Researching roots of the family tree

Archives: During summer, the Maryland Hall of Records draws more people who want to learn about their ancestors.

June 27, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

It started with an advertisement that came in the mail last summer, trying to sell the Parrish family of Woodlawn a new manual on genealogical research.

John Parrish, 50, hadn't thought about researching his family history. He didn't even know who his great-grandfather was and had never bothered to find out. But the ad made him curious.

And so began an odyssey of self-discovery that has brought him and his brother William to the Maryland Hall of Records in Annapolis every Saturday since September. Tediously wading through birth and death certificates, deeds and church records, the brothers have traced their lineage to Edward Parrish, a sea captain who sailed from Yorkshire, England, to Kent Island in 1650.

"It's like a drug," said William Parrish, 42, also of Woodlawn. "Once you start, it gets into your system and you have to just keep going and going."

The Parrish brothers are among the devoted dozens who trek on weekends to the state archives building on pilgrimages to their pasts. People tracking family histories flock to the Annapolis repository throughout the year, but during the summer, the daily visitor count jumps from an average of 50 to about 70.

On Saturdays, the figure can hit more than 100, and the faithful come from all over Maryland and as far as Arizona and California, even London and Milan, Italy.

R. J. Rockefeller, the state archives' director of reference services, said interest in genealogy has exploded within the past 20 years and has been fueled in spurts by books like Alex Haley's "Roots" and Civil War movies like "Glory."

"This is an extremely transient society today, where people move all the time," Rockefeller said. "So there's a feeling of uprootedness. What we're seeing is, people are interested in their own identity, which means what happened to their family. They are trying to secure their identity through those roots."

Rockefeller predicted the phenomenon will increasingly consume Americans -- and draw more to Annapolis -- with the new millennium.

"The human experience with millennia previous has people fearing for the future and seeking anchors and understanding of the past," he said. "There is a reflection on society as a whole -- what have we done, where have we been and where are we going?"

Jane Ford, 57, began researching her family history 10 years ago to answer some of these questions. She and her husband, Frank, drove from Grosse Point, Mich., to Annapolis last week to trace her lineage, which started in the United States when ancestor Adam Shipley arrived in Maryland from England in the late 1600s.

"I was a history major in college, but I don't get to apply that to daily life," explained Jane Ford, a high school computer science teacher. "This is an outlet for me."

Pamela Tolliver, 29, of Waldorf hopes to answer a question she's had for years when she connects the dots beyond her immediate family.

"My grandfather was very, very, very light-skinned," said Tolliver, a technical writer. "I always wondered if he was part-Indian or white. It doesn't really matter, but I'd just like to know where I came from."

Tolliver decided to delve into her family history two weeks ago after hearing the reaction of a co-worker who had found her grandfather's diary.

"It was his own handwriting, and reading it was something that made him alive, even though he had passed away," said Tolliver, as she held her grandfather's death certificate yesterday. "I felt I would like that experience."

Rockefeller said many family historians have such touching moments at the Hall of Records when they discover something new about their ancestors. He said he is glad to be there to help visitors "make the connection," as they say in genealogical circles.

"Think about an African-American individual who goes back through the records and discovers that they're holding their ancestor's certificate of freedom," he said. "There is the essence of American freedom that for years was denied their ancestor and they're holding that document that granted that freedom. These are very emotional moments."

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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