Rhode Island’s landscape is marked by numerous named places, from a world-renowned university to obscure public squares and forgotten ruins. Neighborhoods and towns bear the names of people who made their contributions to the region’s development centuries ago. Locals and visitors alike enjoy recreation in area parks, rivers, and natural areas that memorialize the people who built our community.
Providence’s oldest public cemetery, the North Burial Ground, contains the remains of many of the individuals whose names still mark the local landscape. Established in 1700, the burial ground’s 110 acres are similarly marked by names, familiar because of their association with named places around the state. A stroll through the various sections of the cemetery, added piecemeal to the original colonial burying ground, takes visitors past tens of thousands of graves and through more than three centuries of local history. Thus, the North Burial Ground remains a hub of recognizable Rhode Islanders.
If you can, visualize a map that shows Fort Barton in Tiverton, Goddard Park in Warwick, Olneyville in Providence, and Allendale Mill in North Providence. Though miles apart, the historical figures for whom these places were named lie within yards of each other in the burial ground. While these public memorial spaces seem disconnected from each other because of the distances between them, the proximity of the men’s graves to one another points to certain connections. We see that these famous individuals belonged to a community, located in a particular space and time, and achieved their remembered feats within and because of that community, rather than as isolated or exceptional individuals.
The landscape of the burial ground thus compliments and complicates the broader landscape. The familiar namesakes of Rhode Island link to the names etched on gravestones, which are themselves a sort of namesake -- and the only sort that awaits most of us upon our death. By linking the two landscapes and reuniting name and namesake, this is a tour that operates on two different planes but nevertheless encourages you to look for points of intersection.