Monday, November 1, 2021

Like a First Love


Do you remember the first time you decided to delve into your family's history? No matter what the details were—or the result of your attempt—if you are still here reading about genealogy, the outcome of your attempt must have been enough to keep you coming back for more.

That's how I felt about the first family history project I tackled: not only did it get me "hooked" on genealogy, but ever since, I've had a particular fondness for the people whose stories helped build that family tree—kind of like what people say about a first love.

When I first decided to try my hand at researching a family tree, I already knew my father wasn't going to give up any clues to get me started on my mystery paternal line, so I didn't even try to wheedle anything out of him. My mother's line, while full of fascinating stories, was a heritage already so widely researched that I didn't think I could add anything new to what had already been documented. So I started with someone else's tree.

That tree didn't belong to a stranger, though. In addition to the line of a fourth-generation Californian, the other branch of the tree was represented by Marilyn Sowle Bean, the same woman whose photograph collection I was fortunate enough to recover from a local antique store, thanks to a helpful tip.

The Bean family tree is one full of stories of settlers sailing around the horn, and others traveling across the plains. Stories of war and deadly disease, balanced by success and life's enjoyments. It comes complete with brides from Australia and Canada, and rumors of French heritage and untraceable name changes blocking research progress to the past.

As a first research project, Marilyn's tree represented a far different research challenge than we experience today. This was not only my first attempt at genealogical research, but it was research done before the advent of personal computers. Every document found came with a personal contact at repositories and government offices. There was no Find A Grave to consult for photos of headstones; if I wanted a picture, I brought my single lens reflex film camera to the cemetery—no matter how far away—then sent the film away to be processed before I could see whether the picture was a keeper.

Researching California families was probably the easiest task I could have attempted, given those conditions. Living only an hour's drive from the state capital, I had plenty of resources close at hand. Still, it was a far different world than what we enjoy now with the convenience of today's digitized documents and online resources. Perhaps that contributes to that soft spot I have for the research project for Marilyn's family.

I've written quite a bit about Marilyn's extended family in past years—both her Sowle side and her husband's Bean side—but there is much more to discover. Even though it isn't my own family's story, it certainly is one for which I hold a certain fondness. Perhaps it is because, like a first love, it claims an unforgettable hold on me. Besides, I need to go back and do some clean up work; updated resources make that project so much easier to accomplish now.

Since my plans for November's ancestor from my Twelve Most Wanted list have fallen through, Marilyn's extended family will provide enough of a research challenge to fill the month, instead. Besides, I've got some long-forgotten items still to accomplish on the to-do list for this family. Tomorrow, we'll talk about the impetus that got me started on Marilyn's project so many years ago. Perhaps it is a question you've had to grapple with, too.   


  1. Jacqi - You've given us yet another descriptive piece of writing! Those of us "of a certain age" can most definitely relate to writing for records in the mail and penciling in pre-printed pedigree charts and family group sheets! Can you expand on how you choose your projects? Do you rotate amonst a list every month?

    1. Oh, Sandy, that's a question which will take some time in the telling of its answer. I'll try and tackle that in a post this weekend, so I can give it a bit more breathing room. Is that a deal?

  2. My first real dive into genealogy research involved driving my mother (who didn't drive) to town about 2 hours from home to sit in the historical society library to read old newspapers and research old records. She spent decades writing to places asking for copies of old records, etc.

    1. Those are memories to treasure, Sara. What a wonderful way to dovetail with your mother's long tradition of researching your family's stories. And how wonderful that she had someone to pick up her work and continue with it.


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