A tale of two gravestones

Zachary Garceau gravestone 1This Thanksgiving, I spent the holiday at the home of my girlfriend’s family in Little Compton, Rhode Island. It’s a beautiful home that dates back to the eighteenth century.  Among the many historical elements of the place that fascinated me, there was one which left me curious. In the backyard, leaning up against a stone wall, is a well preserved gravestone which reads:

In/Memory/of/SALLY/Wife of/Jeremiah Briggs, Esq./Who died/Feb.y 27th 1809,/In the 23d year of/Her age.[1]

After pondering its origins for quite some time, I decided to do a little research, and what I found from one displaced gravestone revealed much about the history of that house and the people who once called it home.

All that I knew in the beginning was that a woman named Sally was born about 1787, married a man named Jeremiah Briggs, Esquire, and died 27 February 1809. Knowing that Briggs is among the most common surnames in Little Compton, I knew this would be no easy task. I began by searching the Vital Records of Little Compton and found that Jeremiah Briggs, son of Thomas and Lucy Briggs, married Sally Almy, daughter of William (deceased) and Betsey Almy, on 9 March 1806.[2] The marriage was conducted by the Reverend Mase Shepherd. Further research showed that Shepherd spent his entire career as the minister of the First Congregational Church in Little Compton, which is presumably where the marriage of Sally and Jeremiah took place.[3]

Next, I came across a record which stated that Jeremiah Briggs was born 24 October 1778 and died 28 December 1856. Knowing that Sally died on 27 February 1809, it was clear that Jeremiah outlived his wife by many years.  Sally and Jeremiah had no children before her death, not unusual given that she died at the age of 22. However, I also found that Jeremiah was married a second time, this time to Diana Coe, on 25 June 1810. As a tribute to his first wife, Jeremiah and Diana named their first-born child, a daughter, Sallie Almy Briggs.[4]

Zachary Garceau gravestone 2For a time, I thought that this would be the end of my search for information about Sally (Almy) Briggs. I soon found out that it was only the beginning. While conducting further research, I came across a curious entry in the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission web database. The picture was of a gravestone which was in the cemetery behind the First Congregational Church in Little Compton.[5] The gravestone read:

SALLY A./Wife of/Jeremiah Briggs/Died Feb. 27 1809,/Aged 22 Yrs.

Immediately, I noticed that not only was the wording slightly different, but this was an entirely different gravestone. However, both stones gave the same husband, same date of death, and same age at death. They were for the same person.

Zachary Garceau gravestone 1aThis discovery led me to return to the first gravestone. While looking closer, I discovered something which I did not see on the second gravestone: a faint line at the bottom which seemed to represent the depth at which the stone should be buried. Underneath that line, when I looked closer, I was able to read the name “J. Stevens.”  With this new lead fresh in my memory, I returned to my research and found out that a man by the name of John Stevens 3rd was a well-known carver of gravestones operating out of Newport, Rhode Island. The Stevens family was known for their beautiful stones, so a stone carved by a member of the family was likely of the highest quality.[6]

While that explained the stone’s inscription, it still left the question of why there were two stones to begin with unanswered. Did the family think that the stone had been lost? Did they have a new one, the one behind the church, made to replace it? Was her body moved to be near her family or because the land was sold? There were so many possible explanations, and yet, without any first-hand accounts, an answer would be nearly impossible to find. Little did I know, some information I came across while trying to answer this question would lead to an entirely different discovery.

To be continued.


[1] This form, often used on early gravestones, indicates that Sally (Almy) Briggs was 22 years of age at the time of her death; hence she was in her 23rd year.

[2] James N. Arnold, Vital Record of Rhode Island 1636-1850: First Series: births, marriages and deaths: a family register for the people, vol. 2 (1891), Marriages, p. 10, for the marriages of Jeremiah Briggs.

[3] “Marriages and Deaths,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register and Antiquarian Journal 23 [1869]: 231.

[4] Samuel Briggs, The Archives of the Briggs Family (Cleveland: T.C. Schenck, 1880), p. 75.

[5] Gravestone of Sally Briggs, Lot 11, Old Common Burial Ground, Little Compton, Newport, Rhode Island (LC012), posted by BFW, AGM, LRC (http://www.rihistoriccemeteries.org/newgravedetails.aspx?ID=136578).

[6] Gerald C. Wertkin, Encyclopedia of American Folk Art (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 562.

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary Garceau joined the Research and Library Services team in 2014 after receiving a master’s degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in History from the University of Rhode Island. Zack also works for the Rhode Island Department of Health as the Chief of the Office of Health Regulation. Areas of expertise: Rhode Island, French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History. He also enjoys working on heraldic and royal research.

10 thoughts on “A tale of two gravestones

  1. The style of the second stone looks newer than the first. A possibility is that the first stone was stolen, and the second was made and put in the cemetery. Then, at some time, the first stone was found.

    My first thought was that there was an error on the first stone, and another was made. The bellows in the 1866 organ in my church is weighted by a gravestone, which, I’m guessing was discarded by the gravestone maker after he made a mistake. However, in this case, the information seems to be the same on both stones.

  2. I am intrigued, and looking forward to the second part of your story! I did notice that the stone found at the house says “In Memory of”, which often means that the stone was erected at a place the body was not buried. I am suspecting that you have an interesting story to explain why the stone came to be where it is, and why that second stone exists!

  3. There is a similar “memory of” stone for my gggggrandfather Levi Sherwood in PA where his daughter had moved, and his original stone in Oxford NY can’t be found…Santa is giving me both Ancestry and NEHGS memberships this year! What fun and discovery awaits! Merry Christmas to all on this site!

  4. My ninth great-grandmother is Rebecca Briggs (1600 – 1673) who married Thomas Cornell (1594 – 1655). They lived in Portsmouth, Newport, RI. it wouldn’t surprise me if there is a family connection. The trial of Rebecca’s son for her murder would read like a farce, had it not resulted in his execution. Trial is recorded in Records of the General Court Trials 1671 – 1704; Newport Court Book A; October 1673.

    1. That sounds intriguing and would perhaps make for a good article in the future, I intend to look at those records as soon as possible, thank you! Also, as I’m sure you know based on the amount of research it appears you have done, the name Briggs is possibly the most common (after Wilbour/Wilbor/Wilbore) in the eastern arm of Rhode Island (which was mostly part of Massachusetts until they “settled” the land disputes mostly in the 1740’s). However, it seems as though most members of the Briggs family seem to be related in one way or another. Also, migration up and down Bristol County, Rhode Island was common in that era, so it would not surprise me either to find that there is a connection between your Briggs line and the line of Jeremiah Briggs.

      1. My gr-gr-grandfather has two burial place listings. In the Vermont Archives he is listed as buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, VT but is actually buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He died, not of his wound during the Civil War, but, of smallpox ten months after he was hospitalized in Washington, DC. While doing research in the Vermont Archives my wife discovered a card saying he was buried in New Haven,VT. Upon going there we made an amazing discovery. Next to Josiah’s “memorial” stone were the burial stones for his spouse, their only daughter, her husband and their four daughters, all of which were unknown to me prior to this serendipitous discovery! Later, a confirming letter from the Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery gave us the area, plot location and burial marker number where my gr-gr-grandfather is buried. He said that “memorial” stones were often erected at the spouses or familys place of burial especially during that period of time when transportation of a body or an unrecovered body was the norm.

      2. The book “The Archives of The Briggs Family,” by Sam Briggs (Cleveland: Theodore Shenck & Co, 1880) shows that Jeremiah was descended from William, the second son of John Briggs & Sarah Cornell. That John Briggs was the brother of the Rebecca Briggs who married Thomas Cornell.

        Most of the Briggs around Little Compton & Portsmouth, RI are descendants of John & Sarah. However, DNA testing has shown there are several distinct Briggs families in the RI and S.E. MA. If interested, see my article in the Fall Issue of “American Ancestors.”

        Walter Sadler (descended from John & Agnes (Thayer) Briggs of Taunton, MA – a different line than the above John Briggs)

      3. I’ve cried real tears over the Wilbour/Wilbor/Wilbore thing but not nearly as many as over Baille/Bailey/Bayly/Etc. I wish they wanted to be found.

  5. My aunt passed away in 2011. She was from upstate New York but had spent much of her life in Arizona. Before she died, she chose to be cremated and to have her ashes divided in two. Part was buried in Arizona alongside her son (who had died as a child) and part was buried in New York alongside her sister. There are stones in both places. We all joked that future generations would be confused, lol, and as she loved mysteries, that’s quite appropriate.

    We discovered that our 3x ggrandfather has two headstones. It took a minute to unravel the puzzle. There is one where he is actually buried, but there is another that was placed in memoriam by his son who had moved west to Illinois.First we discovered the one in Illinois on findagrave.com. We were shaking our heads because for him to have died in Illinois, he would have had to travel or move there at the age of 96 – unlikely in the early 1860s. Later we discovered his headstone in the cemetery of the town where he had lived for decades, next to his wife, another son and a grandson.

    From this experience, I can’t help but wonder if someone who loved Sally but did not live near her had the “in memory of” stone made. I hope you are able to solve this mystery and share the rest of the story with us.

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