Little Known To The Public, Archives Contain Treasures Of State History

Dec 29, 2017

In an unassuming building about a mile from the Rhode Island Statehouse, there’s a treasure trove of history at the State Archives. Located in downtown Providence, the vast archives house documents dating back centuries.

A group of 4th grade students visiting from the Rocky Hill School got a tour of the priceless records with their teacher, Charles Laurent.

Their eyes wandered to large, glass displays of yellowing, handwritten letters signed by historical figures like President Abraham Lincoln. Other figures represented in the documents, photos and maps housed in the archives include Alexander Hamilton and Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, according to Ken Carlson, the reference archivist.

If you're looking for historical documents, legislative records or genealogical research, Carlson's your man.

"I act as the go between and get the records that people want," he explained.

A view of the stacks inside the Rhode Island State Archives.
Credit Ximena Conde

Carlson pulled out all the stops for his young visitors, bringing the students into "the vault," an air conditioned, humidity controlled room reserved for the state’s rarest documents, including Rhode Island’s original copy of the Bill of Rights.

"The entire history of Rhode Island is in this room," said Carlson.

Pointing to a stack of documents set aside for the students, Carlson said he couldn't resist pulling out a few gems from the collection.

"We have lots of famous people, so we have to show them off."

One of the documents is a letter written by George Washington and dating to the Revolutionary War, before he became president. The students spend some time trying to decipher the cursive handwriting.

Ken Carlson, a reference archivist, shows a book from the collection at the State Archives.
Credit Ximena Conde

"Any idea what he's writing about?" asked Charles Laurent, the 4th grade teacher.

They don't, so Laurent explained that Washington was asking for more weapons and ammunition.

The kids spent the better part of an hour in the vault poring over documents for a class project about Smith's Castle, one of the oldest homes in Rhode Island. The students explained that they are researching the property and building a web site for the historic building, which is in need of donations and more visitors.

"We want people to know this is there, you should go visit" said 4th grader Morgan Boss. "It'll be fund for kids, and they're struggling because they don't have enough people."

Smith’s Castle is a two-story house built on land once owned by Roger Williams. Today it’s a museum, but in the 1900s it was a dairy farm. Before that, in the late 1600s, it was the site to a bloody battle during King Phillip’s War. Boss's classmate, Eva Richards, said she is concerned that too few of her peers know the history of Roger Williams or his former property.

Credit Ximena Conde

“It’s important that kids learn their history too, at Smith’s Castle. It’s not just for grownups.”

And the State Archives are not just for students. Reference Archivist Ken Carlson helps track down documents ranging from marriage certificates to land transfers between Native Americans and early settlers, documents that can help people trace their family lineage. 

"You know, we're open to the public," said Carlson. "But most people don't realize that we are even here."

One of the ways State Archives officials hope to draw more foot traffic is through exhibits, showcasing some of their documents. The current exhibit is about the U.S. Constitution and runs through the end of January.