The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Bean Genes - The Cream of the Crop

By Anne Dickerson Davis © 1986

Issue: August, 1986

I was (and still am) delighted to discover, back in 1977, that I am a descendant of the Beans of East Tennessee pioneer stock. (Also spelled: Beene, McBean, Bane, Bain, Bene, Beenne, Behn, Beanne, Been, etc.) It took only a little bit of research and some contact with distant relatives to make me a lifetime addict of the Art of Family Tree Climbing and General Ancestor Worship. It was exciting to learn that my Bean forbearers go all the way back to Donald Bean, the last Celtic king of Scotland.

The first of my ancestors to touch American soil came into Virginia at the Hampton Roads Harbor on the Dianna in 1618. Why, that was two years before the Mayflower! (Who do they think they are anyway?) But that was only the beginning of Bean accomplishments. After all, we all know that "breed is more important than pasture," and those superior genes were bound to crop out from time to time and in some very interesting ways. From Pittsylvania County in Virginia, William and John Bean (both of whom were related to George Washington, I proudly informed my youngsters), scouted the Watauga district with their friend, Daniel Boone in the 1760's. Russell Bean, William's son, was the first white child born in what is now the state of Tennessee.

Gunsmiths all; their guns are still in existence and are at present collector's items. It goes without saying that they fought at King's Mountain, accompanied John Sevier on his Indian campaigns, and served under Andrew Jackson. In fact, Jackson wrote in a letter to Captain William Russell from the Hermitage on July 8, 1844: "I can assure you that I have not forgotten you or the Beans. They are amongst my first acquaintances in Tennessee, amongst my first compatriots in arms and in the field, from whom I always and on the most trying occasions received the most prompt and efficient aid. No, my dear sir, I have not forgotten the Russells or the Beans..."

From East Tennessee the vine spread farther west and the Beans were among the first to explore and settle in Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and California. We've all heard of Judge Roy Bean, that irascible fellow who called himself the "Law West of the Pecos." He was the one who hung 'em first and asked questions later. The Judge's exploits have been turned into a book and a popular movie in recent years. Then there was General Joshua H. Bean, the first mayor of San Diego, Jesse Beene, who played cupid for Sam Houston, and Peter Ellis Bean, who accompanied Phillip Nolan on his filibustering expedition into Texas, was captured and ultimately placed in solitary confinement in a Mexican jail. A hardy variety, those Beans.

The genetic message repeats itself in the lives of modern day Beans. Everyone knows of the merchandising success of L.L. Bean, an outcropping of our New England branch! Then of course there is Andy Bean the golfer, and Geoffrey Beene, the fashion designer. And, glory of glories, a Bean was the fourth man to walk on the moon! Congratulations, Alan! Pioneers and rugged Scotch-Irish stock, all of them they have eagerly entered new terrain and made their mark upon the world (and now - the solar system).

My family was quickly caught up in the genealogy fever that grabbed this country so emphatically in the past two decades, an we basked in the sunshine of our new-found identity. We didn't care if we bored our friends with tales of the latest discovery we made about our progenitors. They were, after all, our bloodline.

I should have known, however, that somewhere long the way we would hear the rap of a skeleton in our family closet. We should not have answered that knock but our curiosity got the better of us and, with some trepidation, we opened that door and took a peek. There in front of us stood those bones - big as life - grinning at us from the pages of a paperback book entitled, "Fifty True Tales of Terror." It seems a branch of the Beans had been involved in that most distasteful of all human perversions - cannibalism! Horrible thought!

The time was the early 17th century; the place, a few miles from Edinburgh, in the reign of James VI of Scotland. The name: Sawney Beane. It seems that Sawney and his wife (or woman as the case may be) got tired of conforming to conventional life and decided to strike out on their own with a true Beane sense of adventure. They were not averse to criminal behavior, so they took up their abode in a remote cave, whose entrance was covered with water at high tide. That way few people would suspect that it was their lair.

Using the cave as their base, the Beanes began to rob and kill the passersby for a living. Then, being practical by nature, and game being scarce, they decided to try adjusting their palates to "long pig." This had the added benefit of helping them do away with the evidence of their crimes. Life went on in this manner until 25 years had passed during which, through incest, their little band had grown to forty some odd members of all ages. No one knew why so many wayfarers were simply disappearing as no one suspected anyone of hiding in the cave. But finally something went wrong for this twig of our grand old tree when Sawney and Sons attacked someone who got away, and the escapee told the king.

Retribution was swift in those days, for outcasts such as these. The king did not fool around with trials, juries, jails, death row etc., and no one questioned the king's judgment in the matter. He summarily put them all to death the very next day. Every man, woman, and child of them was slain. At present we might question the morality of putting even innocent children to death; but in the mind of James VI nits made lice and that was that.

Oh dear, what an awful discovery! Now we must console ourselves with the knowledge that Sawney had no direct descendants; and of course the Beans are a large family, there has been other blood mixed in and so forth. We are still justly proud of our Bean forbearers, but with, I hope, a humbler attitude. We think it wise to follow John Ruskin's advice and "Consider whether we ought not to be more in the habit of seeking honor from our descendants than from our ancestors, thinking it better to be nobly remembered than nobly born, and striving so to live that our sons and our sons' sons for ages to come might lead their children to our doors saying "Look - this was his house."