Taking a trip through your family history

September 21, 1997|By Alexis Chiu | Alexis Chiu,BOSTON GLOBE

Hunched over a musty book on the top floor of a stately Back Bay building, Bryson Cook was walking backward in time.

No Freedom Trail, no Fanueil Hall, no Fenway Park for Cook.

The 42-year-old stock brokerage manager from Bedford, N.H., came to Boston not to vacation, but to plumb the city's genealogical records.

"It's like detective work," said Cook, perched behind an old oak desk in the hushed library of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. "How do you know where you're going if you don't know where you came from?"

Cook is one of a growing number of amateur genealogists who are molding their vacations around what others might consider grunt work: flipping through yellowing pages, looking for obscure records and fastidiously recording centuries-old information.

Another visitor is Virginia Erickson, 49, of Los Angeles, who comes to Boston for a month every year to track her New England ancestors. While here, Erickson says she practically "lives" in the society library, which contains more than 200,000 volumes and 10,000 rolls of microfilm.

She sets up shop, the tools of her quest spread before her: old record books, money for the copy machine and -- most important -- an enormous blue binder filled with papers chronicling her extensive family history.

According to one record, an Erickson ancestor, Capt. Samuel Sherburne, was born Aug. 4, 1638, in Portsmouth, N.H. Another shows that he was married in Haverhill at age 30. And a third states that while celebrating his 53rd birthday in Maine, Sherburne was killed by Indians.

In an increasingly chaotic world, more people are making time to trace the lines of their past. Since the society was founded more pTC than 150 years ago, membership has risen from an initial 300 to about 6,000 in 1980 to its current number, 17,000.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose Salt Lake City library houses the country's biggest repository of genealogical records) has libraries in several Bay State locations including Weston, Worcester and Cambridge. Other groups, such as the Jewish Genealogical Society, do not provide research tools, but focus on member discussion and networking.

From Internet databases to computer software like Broderbund's "Family Tree Maker," information is increasingly easier to find electronically. Even the New England society's old tables are equipped with new electrical outlets for researchers who bring laptop computers.

Often, though, genealogists must rely on handwritten records ranging from census lists and death certificates to family Bibles and old letters. Some say the rush of adrenalin that comes with each small success can make the research addictive.

"It's a passion," said Richard Malkin, 69, who volunteers at the Weston Latter-day Saints library. Malkin used historical records to investigate a grandfather who, according to family lore, deserted his family and ran off to Venezuela around 1890. During his research, Malkin made some discoveries about other family members -- and found, through Civil War pension papers, that his grandfather had died in a Santa Monica, Calif., soldier's home in 1900.

That fact helped explain the anonymous packages that children in the family had received over the years from California. "Sometimes," Malkin said, "you find out the family villain really isn't the villain."

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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