Scituate's 'outdoor museums' need finding, saving

Scituate's 'outdoor museums' need finding, saving

SCITUATE - For lovers of local history, the Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Commission (RIHCC) has a task for you - and what a task it is.

The commission wants to locate all of the historical cemeteries in town.

Fred Faria, a resident of Hope, founding member of the Hope Historical Society and past president of the Scituate Preservation Society, is issuing a call for volunteers to help the state locate the old burial sites for inclusion on R.I. Geographic Information Services maps.

The state, Faria said, wants to "locate and help protect our 'outdoor museums'."

An informational meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, at Scituate Town Hall to brief the volunteers on the task before them, explain the importance of the historical cemeteries and offer for the first time a discussion of the recent discovery of the long-lost grave of a black Revolutionary War soldier, Prosper Gorton, buried in Scituate in 1833.

The search will concentrate on locating graves from the 1700s and 1800s, Faria told the Breeze & Observer, and he is hopeful that as many as 30 volunteers will be recruited to take part. "The more volunteers we have, the merrier," he said.

A key part of the Aug. 21 session will be examination of the "black book," a register of all the graves in town compiled more than 50 years ago. "Scituate Town Clerk Peg Long will have the vault open so we can review 'the black book' done by Graves Registration in the 1950s," Faria said. A representative of RIHCC will explain the search process.

A retired college educator - Faria was a professor and chairman of the hospitality department at Johnson & Wales University in Providence - he intends to include as much local history as he can to make the search all the more interesting for the volunteers. "That way, they can learn a lot more than just going off into the woods," he said.

As an example of just how interesting local history can be, Faria discussed Gorton and the recent discovery of his grave. Ernest Gifford, a member of the Hope historical group, has "spent endless hours researching (Gorton) and, come to find out, he was a member of the Black Regiment."

Also known as the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, the Black Regiment was made up of black men, both freemen and slaves, and it fought at the Battle of Rhode Island on Aug. 29, 1778, in what is now Portsmouth. A plaque marks the battle site in Patriots Park in that town and lists members of the regiment, of which Gorton is one, according to Faria.

Gifford's check of property deeds revealed that Gorton lived in Hope after the war and owned the parcel of land where his grave has been located. According to Faria, Gorton bought 19 acres in Hope in November, 1797, including the site where the grammar school is now situated.

"We will talk about this more at the Aug. 21 meeting," Faria promised. Gifford also has unearthed additional information about Gorton from census and marriage records. Gorton apparently was twice married.

"Prosper Gorton was a Revolutionary War veteran, who had served more than five years in the 1st RI Regiment (Black Regiment) and after the war had purchased 19 acres of land here in the central portion of the village. He married, allegedly had children, received a pension, died and was buried here in 1833," is how the RIHCC graves list describes him (www.rihistoriccemeteries.org).

Regarding the Battle of Rhode Island, it took place when the British occupied Newport in 1778. Gen. George Washington and the French general Comte d'Estaing planned a combined American and French attack on Newport. A call went out for militia from all over New England and about 10,000 men gathered.

American forces had settled in for a siege, only to have the French back out after their fleet was damaged by a storm. The British then attacked the retreating Americans. The result was inconclusive, but Aquidneck Island remained British. Some 30 were killed and 138 wounded on the American side, 38 dead and 210 wounded on the British.

Rhode Island's own Major General Nathanael Greene was part of the American force. Due to the presence of the Black Regiment, the battle was the only major military action to include a racially segregated unit on the American side in the war. (This account of the battle is drawn from About.com and Wikipedia.org)

Faria is not certain how many historic graves there are in Scituate, except to say that there are a lot. The newest one, Gorton's, is designated SC213, so Faria said it is possible that there are 231 historic graves in town. Some old graves were actually dug up and moved when the reservoir was flooded in the 1920s. "Some were moved to Rockland Cemetery, but that's a whole separate story," he added.

Faria lives in what is known as Miss Howland's House, built in the 1740s and one of the oldest homes in Hope, he said. He has lived there since 1982. Anyone who cannot make the Aug. 21 meeting but is interested in helping out can contact Faria at his home, 401-828-5355.