October 18, 2019
I’ve done a lot of digging into the lives of each of my parent’s paternal grandfathers over the years, but it has just struck me that I have found a lot more information about my father’s grandfather than I have about my mother’s. I know that there could be many reasons for the disparity, for example, the fact that one ancestor was more famous or infamous than another, but in this case, I don’t think that’s the case. Charles Fernelius, my father’s grandfather, and George Dawson, my mother’s grandfather were approximately the same age (born in 1845 and 1850), were both immigrants from Western Europe (Sweden and England) who arrived in America at about the same time (1867 and about 1871) and both settled in northern Utah within about ten miles of each other. So why the big difference in information about them?
One of the differences in early records for the two men is because of where they came from. Charles came from Sweden where meticulous records were kept detailing every vital record from birth to death for everyone. In addition, moving in and moving out records were kept in most parishes, so I was able to determine Charles’ exact birth date and place and exactly when he left Sweden. In addition, I was able to trace his family line back several generations with a great deal of accuracy. George, who was born in Norfolk, England, also lived in a country where church records provided information. It wasn’t as complete as the info Sweden kept, but it did give me his baptism date (not his birth) and his parents’ names. The British censuses from 1841, 1851 and 1861 also helped fill in his family grouping, but none of these records were as specific or far reaching as those I found in Sweden for Charles.
However, it was when both men came to America that the differences between what I learned about Charles and George became apparent. Both men showed up regularly in the federal censuses, and both bought and sold land in Utah for which deeds are extant. But that’s where the similarities ended. Charles wrote a weekly newspaper column for nearly 20 years about the doings of his small town, and those columns often included descriptions of his own activities as well as those of his children and extended family. Other articles in the newspaper described family reunions, his election to the county commission and his activities as a bishop in the LDS Church, finally capped by a long obituary upon his death in 1944. George, on the other hand, had virtually no mentions in that same newspaper other than an obituary published when he died in 1923. Just this difference goes a long way to explain why I feel that I know Charles better than I know George.
The differences become even more apparent between the two men when I recall the stories that I heard about them from their grandchildren. Several of Charles’ grandchildren wrote biographical sketches about their grandparents, and many of them recounted long stories about their memories of him. Charles himself dictated an autobiography to a granddaughter and shared stories of his youth with a nephew. As far as I have been able to determine, George wrote nothing about his life, and the grandchildren that I knew remembered little or nothing about him. He died before my own mother was born, but she had several older siblings, and none of them could give me any insight into what he was like. The Fernelius branch of my family held fairly regular family reunions when my father was a boy, so he had lots of stories to share. The Dawson side apparently got together infrequently; my mother’s older brother just said of his grandparents “they kept themselves to themselves.”
While it’s impossible to completely “know” an ancestor, I certainly feel that I understand my paternal grandfather better than I do my maternal great grandfather. When looking at a great grandfather like George Dawson, it’s easy to assume that he must have been a less interesting person than my other great grandfather, Charles Fernelius. That may or not may not be the case, but In this instance I think the reason is probably a difference in how each of the men interacted with their world; even though their worlds were fairly similar, their reactions to them were quite different, that affected the records they left. As genealogists, I think it’s important to at least consider these differences before we label one ancestor as “boring;” he may just have been more private than another. I suppose it’s also a good reason for all of us to leave stories about our own lives to help our descendants “know” us.
Researcher/Director at Large