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Links to the Past

Volunteer Penny Dodd shortens the hunt for lost ancestors by listing burial records on the Web. It's not all computer work, though: She has to locate and transcribe tombstones. :


The search for John Richardson leads here, to Sierra Madre, to a cemetery shaded by magnolia trees, to a grassy knoll covered with sunny yellow wildflowers.

His name is on the door, so to speak--on the cemetery's black wrought-iron gate, on a plaque noting that "John Richardson, a Civil War veteran," was the first to be buried here in 1884. But it's not clear where.

Richardson is the great-great-great-grandfather of a 35-year-old Tacoma, Wash., woman named Holly Brandt Smith, and she has been looking for him.

On Smith's behalf, at the 2 1/3-acre Sierra Madre Pioneer Cemetery, Covina resident Penny Dodd has picked up the trail. She is a grave hunter extraordinaire.

"I love cemeteries," Dodd says. "I know it sounds weird, but I do."

Lucky for family historians that she does.

Strangers like Smith will contact her and ask if she knows about their great-this or great-great-that. They figure she knows where the bodies are buried; she's a volunteer for the nationwide Tombstone Project.

In 44 states, volunteers are transcribing tombstones and recording cemetery logs on the Tombstone Project's Web site ( It is the first project of its kind, coordinators say. For family genealogists, the site can be the last stop on a long ancestral trail.

A new generation of online family researchers is tapping into the Internet's exhaustive genealogical resources. The Web is taking people places that family genealogists used to get to by footwork. Online, for instance, you can find the West Boylston, Mass., census of 1870, and Jefferson County, Miss., wills from 1800 to 1833. First, though, you must plow through the ages via birth, census, death and other records before you can hope to find a generations-old burial plot.

So by the time you make it to the Tombstone Project's Web site, it's a heart-thumping wait while you scroll through the cemetery listings, the way Smith did two months ago.

She got there because of a Civil War fife.

Fife Is Link to Family Past

The fife was a Smith family heirloom.

Last Christmas, at her parents' home in Northern California, Smith and her 84-year-old grandmother got to talking and looking through old family photos. The name of Holly Brandt Smith's great-great-grandfather came up--James Monroe Smith.

The family knew he had fought with the 1st Michigan Cavalry and played a fife, or small flute.

Wait, Smith's mother said one day, and dug the fife out of the safe deposit box.

That got Smith thinking.

Who was this man?

"So much information is lost when you don't ask questions," Smith says.

So she asked, and along the way she got sidetracked. Smith started out with a few scribbled notes that her aunt had made in the early 1970s. The family's known history had gone back to 1872, when James Monroe Smith and his wife, Charlotte Richardson, got married in Los Angeles County.

At a local library, Smith decided to follow up on Charlotte's parents, who also lived in the Los Angeles area. Her aunt had listed Charlotte's father as "Lyman Richardson." Los Angeles County's 1860 census records had no listing for Lyman Richardson. But there was a John Richardson in Sierra Madre.

"Who's this John guy?" Smith wondered.

Through other records--such as obituaries and death certificates--she found the correct names of Charlotte's parents: John and Elizabeth "Betsy" Richardson.

Smith began logging on to her computer every day in search of family history, when she wasn't running her handcrafts business from home. Even her 12-year-old son, Ryan, got caught up in the search and would ask after school: "Did you find anything good today, Mom?"

Usually the answer was yes.

And then Smith hit a wall.

On the Tombstone Web site, she found this listing at the Sierra Madre cemetery: "Richardson, John; interred 8-9-1884, Civil War veteran."

Was this her great-great-great-grandfather? Could he have fought in the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, and still be in Los Angeles County in 1860? Would he have served in his early 50s?

Smith looked up the name of the volunteer who had recorded the cemetery's tombstones: Penny Dodd.

"I never had hopes of finding my great-great-great-grandfather," Smith wrote to Dodd in an e-mail. 'But I may have???"

Researching E-Mail Requests

Every two weeks or so, Dodd, 61, gets a similar could-it-be e-mail, full of question marks and hope. Two years ago, for instance, a woman in Hawaii e-mailed a plea: The woman's grandfather was buried somewhere in Glendora in a certain month and year. Could Dodd find him?

Dodd went to a local library, scrolled through old newspaper obituaries and found the man's name. "Yahoo!" Dodd said, when she read where the man was buried.

She headed to the cemetery and took a picture of his tombstone so his granddaughter in Hawaii could see it.

A stranger would later help Dodd in much the same way.

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