Genealogy researcher Isabelle MacLean Drown knows there’s much more to a person than meets the eye.
Isabelle Drown, of Sonora, uses the record books at the Family History Center at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church in East Sonora to trace her family history. Amy Alonzo Rozak/Union Democrat, copyright 2012
Beneath the surface are centuries of family history waiting to be discovered, and Drown’s lifelong passion has been helping people do just that — a process that frequently gives them a greater sense of purpose in their own lives.
Drown is a guest lecturer for the Tuolumne and Calaveras genealogical societies. At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Center in East Sonora, she also teaches community members how technology can speed up the search for ancestors.
Having come to Sonora from Canada, she said there’s no better place than the Mother Lode to get started.
“I have no other way to describe it but as a hotbed of historians and genealogists,” she said. “I love it. For a person like me, who enjoys genealogy, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.”
Drown, 77, spent part of her real childhood in Saskatchewan, where her father was a coal miner. In 1939, he joined the army, taking the family across Canada and turning Drown into a self-described “army brat.”
Her interest in genealogy started early — thanks to family stories shared by her Scottish father and grandparents. The stories were a reward for her after she’d done her chores. She would simply ask to hear about “long ago.”
The family prized oral history. Soon enough, Drown was asking more specific questions about her Scottish ancestry, and her dad was molding her into the researcher she is today.
“I’d ask him the question and then he’d tell me what I had to do,” Drown said. “I had complete trust in him. ... At times I didn’t want to do the work, but my curiosity would get the best of me. Eventually, I would just go and do the research first.”
One of Drown’s relatives informed her she was a direct descendent of John Whitelaw, the Monkland Martyr, a Scottish Presbyterian who was executed in 1683 for his religious beliefs.
Drown went on to write two books about Scottish Covenanters, a group that refused to support the religious doctrines forced on them by English kings. She has empathy for her ancestors despite the fact that their suffering happened hundreds of years ago.
“People had been oppressed and tortured and hurt just because they believed a certain way,” Drown said. “It was absolutely horrible what these people went through. In a certain way, that brought me to how I think.”
Since the age of 26, when she joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Drown has been teaching others how to research their own roots.
As part of her field mission work for the church, she helps staff the Sonora church’s Family History Center.
Rather than a room lined with musty old census records, the Family History Center is a computer lab. The church has a free online database, FamilySearch.org, with billions of records available.
It’s a dramatic departure from Drown’s early days as a researcher, when her own quest for knowledge about her ancestors had her staring at microfilm readers for hours on end in Salt Lake City and Edinburgh, Scotland.
In her career teaching others how to do research, Drown has observed people make discoveries that appear to change their own lives. She once watched a young woman get a pleasant surprise about her roots.
“She knew her birth parents, but she had a feeling that she just didn’t belong anywhere,” Drown said. “Before I knew it, there were all these lines connecting back, and within a couple of hours, she was a direct descent of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.”
“She knew where she belonged,” Drown said. “It was such a wonderful thing to watch.”
The discovery of such royal ancestors happens often, but not daily, Drown said. She added that nearly everyone has both nobility and petty thieves in their bloodlines.
Drown has four children, four stepchildren, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all living in Canada. She moved to Sonora with her husband, Arvey, who died in 2008, after visiting the area for years.
Drown studied history and political science in college but didn’t finish. She’s an independent thinker who doesn’t hand people answers. Rather, she shows them where they can be found.
“We’d be lost without her,” said Diane Manley, director of Sonora’s Family History Center. “She’s such a valuable resource for us. She has a great ability to work through things.”
Family history research can be challenging, but the momentary frustrations are nothing that a brisk walk around the block can’t fix, Drown said.
Tuolumne County has a small army of historians and researchers who generate the records that Drown and family history buffs use on quests for long-lost ancestors. Drown remarked that in all her years of traveling, she’s never seen anything like it.
“We have a very active genealogy society up here,” said Kristine Childres, who has been part of the Tuolumne County Genealogical Society for 18 years. “There’s still things to find.”
Childres said a recent survey of the Sonora City Cemetery brought the number of names associated with the site from about 1,100 to 3,300. Sonora’s city historian, Pat Perry, has compiled records on the pioneers buried in other cemeteries, too.
The society’s projects are also focusing on records at the Red Church in Sonora and Church of the 49ers in Columbia, generating new volumes of names for family researchers to search through.
Both Childres and Drown said genealogical research appeals to more of the general public than might be expected.
“It’s an innate feeling in people,” Drown said. “I think it’s just inborn, wanting to know where you come from and who your ancestors are. It wells up in you. … It only takes the smallest thing, the smallest spark, to light the fire.”