After you’ve verified the basic life dates and facts of your Rhode Island
ancestor’s life using vital records, censuses, city directories, and probate
records, you may discover more about their lives by searching biographical
sources. It’s about finding the person behind the name and dates. Here are some
tips and sources to check when filling in the details of their everyday lives.
Sources to Consider
Biographical data can appear in a wide variety of published and unpublished
documents. Tracking down the sketches and stories requires searching books,
magazines, and manuscripts generated by both individuals and organizations.
Listed below is a sampling of publications to provide an overview of the
diversity of material available on Rhode Islanders. In addition to using the
relevant items on that list, don’t overlook the following:
Magazines and Journals
Listed below are resources organized by topic. Coverage varies depending on
the publication. Not all of the materials are indexed. Call numbers are included
for titles available at the NEHGS Research Library (RL) or the Circulating
Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island
(Providence: National Biographical Publishing, 1881), F78/B61/1881, RL, CL.
Biographical Encyclopedia of Connecticut and Rhode Island of the
Nineteenth Century (New York: Metropolitan Publishing and Engraving,
Robert I. Vexler, state editor. Chronology and Documentary Handbook of the
State of Rhode Island (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1979)
Rhode Island School of Design, Museum of Art. Early Portraits in Rhode
Island, 1700-1850; an exhibition to honor the seventy-fifth anniversary of the
National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Rhode Island
and Providence Plantations, 8 March-9 April 1967. (Providence: Rhode Island
School of Design, 1967)
Patrick T. Conley and Manuel Gorriaran. Eminent Rhode Islanders:
Biographical Profiles of the Inductees to the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of
Fame, 1965-2000 (Rhode Island Publications Society, 2001)
Thomas Williams Bicknell. The History of the State of Rhode Island and
Providence Plantations. (New York: The American Historical Society,
Alfred M. Williams and William F. Blanding, editors. Men of Progress:
biographical sketches and Portraits of Leaders in Business and Professional Life
in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. (Boston: New
England Magazine, 1896).
Rhode Island Historical Society. Necrology. (Providence, RIHS,
Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island: Genealogical Records and
Historical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens and of many of the
Old Families. (Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co, 1908), F78/R42/1908, RL, CL.
Who’s Who in Rhode Island (Providence, R.I.: RPJ, 1990.)
Town and Local Histories
The majority of town and local histories for Rhode Island communities contain
biographical sketches of prominent citizens and early settlers. A good list of
publications organized by municipality appears in the Rhode Island volume and
subsequent New England updates produced by the Committee for a New England
Bibliography. The NEHGS has a fairly good collection as does the Rhode Island
Historical Society Library and the Library of Congress. A directory of local
history collections in the state appeared in “A Rhode
Island Research Directory.” Two examples are:Richard LeBaron Bowen.
The Providence Oath of Allegiance and Its Signers, 1651-2. (Providence,
Wilfred Harold Munro. The History of Bristol, R.I.: The Story of Mount
Hope Lands, from the visit of the Northmen to the Present Time (Providence:
J.A. & R. A. Reid, 1880).
See an earlier article “Help Wanted:
Researching the Employment History of Your Ancestors” for other resources.
Ernest Constant Bowler. An Album of Attorneys of Rhode Island (Bethel,
Maine: News Publishing Co., 1904), F78/B69/1904, RL only.
Joseph D. Hall. Biographical History of the Manufacturers and Business Men
of Rhode Island, at the opening of the Twentieth Century. (Providence, RI:
J.D. Hall & Co., 1901), RI 80 42 [project entry], RL only.
Charles W. Parsons. Early Votaries of Natural Science in Rhode
Island in Rhode Island Historical Society Collections, vol. 7,
F76/R47/v.7/pt.3, RL only.
Ralph S. Mohr. Governors for Three Hundred Years, 1638-1959. (
Providence: Oxford Press, 1959)
William Harrison Taylor. Legislative History and Souvenir of Rhode Island
1899 and 1900 (Providence, 1900), RI 41 2 [project entry], RL only.Charles
William Parsons. The Medical School Formerly Existing in Brown University,
Its Professors and Graduates (Providence, RI: S.S. Rider, 1881).
Wilkins Updike. Memoirs of the Rhode Island Bar (Boston: Thomas H.
Webb & Co., 1842)
Ships and Shipmasters of Old Providence: A Brief account of some of the
famous Merchants, Sea Captains, and Ships. (Providence: Providence
Institution for Savings, 1920)
Check city directories for a listing of organizations—fraternal, religious,
or business-related—to which your ancestors might have belonged. Then search
card catalogs for publications and manuscripts of unpublished minutes of
Sons of the American Revolution. Rhode Island Society. Memorials of
Compatriots who have Died during the Year. Annual publication.
Necrology of the Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic
Industry, for the year 1874. (no publisher, 1874).
A more complete list of sources appear in my earlier articles, “Rhode
Island Soldiers in the Civil War,” “Finding a Revolutionary War Ancestor in Rhode Island,” and “Rhode Island in the
War of 1812.”
John Russell Bartlett. Memoirs of Rhode Island Officers who were Engaged
in the Service of Their Country During the Great Rebellion of the South
(Providence: S.S. Rider & Brother, 1867), F78/B28/1867, RL, CL.
Rev. Frederick Pyne, Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of
Independence (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2004). Includes three CD-ROMs
of the actual application papers required by the Society of the Descendants of
Revolutionary Portraits: People, Places and Events From Rhode Island’s
Historic Past (Providence: Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation, 1976).
Newspaper articles, obituaries, business announcements, and personal notices
all may contain mentions of your Rhode Island ancestors. An earlier article, “All the News Fit to Print:
Rhode Island Newspapers,” provides an overview of the topic and where to
locate copies of specific papers.
Rhode Island’s major colleges and universities maintain archives with
biographical material on alumni as well as past issues of newsletters and
magazines. Their facilities are open to the public by appointment.
Charles Chapin, Historical Catalogue of Brown University,
1764-1904 (Providence: Brown University, 1905)
Phi Beta Kappa. A Century of Scholars: Rhode Island Alpha of Phi Beta Kappa,
1830-1954 William T. Hastings, ed. (Providence, 1955)
Maureen A. Taylor is the author of Scrapbooking Your Family History
(Betterway, 2003) and Preserving Your Family Photographs (Betterway,