Kurt's Historic Sites

Johnson flags

Richard M. Johnson

Interment LocationVisitedSequence in Graves I Have Visited
Frankfort, KYApril 21, 201021st Vice President visited

Photographed April 21, 2010.

Frankfort Cemetery in Kentucky’s capital city promotes itself as “The resting place of legends… and the legends in your family.” The active cemetery’s first burial came in September 1845 with the reinterment of settlers Rebecca and Daniel Boone from Missouri. New burials soon followed, precipitated in part by the state legislature selecting the land overlooking the Kentucky River as an “ideal location for a military cemetery which would also be appropriate for burial of other distinguished Kentuckians.” One such individual was laid to rest there in 1850: Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president.

A year after the former VP’s passing, the state commissioned Russian-born sculptor Robert E. Launitz to create a memorial for him. Launitz was formerly partnered with John Frazee, who worked on the grave of Vice President Elbridge Gerry and the New York Customs House, which later transformed into the Federal Hall National Memorial. Colonel Johnson’s monument is made of Italian marble and sits upon a granite base. It is topped with a pillar draped in a flag, upon which an eagle is perched. The bird of prey clutches a laurel wreath in its beak. Launitz was also responsible for the 65-foot Kentucky War Memorial in the plot that adjoins Johnson’s.

Photographed April 21, 2010.
Photographed April 21, 2010.

There are incongruities concerning the date and location of Johnson’s birth. The engraving on his monument asserts he was born in 1781 in Bryant’s Station, Kentucky (a misspelling of Bryan’s Station, a community formerly located in the Lexington area). Other information indicates he was born in 1780 in Beargrass, Virginia, near what is current day Louisville, Kentucky.

This graphic bas-relief on the monument’s southern face depicts Colonel Johnson slaying Shawnee chief Tecumseh in October 1813 at the Battle of Thames, which fell under the banner of both Tecumseh’s War and the War of 1812. Tecumseh and his confederacy of Indigenous tribes allied with the British in efforts to prevent white Americans from further colonizing their native lands and endangering their existence. There is no definitive proof that Johnson personally killed Tecumseh, though it is possible. The claim was exploited for political gain, particularly during the 1836 election cycle when Johnson ran for vice president.

Photographed April 21, 2010.
Photographed April 21, 2010.

Johnson was one of the 1,700-plus members of the U.S. Congress that enslaved Black people. An extra layer to the colonel’s history is that he was in a common-law marriage with one of those enslaved people. Julia Chinn, who was multiracial, managed his plantation while he was away in Washington. Chinn died in 1833, three years before Johnson was selected as Martin Van Buren’s running mate on the Democratic Party ticket. The whereabouts of Chinn’s remains are unknown, as are her thoughts on her relationship with Johnson. Professor Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, who has extensively researched Chinn for a book, discussed this little-understood historical figure with TJ Fallon on his Dead History YouTube channel in 2021. Click here to watch.

Fast Facts

Born: October 17, 1780 in Beargrass, Virginia

Common-Law Spouse: Julia Chinn (m. 1790-1833)

Military Rank: Colonel — U.S. Volunteer Army

Primary Political Affiliation: Democratic Party

Vice Presidential Term: 1837-1841 under Martin Van Buren

Died: November 19, 1850 in Frankfort, Kentucky

Cause of Death: Stroke

Age: 70

Interment: Frankfort Cemetery, Frankfort, Kentucky

"The power of a creditor to imprison his debtor, is the only case in the United States, where, among free men, one citizen has legal authority to deprive his co-equal fellow citizen, at discretion, of the right of personal liberty. It constitutes an awful exception, both in our civil and criminal code, which, in my humble opinion, is repugnant to the spirit of the Constitution."
- Richard M. Johnson

January 14, 1823 in an address to the U.S. Senate advocating for the abolition of imprisonment of free men for debt

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

Bartlett, T.H. “Early Settler Memorials.” American Architect and Building News 22, no. 606 (1887): 59-61. Accessed January 20, 2022. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=EJswAQAAIAAJ&pg=GBS.PA58&hl=en.

Frankfort Cemetery. “Home.” Accessed January 19, 2022. https://www.frankfortcemetery.org/.

Johnson, Richard M. Speech of Col. Richard M. Johnson, of Kentucky, on a Proposition to Abolish Imprisonment for Debt, Submitted by Him to the Senate of the United States, January 14, 1823. Boston: E.G. House, 1823. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=rPZCAQAAMAAJ&pg=GBS.PP1&hl=en.

Robinson, Jennifer Kaye. “National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form: Frankfort Cemetery and Chapel.” National Park Service. October 15, 1973. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/74000872_text.

Shafer, Ronald G. “He became the nation’s ninth vice president. She was his enslaved wife.” Washington Post. February 7, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/02/07/julia-chinn-slave-wife-vice-president/.

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