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.

Zachary Garceau

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff 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. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.View all posts by Zachary Garceau