Sunday, March 25, 2012

Rhode Island Genealogical Resources

Carolyn L. Barkley at, who is originally from Massachusetts and "was always curious about the founding of Rhode Island" has recently put together a primer for anyone who would like to research their family history in Rhode Island. In the course of her research for source materials available on the Internet, she laments the lack of readily accessible digital history for Rhode Island.
"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)..."
Unfortunately, Rhode Island IS lagging behind in many areas of digital technology. That one can finally renew an RI auto registration online has been the result of a long and painful process... Knowing both the state librarian and the senior archivist at RISA, I can say that the problem isn't with the people in charge of the records. There is a distinct lack of initiative and vision for anything as ambitious as digitizing Rhode Island's historical records from higher up in the government.

Ms. Barkley also mentioned that her old CD of Records of the Colony and State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations doesn't seem to work in Windows 7 (GET BILL GATES IN HERE!), so I took a minute to register over at WordPress and leave a comment on her blog post. Bartlett's RICR, a work that is in the public domain, can be obtained by going over to and pasting "Records of the Colony and State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" into the search window. Once there, one can read them online or download them as .pdf or EPUB files, Daisy (a java open source), Full Text, DjVu, or even download them onto a Kindle. Same for Acts and Resolves of the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1747 to 1800, which has listed all the justices of the peace, magistrates for the Court of Common Pleas and Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General Gaol Delivery, every militia officer, general assemblyman, and a wide cast of other characters and petitioners of the legislature, from widows and debtors to escaped convicts and war veterans. If one's ancestors had any dealings with the provincial or state government, they are probably in there somewhere.

I have often thought that it would be worthwhile to seek grant funding to digitize the rest of the Acts and Resolves (or Schedules as they are known in some years of the nineteenth century) of the General Assembly at the State Library. An even more ambitious project would be to digitize the source material for Bartlett, the actual Colony Records. While there are decent microfilms of these documents available at RISA, with the technology available today the originals could stand to be taken out and digitized, and then put up on the Internet for the world to use. If at some point I ever pursue a PhD in public history or go for my MLIS, either of these would make a great little project...

Finally, if these sources are insufficient in tracking down ye Rhode Island ancestry, I recommend visiting the historical society in the town or towns (or city) said ancestors were from. While some of Rhode Island's local historical societies range from the somewhat informal in some towns to the virtually defunct in others, there are many local historical societies that are truly outstanding. From the Providence Archives on the top floor of Providence City Hall to the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society in South Kingstown (housed in the former Old Washington County Jail), local historical societies, archives, and museums are excellent sources of information for the aspiring genealogist. Some will even (for a fee) be happy to do the research for you. Here is a list of historical societies in the Greater Rhode Island area, to get started.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Christian McBurney on The Rhode Island Campaign and South County Loyalists

Christian McBurney, The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2011.

Thursday, March 15
6:30 p.m.
The John Brown House Museum
52 Power Street Providence, RI

Tonight Christian McBurney gave a lecture at the illustrious John Brown House Museum on the subject of what is commonly called "The Battle of Rhode Island." In December 1776, the British invaded Narragansett Bay and occupied the city of Newport, and stayed until 1779. McBurney has written what is likely to be regarded as the definitive modern interpretation of the events of that occupation and the joint efforts of the French and the American patriots to liberate Newport.

Though not as well attended as McBurney's lecture several years ago that accompanied his book on Kingston (A History of Kingston, R.I.,1700-1900, The Heart of Rural South County, 2004), it should have been better attended. This lecture was more informative and authoritative and far less "antiquarian" than his lecture (and most recent tome -- McBurney has written two) on Kingston. If only I had the money to plunk down for a copy of his new book tonight, but alas! all my cash had gone to renewing my RIHS membership, which was lapsed and which I had been meaning to renew for some time now. I will try to get to his upcoming lecture next month in Bristol on the British attack there and get a copy of it then.

After the lecture, I spent a few minutes talking to Mr. McBurney about the Tories who fled from the Narragansett Country to Newport during the British occupation. South Kingstown town records are mute on this subject, and the town's committee of safety left no records at all of their activities, let alone who might have been "invited" to leave or who left on their own volition. The most specific information I have come across in my research on the subject was in a letter from General Nathaniel Greene to Rhode Island governor Nicholas Cooke. Greene mentioned that perhaps as many as thirty planters had fled from the Narragansett Country to Newport with their slaves. My theory is that a combination of push-pull factors sent the local Tories hauling off to Newport--some were pulled by their loyalty to the Crown and disdain for the new order of things, while others were likely routed out by the local committee of safety. While there is no specific evidence to support this, I suspect the so-called "land pirates" who had accompanied the British on their 1779 Spring raids on South Kingstown, men like John Gorton, were exacting a bit of revenge on the community upon their brief sojourns into town and, if they could lead the British to them, even on the very revolutionaries that had forced them into exile.

During our brief discusion Mr. McBurney indicated that there is information about this heretofore uninvestigated group of Rhode Islanders. He suggested that more Tories fled from North Kingstown and even Exeter rather than from South Kingstown, and that this -- Rhode Islanders who joined the British cause in the Revolutionary War -- will be the focus of his next book. I am very much looking forward to such a study. If the same level of scholarship goes into a study of Rhode Island Tories as The Rhode Island Campaign, Christian McBurney's next book will be very welcome indeed.