James N. Arnold (1844-1927) whose contributions to the study of Rhode Island
history are as fresh and useful today as they were when first transcribed, dealt in data of family life: official town documents and records; newspaper accounts; birth, marriage, and death records in church archives; and history on stone in local graveyards. While historical interpretations pass in and out of favor; the cold facts remain.
Assembling these annals of the rich and poor required Arnold to travel from
place to place and to spend hours doing laborious hand transcription. Arnold had the additional challenge of a life-long physical handicap: lameness. Emerging from all this effort was a nineteen volume publication, known as Arnold’s Rhode Island Vital Record.
A spin-off benefit of his graveyard research was the recognition by later generations of the value of graveyard information. This insight lead to the preservation and further documentation of family burial grounds, several thousand of which are scattered across Rhode Island.
Arnold was born to a farm family near the Cranston village of Knightsville. Part
of his interest in family history was prompted by his own descent from the earliest settlers of Rhode Island. Thomas Arnold of Dorset, England, had two sons, William and Thomas who immigrated to New England in 1635. Settling originally in Massachusetts, they both joined Roger Williams in Providence in 1636. Thomas Street, next to the First Baptist Church and Arnold Street in nearby Fox Point mark their presence. Benedict Arnold, son of Thomas, became Rhode Island’s first governor under the Royal Charter of 1663.
Eventually the Arnold family spread out to Woonsocket Falls, along Great Road, Lincoln and to such communities as Portsmouth, Newport, and Charlestown, so when
James N. Arnold decided to pursue research into his family history, he had the entire state as his laboratory.
After James’s father relocated the family in 1869 to a farm in North Kingstown
near the Gilbert Stuart birthplace, Arnold began his life-long practice of visiting local burial grounds to transcribe the information spread across the stones. His researches expanded to include the family lore of the Narragansett Country’s early settlers as well as accounts of local Native Americans.
Arnold moved to Providence in 1884 and became an editorial assistant to Edward B. Hitchcock. His work brought him to the attention of Dr. Henry E. Turner of Newport who introduced Arnold to the process of critically examining documentary evidence, rather than merely repeating previous writers.
In 1882 Arnold became the editor of the Narragansett Historical Register, a
quarterly magazine of antiquities and genealogy for the southern Rhode Island region. By 1881 he had edited eight volumes before embarking upon his compilation of the Vital Record of Rhode Island, 1630-1850.
The first six volumes in this major research project were birth, marriage, and death records from the various city and town archives. Another eleven volumes comprised newspaper and church record sources. In this publication process, he assembled his own prodigious files and library: a collection of notes and transcripts, 1500 genealogical works, 2500 books of history, and some 10,000 pamphlets. The collection found its way to the Knight Memorial Library in the Elmwood section after Arnold’s death in 1927.
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