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History Bytes: Common Burying Ground

In 1665, Dr. John Clarke gave a 10.2 acre parcel of land to the Town of Newport that became the Common Burying Ground. The cemetery contains 7,986 named burials from gravestones dating to 1665 along with hundreds of unmarked burials from families unable or unwilling to provide markers. Additionally many gravestones have been lost to theft, vandalism and submersion into the ground. The term “common” means “for all” rather than for members of the lower classes, an important designation in a town of religious and secular diversity.

Prior to the establishment of the John Stevens Shop in 1705 and the arrival of other stone cutters, graves were marked by inscribed wooden planks or stones imported from Massachusetts or Connecticut featuring vivid Puritan iconography. The north section of the Common Burying Ground, known as “God’s Little Acre”, contains marked graves of 499 free and enslaved African Americans, the largest burial ground of its kind in America. Gravestones of the enslaved Africans often include the first and sir name given to them by their owner, and his or her life dates. Several stones include winged angels with African facial features.

Above: View of the Common Burying Ground, c.1900. Photograph by Clarence Stanhope, NHS Collection.