Tangential Genealogy?

Do you sometimes get caught up in the genealogical mysteries of people who aren’t in your family line? “Off on a tangent,” you might say.

Years ago, when I started researching my husband’s Rowan connections, I was puzzled about the relationship of his great-great-grandfather Michael Rowan (born 1790 in County Mayo) and two young men named James and William Rowan. The families lived near each other in Dakota County, Minnesota, in the 1860 census. Initially I thought James and William might be sons. I later concluded they were likely nephews. 

While re-looking at Dalbydata entries a few weeks ago, I found a biography of James Rowan which was printed in the book Rice County Families, published in 1981. Here are selected portions of that biography:

The earth and the rain forgot for a time to bless our forefathers in Ireland. The great potato famine that had its terrible beginning in 1843 lasted until 1848 and caused our Irish ancestors to come to America. James Rowan was one who came. He was the son of Patrick Rowan…born in the county of Mayo…on March 28, 1826…He was married to Bridget Caulley who was also born in Ireland…They lived in Illinois where several of their children were born. James went to California during the Gold Rush Days…

The biography continues with a listing of names of children and grandchildren and lots of dates — a  treasure trove for descendants of James and Bridget Rowan. Which we’re not.

However, I was fascinated by the sentence about James going to the California Gold Rush. What an adventurer he was! When did he go to California? A Wikipedia article refreshed my memory about the gold rush:

The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold as found byJames W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The first to hear confirmed information of the Gold Rush were the people in Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and Latin America, who were the first to start flocking to the state in late 1848. All told, the news of gold brought some 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. Of the 300,000, approximately half arrived by sea and half came from the east overland on the California Trail and the Gila River trail.

The gold-seekers, called “forty-niners” (as a reference to 1849), often faced substantial hardships on the trip. While most of the newly arrived were Americans, the Gold Rush attracted tens of thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. At first, the gold nuggets could be picked up off the ground. Later, gold was recovered from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as paning. More sophisticated methods were developed and later adopted elsewhere. At its peak, technological advances reached a point where significant financing was required, increasing the proportion of gold companies to individual miners. Gold worth tens of billions of today’s dollars was recovered, which led to great wealth for a few. However, many returned home with little more than what they had started with.

Had James already tried his luck in the gold fields before settling in Illinois? James and Bridget’s first child, William, was born in Illinois in 1851. The 1860 census indicates the birth of a new baby every two years.  So James Rowan may have been a “49er.”

Don’t miss reading biographical summaries found published in county histories. Even if the individuals aren’t your relatives.

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