Strategy for Rhode Island Research


Jane Fletcher Fiske, F.A.S.G.

Free-thinking and independent from the start, Rhode Islanders generated an incredible degree of diversity in their society and in their records. A researcher can quickly get lost in the multiplicity of available sources, which nonetheless represents a real treasure-trove of possibilities. The key to success lies in doing one's homework and having a plan of attack.

Fix the relevant time(s) and place(s) as exactly as you can.
Analyze the records you have that indicate R.I. origin. If you have no specific information, what are the clues? Census? Family tradition? Church affiliation? (Remember to make note of the neighbors.)
Jane Fletcher Fiske, "Genealogical Research in Rhode Island," in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 136 [July 1982]: 173-219; reprinted as a chapter in Genealogical Research in New England, Ralph J. Crandall, ed. (1983). Best for overview, but some addresses are out of date.

Rhode Island chapter in Ancestry's Red Book, Alice Eichholz, ed. (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1992).

Maureen A. Taylor, "Genealogical Research in Rhode Island," in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Volume 88, No. 1, [March 2000]: 5-31. Up-to-date information on web sites, bibliography.

John O. Austin, Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island (Albany, 1887; reprint eds. Baltimore, 1969, 1982), includes compiled information on the first three or four generations of over 400 R.I. families, going as far as children born around 1700.

Genealogies: There are many good genealogies of Rhode Island Families in print. Check the library's catalogue for your family surnames.

Journals: The New England Historical and Genealogical Register and The American Genealogist [TAG] both contain many articles on R.I. families, including corrections to Austin. Register articles up to 1989 (except for J. Fiske's article on R.I. Research) are included in Genealogies of Rhode Island Families from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 2 vols. (Baltimore: GPC, 1989); each volume indexed.

Rhode Island Roots, quarterly journal of the Rhode Island Genealogical Society, published since 1974, includes both source material and compiled genealogy.

The Magazine of the Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, has published some good articles on R.I. families, as has The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record.

Genealogies of Rhode Island Families, from Rhode Island periodicals, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983) (not to be confused with the set of the same name that consists of articles from the Register), includes genealogical material from older periodicals published in Rhode Island: The Narragansett Historical Register and Rhode Island Historical Society Collections.

The IGI for Rhode Island.

Alden G. Beaman, The Rhode Island Genealogical Register, published quarterly 1978 - 1986, annually 1987 - 1999 [last volume]. Volume 16 consists of an index to testators of will abstracts covering all of R.I. up to 1850. (Some volumes contain bits and pieces of other probate and town council material; individual indices in each volume are by surname only.)

Do a census analysis, using R.I. state and federal censuses:

Census of the Inhabitants of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations…

  • 1774 (John R. Bartlett, ed., Providence, 1858; repr. ed., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969).
  • 1777 Military Census, Mildred M. Chamberlain, transcriber (Rhode Island Roots, vols. 7-9 [1981-83]; repr. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985).
  • 1782 Census of Rhode Island (Register, 127 - 129 [1973-75]; also, Jay Mack Holbrook, ed., Princeton, Mass.: Holbrook Research Institute, 1979).
  • 1790 and subsequent federal censuses of Rhode Island
  • Recorded Vital Records: James N. Arnold, The Vital Record of Rhode Island, 21 vols. (Providence, 1891-1912). The first six volumes contain town vital records, arranged by county; volume 7 contains Quaker records; later volumes include church, military, and newspaper records.

    Other "Vital Records": Alden G. Beaman, Rhode Island Vital Records, New Series, 17 vols. (Princeton, Mass., 1975 - 1995), covering Washington County, Newport County, and part of Kent County. Beaman's work complements the recorded VRs copied by Arnold, pulling information from wills and other sources that mention relationships. Very valuable for clues, but use with caution.

    (Later Vital Records [post 1853] are indexed and available on microfilm at NEHGS, as well as at the R.I. Archives. Certificates are available only from the Dept. of Health in Providence.]

    Rhode Island Cemeteries Data Base, by John E. Sterling, available at RIHS and NEHGS, and the East Greenwich Public Library, and now accessible on the Internet at Books on the cemeteries of North and South Kingstown, Warwick, Coventry, East Greenwich, and Middletown have been published within the last decade.

    Information from Newport cemeteries is included in later volumes of Beaman, New Vital Records of R.I. and further microfilm and manuscript material is held by the R.I. Historical Society and the Elmwood Public Library, Providence.


    When you have done everything you can in the Library, you're ready to start research primary source material. Two things are vital to remember:

    Think Town,
    Carry photocopies of your library research.
    Rhode Island is small; you can easily visit towns in a day -- or you can use microfilm at the FHL or a branch. RIHS has microfilm of many town records, and NEHGS also has an extensive and growing collection.

    Town Records (originals at town halls in R.I.; much microfilmed) include land records, probate records, vital records, town council records, and everything else except court records. Indexes are often poor to non-existent, hence the importance of photocopies from library sources such as Arnold and Beaman to help locate a specific record.


    Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street, at the corner of Power Street, Providence, 02906 (near Brown University, on the hill). R.I. H.S. holds the original Friends Records for Providence, Kingstown, and some nearby areas in Massachusetts. Their extensive collection of manuscripts includes also many private papers, seamen's protection registrations, and the Providence Town Papers. Web: http://www/

    Rhode Island Archives, 337 Westminster Street, Providence, 02903. Military records; indexed lists of freemen; some early deeds and notarial records; petitions to the General Assembly; French and Indian War records; maritime records; census records. [ ]

    Newport Historical Society, 82 Touro Street, Newport, 02840 (next to the Touro Synagogue, in a building originally a Seventh-Day Baptist meeting house). In addition to a museum and a library of printed books, N.H.S. holds two series of books that contain all surviving original land and probate records for Newport, each with a card index. Another vault holds a wealth of manuscript material, including the original Friends Records for Rhode Island. [ ]


    The Rhode Island Genealogical Society
    P.O. Box 433
    Greenville, RI 02828
    [ ]

    The Society's quarterly journal, Rhode Island Roots, now 25 years old, has published much Rhode Island source material as well as compiled genealogies and many queries. Annual workshops as well as the journal put members in touch with each other. Volunteers throughout the state provide simple research services for members.

    For more information on other libraries and societies in Rhode Island, including locations, hours of opening, etc., see Genealogist's Handbook for New England Research, 4th ed., Marcia D. Melnyk, ed. (Boston: NEHGS, 1999), pp. 172 -184.

    This lecture was given by Jane Fiske at the National Genealogical Society's 2000 NGS Conference in the States held in Providence, Rhode Island. The text is included here, with permission, to help you with your research.

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                    These documents are made available free to the public by the Rhode Island USGenWeb Project for individual use only.