Sunday, February 3, 2013

Ella in Episodes

I thought about entitling this post “Polka Dot Ella.” Or maybe “Ella Through Swiss Cheese.” Something with spots through which only glimpses might be caught. You get the idea.

The aggravating thing about researching Ella Shields Bean is that I’ve been able to find early indications of her youngest years near her birthplace of Peoria, Illinois, then a smattering of her young adult life in and around San Francisco, her early married life in Redwood City in California’s San Mateo County, and then those long, endless dreary years of older life at the “Beanery” in Alameda.

Those are the “dots” in Ella’s life that I’ve been able to find—mostly pre-Internet, usually at California’s state library in Sacramento, and often while sitting on the floor next to some quite-inaccessible index file in a dusty corner of the old building.

The problem is that I have not yet been able to figure out how to connect those dots.

So consider this next series of posts on Ella Shields Bean to be my genealogically-inspired Rorschach ink-blot test. Or my roots-inspired Jackson Pollack creation. Or my Oscar Madison throw-the-spaghetti-on-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks technique. You take your choice.

To whichever style you prefer to liken my approach, here’s the bottom line: despite the hodgepodge of documentary evidence, I’ll try to post the story as consecutively as possible, moving through the timeline of Ella’s life in a relatively orderly fashion. But there are no guarantees that all my long-filed research results will magically glom on to my fingertips the moment I reach for them. Above all, there is little to no hope that I’ll be able to conjure up second copies of documentation to cover those missing segments of Ella’s life story.

As researchers, we do what we must do. All the rest…well, all the rest will hopefully appear with the next addition to the databases at all our favorite genealogy websites.

So here’s the overview on Ella. Based on her daughter Leona’s notes, Ella Shields was born to William and Margaret Marsh Shields in Peoria, Illinois on April 22, 1865—placing her right in the middle of what turned out to be a good-sized family.

Somehow—and here is an example of those spots I know nothing about—Ella and the rest of the Shields family surfaced in the San Francisco Bay Area around the time of the 1880 census. They resided in San Mateo County, most likely in Redwood City.

Whether the Shields family actually lived in San Francisco before or after that time, I don’t know. However, for whatever reason, Ella Shields chose a photographer in San Francisco for her portrait when she was twenty years of age. Her likeness was taken at

from Ella Shields photograph

Elite Photographic Studio
838 Market Street, Opposite Fourth
San Francisco
Medal awarded over all competitors for the Best
Photographs at the State Fair 1879
Medal awarded over all competitors for the Best
Photographs at the Mechanics’ Institute Fair 1880
Jones & Lotz.

Ella Bean daughter of William and Margaret Marsh Shields
Ella’s photograph was most likely taken in 1885. In the copy I now possess, one end of the card was evidently cut off to make room to display it in a frame.

Someone—maybe her daughter Leona in later years, though it doesn’t appear to be her handwriting—wrote a brief label on the reverse: “Ella Shields  20yr.”

She was still listed only as Ella Shields, for she had not yet gotten married. That event didn’t occur for another four years—another “dot” which we will save for another day.


  1. I can see the Ella who stood at the bottom of the front steps some 50 years later. What a great coat - so well-fitted, so fine with the fur trim. What was the Shield family's social or economic status? Was this kind of coat expensive or just common for the day?

    1. That coat is indeed impressive, Wendy. I imagine, given the times, that it was probably hand sewn...but by whom, I don't know.

      I don't get the feeling that the Shields family was all that well-to-do, though I think Ella's father's land holdings were a respectable size. However, back in that time, that probably wasn't that extraordinary.

      There's quite a bit more that I still need to discover about this family. Just while writing today, I picked up a few more clues, but by no means am I close to having a clear story on the man.

  2. Lovely coat..looks quite warm for California. Look at that waist! :)

    1. Keep in mind this is northern California. You know that old Mark Twain saying--well, the one incorrectly attributed to him, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."

  3. Now I'm meeting Ella for the first time. Earlier today, I read the post after this one. Now I'm recognizing her in her photograph here, from the later post. You must have figure out the train transportation between posts. I like the way you piece things together -- or, set out the dots and then connect them!

    1. Now that you mention it, Mariann, I guess Ella had that serene, everything-in-control, affect as a lifelong quality, and that may be what is coming through in all her photographs. However, let me warn you: she had another side, too. While I'm not entirely sure about the specifics, I'm guessing her daughter Leona came by her strong personality naturally.


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