Search yields lost cemetery, connection to Warwick's past

Written by SUTTON, SARAH
Thursday, October 17, 2006

When Steve Insana, Buckeye Brook activist and champion of environmental preservation in the Conimicut area, stepped out of his truck with a chainsaw in hand, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I’d agreed to meet him Saturday morning at the fire station on West Shore Road and Sandy Lane, which was to be the starting point for his attempt to uncover a 200-year-old burial plot located somewhere in the brambles near Buckeye Brook. I hadn’t realized we’d be blazing a trail through tangles of vines, climbing over logs and ducking under branches to make our way to the site.

After searching the area off and on for nearly seven years, Insana had cornered off what he believed to be the general location of several graves belonging to members of the Warner family, who owned a large plot of land in the days when Warwick was still often referred to by its Indian name, Shawomet.

The foundation of the Warner home still remains in the city-owned open space across the street from the fire station, though it is crumbling and hidden beneath drifts of soft dirt. Poking through the soil, however, are piles of nearly 400-year-old bricks that made up the old chimney and broken pieces of quahog shell used as mortar to hold together the stones that made up the base.

Insana heard of the burial site years ago by word of mouth, but no one he talked to knew exactly where the graves were located. He was particularly interested in finding the grave of a young Warner boy who drowned after falling out of his canoe in Buckeye Brook.

It was a beautiful day outside, and bits of sunshine made their way through the spaces between red and orange leaves, lighting patches of the forest floor. After traversing a few feet from the road, it was hard to imagine we were still in Warwick, so quiet and undisturbed was the land we were walking.

As we made our way through the undergrowth, joined by Conimicut Association member Guy Lefebvre and Beacon photo editor Mike Cohea, Insana recounted the history of the Warner family, whose farm once took up a large expanse of land along the banks of Buckeye Brook.

John Warner was Warwick’s first town clerk and it was in his house in 1652 that America’s first law to limit slavery was signed. The law forbade Rhode Islanders from owning slaves for more than 10 years.

Warwick was at that time engaged in active trade with the Dutch at Manhattan, and it was common for the crew of the Dutch vessels to stay in Warwick until their goods were sold and they were able to purchase cargo for their return trip to Manhattan. In 1652, one of the crews stayed with Warner, but when it came time to settle accounts there was a disagreement. The case was brought before the court but Warner refused to cooperate, and at a town meeting he was disenfranchised for, according to town records, calling the town officers “rogues and thieves” and threatening to “beate out their braines.”

Learning of the history of the area, I felt as if I were transported back in time. Walking among the trees and along the water, I could almost imagine what the Warners would have seen when they stepped out their door.

“I know it will be near some ornamental trees,” said Insana as we approached the area he believed to be the grave site. “I saw some of these red cedars last time I was here, and had a funny feeling the graves might be nearby.” Cedars were often planted by family members near the plots of their loved ones.

Stopping abruptly before a large clump of bushes, Insana announced, “I’m going in.”

Wielding a large pair of clippers, he made his way into the midst of the brambles.

As Insana began his excavation, we were joined by Derek Byrne, who sits on the board of Warwick’s Historic Cemetery Association. Byrne was there in case Insana discovered the unrecorded plot.

The members of our group split up to examine the surrounding areas, but all we found were an old truck bed, a broken CD player and a pile of conch shells. Feeling skeptical, I wondered if Insana would find anything at all.

I didn’t have to wait long, however, for after searching for just 10 minutes Insana’s voice rang though the air. “I found it!” he yelled. “Over here, there’s a couple of them!” We all ran back to the original tangle of bushes and made our way to him.

After chopping down the undergrowth surrounding the first grave, we were able, with Byrne’s help, to decipher some of the engraving on the headstone.

Hannah, wife of John Warner. Died March 22, 1844.

The rest was too faded to read, so we moved on to the next.

“I don’t remember the last time someone found a grave site that wasn’t on the book,” Byrnes said, clearly as excited about the discovery as Insana. “Most of the time it’s just contractors, digging up bones or other remnants.”

The second stone was split in half, and marked the grave of William Warner, born February 1801 and died Aug. 15, 1892. Next to William’s grave was that of his wife, Elizabeth, who was born in 1801 and died in 1853.

Also among the graves were at least five rude markers, small stones poking out of the dirt. Insana believes them to be the grave markers of Indians or black slaves.

Byrne explained that now that the spot had been located, the next step would be to compare the plot to the book of Rhode Island cemeteries written by John Sterling in 1944 and to the Arnold Records completed in the 1930s. If the site isn’t listed there, it will be registered and added to an online database of Rhode Island’s historic cemeteries.

(Byrnes later determined that the plot was already listed in the records, but it was designated “lost,” so now that its correct location is known its entry can be corrected.)

“After we clear it out,” Byrnes told us, “we’ll probably probe the area to see if there are other headstones. Some of them sink. A lot of headstones get buried a few inches beneath the topsoil.”

Insana plans to adopt the spot and add it to the other eight cemeteries he and the Buckeye Brook Coalition have already adopted and maintain. He said the discovery wouldn’t have been possible without the participation of so many local groups. “This is huge, this place has never been documented before,” he repeated as he explored the area for more plots, still hoping to find the site where the little boy was buried, the gravestone he was most interested in finding.

But he eventually gave up and put the search aside for another day – the team had uncovered what they could with the tools they brought. Insana and Byrnes, however, made plans to return soon to the cemetery and clear the area, in hopes of uncovering another lost piece of Warwick’s history.

Making my way back to the fire station parking lot, I couldn’t help but wonder how a burial plot in such good condition, located just a few hundred feet from the well-traveled Sandy Lane, could have remained lost for so long. I wondered about the family buried there and how their gravesites came to be so overgrown and hidden from the rest of the city. And most of all, I wondered what the family would have thought if they were alive today and could see the foundations of their crumbled home and the many ways their colonial village has transformed to become the urban center it is today.