After slavery separated the Howard-Holland family, more than a century passed before the Montgomery County branch was reunited with its Canadian kin. Nowadays, the relatives often marvel at the family traits the two groups share -- a tendency to choose the same careers and to give their children the same names and to get a little antsy around the house if too much time passes with nothing to do.
"We piddle," said Alice Thomas, of Sandy Spring, greeting relatives yesterday at the family's fourth reunion since learning about each other in 1982. "We're not a bunch to relax. At these things, we're always telling each other, 'Sit down, sit down,' but nobody does it. We're all alike."
The story of the Howard-Holland family is the history of one of Montgomery County's most prominent slave families, a tale with dramatic escapes on the Underground Railroad, bold public demands for black schools, prosperity in farming, education and law.
The 400 relatives who gathered yesterday at Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg are descendants of the eight children of Polly and Jack Howard, all born between 1814 and 1838 on a farm near Sandy Spring. In the 1850s, the family was split when two of the sons fled slavery and settled in Ontario. Gradually, the groups lost contact and forgot each other.
As it happened, family members in Montgomery County were researching their genealogy at the same time many of the Canadian descendants began to wonder about their past.
Piecing together slave records, bills of sale and other information, the two groups finally found each other in 1982, amazed to discover a new set of cousins with similar looks and personality traits.
"At these things, somebody's always coming up to me and saying, 'Yeah, yeah, I guess I must be normal. I'm just like you,' " said Lorraine Driver, of Sandy Spring.
The names "George" and "Greenberry" figure frequently in both branches, after two of the original brothers. There are many lawyers and teachers on both sides.
The Murphys, who founded The Afro-American, and the politically prominent Mitchell family of Baltimore are also related to the Howard-Holland clan.
Everyone remarks on the physical resemblance between the Maryland and the Canadian groups -- the same light complexion, the same "something about the eyes." Lots of people thought that Harriett Coleman and Harland Johnson, strangers and distant cousins, looked enough alike to be twins.
There is also a shared interest in black history. At the same time Harold W. Howard was searching land records in Rockville for clues about his family, his cousin, Betty Simpson, was helping to found the North American Black Historical Museum im Amherstburg, Ontario.
Harold Howard, who describes himself as the family historian, is the great-grandson of Enoch George Howard, the oldest of Polly and Jack's eight children. Freed in 1850, Enoch Howard petitioned the Montgomery County government to provide land and build schools to educate young blacks, a request that was granted in 1870. At the height of his success, he owned nearly 900 acres of farmland in the Howard's Chapel section of Sandy Spring.
The original family was also heavily involved in the Underground Railroad, by which the two brothers made their escape. And when Dred Scott arrived here in 1857 to await the controversial Supreme Court decision that denied his claim to be free, he reportedly boarded with the family, Howard said.
"There's so much to be proud of," said Evelyn Payne Starling, one of the Canadian cousins, who had also tried to research her history as early as 1928. "But slavery was pretty painful to people back then, and I couldn't get anything out of anybody."
As the Howard-Holland relatives roamed the reunion site yesterday, many wore T-shirts bearing the family name and logo -- three interlocking circles saying "past," "present" and "future." They got the idea after a trip one year to the old family cemetery at Howard's Chapel, where they held hands and circled the graves of their ancestors.
"It gives you a sense of belonging," said Laura Holland, 75, a Canadian now living in San Francisco, "to finally know who your family is. I am very proud."