Without Willis Metcalf many historical burials would have been forgotten

Posted 10/25/23

Few people in the history of RI have shown more concern or respect for our state’s deceased than Willis Charles Metcalf. Without the effort and dedication put forth by Metcalf throughout his …

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Without Willis Metcalf many historical burials would have been forgotten


Few people in the history of RI have shown more concern or respect for our state’s deceased than Willis Charles Metcalf. Without the effort and dedication put forth by Metcalf throughout his life, our knowledge of burials in RI would be lacking and many of our historic burial places forgotten.  

Metcalf was born in NH on May 28, 1862. After relocating to Kansas, he became a policeman and jail-keeper. It was said that Metcalf wore frontier garb and perfected a cowboy swagger while rounding up and securing the bad guys.

He went on to serve as commander of the Wichita Knight Battery of the Kansas National Guard as well as a lieutenant colonel in the US Army. After serving as a Columbian Guard at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, he went to Brazil and joined the Brazilian revolutionary army. He then moved on to go to Cuba and, in 1899, was a lieutenant on the Havana Police force.

In 1901, the American president appointed Metcalf a first lieutenant in the Porto Rican Provisional Regiment of Infantry. He later served as captain of the Atlantic Coast Artillery. By 1907, he was a construction quartermaster in the US Army, in charge of establishing a water supply for Fort Greble in Jamestown. After his many travels, Metcalf decided to remain in RI.

He joined the Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and took a chair on the RI State Board of Soldier’s Relief’s Grave Registration Committee. Due to his interest and concern, and under his direction, many cemeteries within the state were discovered, recorded, cleaned and repaired.

During 1927, while investigating cemeteries in search of Revolutionary War graves, Metcalf was aghast by a sight he came upon in Newman Cemetery in East Providence. There, he noticed a pile of rocks which appeared to be gravestones. Some of those, in addition to other neglected graves in the cemetery, amounted to the names of 36 Revolutionary War soldiers being added to his list. Metcalf publicly charged East Providence treasurer George Hull with negligence in the maintenance of the cemetery. Hull denied the charge. That year, Metcalf oversaw the repair of the gravestones of two Civil War soldiers buried in Newman Cemetery; John Neal and a Mr. Niles.    

Each Memorial Day, Metcalf dedicated himself to decorating the graves of the fallen. In May of 1928, two other gentlemen assisted him in decorating the graves of soldiers within cemeteries in North Providence, Smithfield and Johnston. While doing so, he discovered the forgotten grave of Susanna Hopkins, sister of Stephen Hopkins who signed the Declaration of Independence. Having died at the age of 21, her body lay inside the Harris family cemetery, an abandoned burial place off Killingly Road, known as Johnston Cemetery #65. Her sister Hope had married Henry Harris. All six of the graves there would be relocated to North Burial Ground 46 years after being discovered by Metcalf.         

In 1929, he led a team working in Intervale Cemetery at Lymansville to cut back the bushes which had grown over graves and reset the stones that had been pushed over by vandals. He had notices posted in the cemetery offering a fifty-dollar reward for information leading to the conviction of any person desecrating a grave.

Within Locust Grove Cemetery, in Providence, Metcalf located the graves of several military men in March of 1929. These included: Captain James Sheldon, Christopher Williams, Colonel Richard Fenner, John Field, Benjamin Williams and Nathaniel Williams.

By the fall of 1931, Metcalf was serving as RI State Commissioner of Cemeteries when workmen at Intervale Cemetery struck a pick against a stone buried about a foot in the ground. The stone proved to be the grave marker of Dr. John Waldron, a surgeon in George Washington's army during the Revolutionary War. Prior to this discovery, Metcalf had located the graves of three other soldiers of early wars at Intervale Cemetery; Daniel Corey and John Wilkinson who both served in the Revolutionary War and Barney Snell who served in the War of 1812.

Later that year, Metcalf publicly announced that the burial grounds of North Providence were a disgrace to the town. Now serving as Inspector of Veteran’s Graves, Metcalf gathered several men receiving services from the Providence Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee and put them to work in Centredale Cemetery, pulling up roots, removing top soil, leveling the grounds and filling in sunken graves.

In 1932, Metcalf assisted Mrs. Irving White, of the Daughters of the American Revolution, in compiling records of all Pawtucket men who served in the Revolutionary War so that their graves could be appropriately decorated on Memorial Day. In August of that year, he located the graves of 74 additional veterans of the Revolutionary War within the Newman Cemetery. All natives of Rehoboth and all enlisted in Colonel Thomas Carpenter's regiment, their records were collected and verified by Metcalf and filed with the State Board of Soldier's Relief, the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Sons of the American Revolution, stating their place of burial. The graves were then marked appropriately.   

Metcalf died on June 12, 1942 in North Providence. He was buried in Highland Memorial Cemetery in Johnston. In regards to honoring the memory of Willis Charles Metcalf, we should all be collectively ashamed as a state.

Find A Grave presently describes Intervale Cemetery as “heavily damaged” by vandals and neglect with many stones “in pieces and face down.” Of the over 250 gravestones, which include Civil War soldiers such as Albert Abbott, many are small collections of mere stone fragments. Find A Grave describes Locust Grove Cemetery as being in “poor condition” with many downed or damaged stones.”

It appears as if those who fought for our freedoms have sunk deep enough into history to be conveniently forgotten by the greater part of the population. And Metcalf, who dedicated his own time on this earth to making sure the heroic efforts of those people were always remembered and honored, has had his own efforts disregarded and forgotten. More volunteers are needed, more financial resources and stricter laws regarding cemetery vandalism. So many grave markers within RI are being eradicated from the landscape – while the names upon them and the stories of courage connected to them are forgotten.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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