Cleanup at Rhode Island cemetery leads to Revolutionary War hero's grave
By DONITA NAYLOR | Providence Journal | Published: May 6, 2019
CRANSTON, R.I. (Tribune News Service) -- The discovery of a state treasure in the cleanup of an "overgrown and forgotten cemetery," as Cranston Historical Society President Sandra Moyer called it, was part of the reason for a colorful ceremony in the rain Sunday.
The ceremony included Pawtuxet Rangers in full regalia, two of them firing muskets and four of them playing fifes, speeches from U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and other dignitaries, four wreath layings, the unveiling of a Cranston Discovery Network sign and the presence of descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, including four generations of a Sheldon family who flew in from California.
The treasure is that a founding father of the U.S. Navy, an officer who received his commission alongside John Paul Jones, is buried in the little Cranston cemetery that for centuries attracted little notice except to vandals and illegal dumpers.
Gregg Mierka, chairman of the Cranston Historic Cemetery Commission and one of the speakers, said after the ceremony that he had been asked to clean up the Capt. Phillip Sheldon Lot, also known as Cranston Historical Cemetery 36, because members of the original Pawtuxet Rangers were buried there, and Col. Ron Barnes, present-day Pawtuxet Rangers commander, wanted to honor them with a ceremony.
What Mierka and his team found as they tackled the tangle of trees, poison ivy and broken headstones, was a mystery. And then another.
According to the state's historical cemetery database, one of the graves was supposed to belong to a Capt. Jonathan Pitcher, (1723-1815), who fought in the Revolutionary War. But there was no stone bearing his name, and no record that Mierka could find of Pitcher in any militia.
"He was listed as a captain, but it didn't say of what," Mierka said, telling the story after the ceremony. When his militia research came up dry, Mierka realized he should look on water. He soon found that Pitcher was captain of the sloop Providence and wounded in action at Cape Brenton Island. Pitcher served on the USS Constitution. He was buried in the Sheldon cemetery because he had married Rachel Sheldon, one of Capt. Phillip Sheldon and Barbary Arnold Sheldon's nine children.
To replace the missing grave marker, Mierka ordered one from the Veterans Administration, which provides them free for graves of U.S. veterans. Pitcher's having served before the United States existed made the request more complicated, but the white stone was delivered to the cemetery.
Another mystery was unearthed, said Mierka and his wife, Mary, who are resident managers of the Governor Sprague Mansion, when the cemetery team dug into the earth above Pitcher's grave to seat the new marker.
They came upon shells. No shells were found on any other grave, they said.
Pitcher was 92 when he died, and the Mierkas believe shipmates attending his funeral or visiting his grave left the shells as tokens of seamanship. Mary Mierka collected some, cleaned them up and brought them to the ceremony. She returned them to decorate the grave, along with the wreath, a pot of white begonias, and the Revolutionary flag.