records, particularly if you are following an African-American family, or trying to discover War of 1812 service for an ancestor.

Rhode Island is a state with only five counties (Providence, Kent, Washington, Bristol, and Newport). Knowledge of the development of these counties and the location of specific boundaries at any given time is very important in accurately locating records. While William Thorndale and William Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), provides basic county outlines, more detailed information about the earlier county formation and boundary development in Rhode Island can be found in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island: Atlas of Historical County Boundaries (Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Compilations of state and local records and family genealogies are a good starting point if your knowledge of a specific family is limited. Last week I wrote about the Huguenots and my recently relaunched (maybe I should say resurrected) research into my Lanfare relatives (alternatively spelled Lanfair, Lanphiere, Lamphiere, Lanfear, etc., although I will use only one spelling here for simplicity). As I wrote then, my previous research notes are piled somewhere under the eaves, so some of my information about the Lanfares was based from memory. This week, when I was looking for a surname to use as examples in this article, I was chagrined to note that my Lanfares did not migrate to the Connecticut shore from Long Island, as I had stated last week, but rather from Rhode Island (Westerly, to be precise). (Well…I did remember the island part.)

I searched in some of the print titles on my shelf here at home, beginning with John Osborne Austin’s The Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island Comprising Three Generations of Settlers Who Came Before 1690 (1887, reprinted by Clearfield, 2008). (While I thoroughly dislike the format of the text in this publication, I will forgive Mr. Austin given that he was compiling the information 124 years ago). Please do not look in the back of the text for an index and then give up when you don’t find one. In this case, there is an “Index of Families” included at the beginning of the work (pages vii-viii). When I consulted that list, I found “Lanphere, George” as an entry, and subsequently realized my error in last week’s blog. This name is not preceded by an asterisk, meaning that four generations are not included. In consulting the listing on page 119, I learned that George (wife’s name unknown) first bought land in Westerly, Rhode Island, on 18 April 1669, and took an oath of allegiance to the colony on 17 May 1671. He and his wife were baptized on 2 March 1678 (congregation not noted and wife still unnamed); that he took a further oath of allegiance on 17 September 1679; had 200 acres laid out in July 1704; and on 25 April 1727, was judged incapable of managing his affairs, after which his children divided some of his land among themselves under the guidance of the town council. George died in Westerly, Rhode Island, on 6 October 1731. Further, the entry lists his children [Mary; Shadrach (my ancestor); John; Theodosius; Seth; an unnamed daughter; Sarah; Elizabeth; and Richard], in addition to his grandchildren (all sixty-seven of them!). While no specific citations are provided as documentation, it appears that Austin consulted town council records, as well as will and probate records. Certainly, this specific entry provides a great deal of information to support further research and clearer documentation. A quick check in the Family History Library’s catalog cited Indexes of Town, Land, Probate and Vital Records, 1661-1745 (FHL US/CAN Film 1901837 item 1), which might identify appropriate records pertaining to George and his family. Unfortunately, my catalog search did not identify church records that would add to the information in Austin’s entry.

Venturing further, I had hoped to consult my CD copy of Records of the Colony and State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2003). I now use Windows 7, and while the CD acted as if it were going to load properly, when it got to the “Registering shared files” window, it sat unchanged for half an hour. You may have better luck, particularly if you are using a version of Windows older than Windows 7. This CD includes records published in ten volumes between 1856 and 1865 as Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England and Records of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England. These volumes include information on inhabitants of Rhode Island from 1636 to the end of the Revolutionary War. I was unable to locate these titles among the databases on the New England Historic Genealogical Society web site, but was able to find Rhode Island Vital Records, 1636-1850 (membership required to access this database), in which I was able to find 287 Lanphere entries, including one indicating that George died on 6 October 1731, and was buried the following day. This database was taken from the work of James N. Arnold, published as Vital Record of Rhode Island 1636-1850: First Series: Births, Marriages and Deaths: a Family Register for the People. A database derived from this work is also available on Ancestry.com.

I then searched for online databases from the Rhode Island State Library or the Rhode Island State Archives. In doing so, I realized yet again, how spoiled I am to live in Virginia and have access to the vast collection of digital records made available by the Library of Virginia. Sadly, Rhode Island does not seem to provide similar resources (or if they do, I could not find them), but I did locate the Rhode Island Historical Society website. Located in Providence, this society is the fourth oldest state historical society in the country and has “the largest and most important historical collections in existence relating to Rhode Island.” These collections include 5,000 manuscripts, 100,000 books and printed items, 400,000 photographs and maps, and 9 million feet of motion-picture film. Access is available free of charge for Rhode Island residents and $8.00 per day for out-of-state visitors. The society’s website provides online access to a portion of its collection as they continue to catalog the balance electronically. During my catalog entry search, I was able to identify Frances Lanphere Elder and Edward Everett Lanphere’s History and Genealogy of the Lanpheres: and the Pierces, Halls, Martins, Pikes, Achermans, and  Many Others, published in 1958. In addition, the Newberry Library in Chicago also houses materials on Rhode Island in its collection, and a finding aid is available online.

The Roger Williams Family Association is a lineage society open to lineal descendants of the founder of Rhode Island. On the association’s website is a database providing four generations of Williams’ descendants, including such surnames as Angell, Ashton, Brown, Carr, Chapman, Cranston, Dyer, Greene, Hart, Holmes, Olney, Ray, Rhodes, Sayles, Smith, Stafford, Thurston, Tillinghast, Waterman, Wightman, Winsor, Ward, among many more.

A title search for “Rhode Island” on Ancestry.com identified 150 databases, including Rhode Island Births, 1636-1930; Rhode Island Marriages, 1636-1930; Rhode Island Deaths, 1630-1930; Vital Record of Rhode Island, 1636-1850 (see Arnold’s work above); and Westerly (Rhode Island) and its Witnesses: for Two Hundred and Fifty Years, 1626-1876… taken from Frederic Denison’s book by the same title, published in Providence in 1878. Other resources to check include Cyndi’s List, Your Guide to Researching Rhode Island Ancestors (a useful compilation of links to other Rhode Island sites) and the Rhode Island USGenWeb Project.

Finally, over sixty titles are available on genealogical.com concerning Rhode Island. These titles include the two-volume Genealogies of Rhode Island Families from Rhode Island Periodicals; the two-volume Genealogies of Rhode Island Families from The New England Historical and Genealogical Register; and Census of the Inhabitants of the Colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations 1774.


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