The Cemetery Club The explosion of interest in family roots has led genealogists like Baltimore's Richard Johnson to one of the best sources of information: the graveyard.

August 25, 1998|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

Richard Johnson feels right at home among the white marble tombstones of Cedar Hill Cemetery on Ritchie Highway.

He should. He's surrounded by relatives.

"I've got at least 350 people here," he says, standing before his great-great-great grandmother's grave on a clear August morning. "I've got them all over. I can walk all over these hills and show you where they're at."

Rick Johnson is a most happy and diligent genealogist. He's part the new wave of genealogists that arose with the nation's Bicentennial celebration and have made genealogy one of American most popular hobbies. These new genealogists looking into their own family histories are more often plain folks than DAR dowagers.

Johnson, 52, is a dock worker who left the waterfront after a serious knee injury in 1993. While he was still on crutches, he joined a cousin searching family records. He's been exploring the labyrinthine path through the generations of his forbears ever since.

"You just pick up pieces of information," he says.

Not quite. He's actually an indefatigable researcher who has tramped through acres of cemeteries, pored over years and years of records at the Maryland and National Archives and spent hours and hours and hours at his computer.

"It's like a puzzle," he says. "When I started I had a puzzle with big pieces like a kid's puzzle. Now I got one of those puzzles that's 3-D, with about 50,000 pieces. It's turned into a monster. And it's consuming, I'm telling you."

Johnson is perhaps typical of the new researchers.

"We've had an explosion of people interested in it," says Shirley Langdon Wilcox, president of the National Genealogical Society, which has more than doubled in ten years to 17,000 members. As baby boomers age and become interested in their past, the society adds about a thousand members a year.

And if computers have not revolutionized genealogy, they certainly speed up research, allow easier access to data and simplify trellising the family tree. The National Genealogical Society has a Web site (www.ngsgenealogy.org) that has had 87.5 million visitors since 1995, Wilcox reports.

Punch "genealogy" into your computer and you'll come up with more than a million and a half hits -- from an amazing online storehouse of family records that may include that black-sheep cousin you never wanted to hear about again; to frequently asked questions about your Italian, Croatian or Nova Scotian heritage, as well as every other conceivable ethnic group except perhaps Martian. There's even a Genealogy Mall and a Genealogy Flea Market.

Search continues

Rick Johnson has a virtual library of genealogy disks that help him organize and expand his research. His own genealogy now runs to 73 pages. But he hasn't yet found a Revolutionary War soldier. He has found lots of relatives who served in the War of 1812.

In Cedar Hill, he points out the gravestone of the earliest progenitor of his family he has so far identified: his great-great-great-grandfather Samuel Johnson.

Samuel Johnson not only served in the War of 1812, he was born on a frontier Army post near Kingston, Tenn., about two years after that state entered the Union. Davy Crockett, "king of the wild frontier," was born in Tennessee just 12 years earlier, but about 60 miles closer to civilization.

Rick Johnson thinks Samuel's father was a soldier, maybe even in the Revolutionary War, but he hasn't yet discovered his first name. He knows Samuel's mother was named Mary, but he hasn't found her maiden name.

"I keep looking through the Army records," Johnson says. They're at the National Archives in Washington, "but you can only look for so many hours. You got to read all Johnsons from A to Z, so that'd take years just traveling back and forth to D.C. But that's almost the only way I'm gong to find it."

Great-great-great-grandfather Samuel Johnson was born Feb. 22, 1798, at Fort South West Point, Tenn. He entered the U.S. Army as a drummer boy at the astonishing age of 10 years, 4 months and 8 days old. He stayed in about 40 years altogether. His half-brother, John Lumberson, was even younger when he became an Army drummer: just over 7.

Samuel Johnson also served in the Black Hawk, Seminole and Creek Indian "wars" and in the Mexican War, where he marched all way to Mexico City. He probably served with the redoubtable Gen. Winfield Scott in the Indian Wars and against the Mexicans. Lots of Winfield Scotts turn up in the Johnson genealogy, including Richard's great-grandfather.

In 1822, Sam Johnson married a Cuban woman named Josephine Florence Gonzales at Fernandina, Fla., an old Spanish town on Amelia Island, now near some fairly exclusive resorts. Johnson's minute research reveals that the wedding was performed by the splendidly named Squire Farquhar Bethune, a notary public born in Pensacola.

Josephine Gonzales Johnson is buried in the Cedar Hill plot with her husband and some of the children and grandchildren from the vast family they engendered.

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