Thursday, January 19, 2012

In Defense of Character: Writing With Caution

When researching and writing my Johnson family history a few years back, I came across a conundrum:  how does one diverge all of the important details about a person without being unfair to the person's overall character?

My great great grandfather, Baard Johnson, was as close to a "black sheep" in the family as I could find.  He was also a bit of an enigma.  He died a few short years after arriving in America from Norway, there are no known exisiting photographs of him, and virtually no information about him was passed down through the family over the years.  Most of what I learned about him was gleaned from a Norwegian bygeboker--a local history that included genealogical information about the Grong area of Nord-Trondelag.  Though I centered my family history on Thibertine (Bertina) Olsdatter Johnson, as for her first husband, Baard Johnson, I was not quite sure how to present what little I had discovered about him.

In the late 1850s, Baard Johnson and his father, John Baardsen, worked as cotters on an old and established farm along the Namsen River near Grong, Nord-Trondelag, called Lassemoen.  It was owned in major part by Bertina's father.  When Ole Danielsen Lassemo decided to retired from active farming, he passed  his part ownership of Lassemoen to two of his four daughters--the unmarried ones.  On July 6, 1860, at the age of 25, Baard Johnson married Ole's third daughter, Bertina, at Trones Chapel.  Before courting the diminutive and auburn-haired Bertina, Baard surely must have considered the advantages of having a wife with part ownership in a well-established Norwegian farm, at a time when land ownership was a rare and expensive opportunity.

Bertina Johnson, ca. 1875

Baard and Bertina Johnson had two children while living at Lassemoen:  Ole Martinus Baardsen (my great grandfather), born on August 6, 1860, and Ellen Julie Baardsdatter, born November 22, 1862.  Note that the birth of Ole is a mere one month after the couple's wedding.  It was not uncommon for 19th century Norwegian farm women to be expecting a child at the time of their wedding.  This was because, in part, courtship with parental approval was taken as very serious business and it was expected that a couple would wed once they became intimate.  In addition, traveling pastors were frequently not available due to harsh weather making travel impossible, and couples often had to wait up to several months before a ceremony could be arranged.  However, since little Ole was born at the height of summer, it seems there would have been enough of an opportunity for Baard and Bertina to have been married earlier in the year.  This situation raised a red flag in my mind, as if there had been some indecision about having a wedding at all.

By 1866, Baard and his wife, Bertina, had cashed in their part ownership of Lassemoen to acquire the funds to emigrate to America.  They arrived in Minnesota in June 1866 and spent the first couple of years in Goodhue County, probably staying with friends who had already arrived from Norway, while Baard acquired first-hand knowledge of American farming practices.  In 1868, part of the Dakota (Sioux) lands to the west in existing Renville County was opened up to homesteading by the U. S. Government.  Baard Johnson packed up his family in a wagon and headed out to claim 60-acres near the town of Granite Falls and the Minnesota River, in newly-formed Chippewa County.

After several years of homesteading, Baard Johnson fell ill and died at age 37 on July 28, 1872.  His death certificate indicates that he died of "fever"--most likely typhoid fever, which was a constant concern during hot Minnesota summers, when tainted water sources could infect unsuspecting homesteaders.  Baard was buried immediately beneath a wooden cross on his homestead, but in about 1900, his grave was relocated to nearby and newly created Saron Lutheran Cemetery, in preparation for the sale of the homestead.  Marking his grave at Saron is a sturdy white marble headstone, standing with visual emphasis among a sea of plainer granite ones.

One concern I had regarding Baard and Bertina Johnson's relationship was that during the ten year span between the birth of their second and last child in 1862, and Baard's death in 1872, they had no more children.  Pioneer families usually set out to have as many children as possible, not only because their survival depended upon having enough family members to do necessary work, but also because there was no reliable form of birth control other than abstinence.  Why then, did Baard and Bertina have no more children?

Someone suggested to me that perhaps Baard Johnson had been ill for a long time before his death, but I doubt that Baard would have emigrated from Norway and taken on the hardship of homesteading if he had been ill all the while.  It was only six years between emigration from Norway and death.  Another family member suggested that perhaps Bertina was incapable of having more children, but this theory does not mesh with the fact that she promptly had eight more children after marrying a second husband soon after Baard's death.  The only plausible theory is that Bertina did not allow Baard to be intimate with her for some years.  As a traditional Norwegian wife, she accepted that her place was with her husband, wherever he may go.  But, somewhere along the line, her respect for her husband may have been shaken, and this could have resulted in no more children being born.

I asked as many of my Johnson relatives as I could about Baard Johnson--whether they had heard anything at all about him.  The only one who was able to respond in the affirmative was my mother, who was raised by Baard's son, Ole Martin (Baardsen) Johnson and his wife, Malla, on their farm near Leonard, Minnesota.  My mother does not recall Ole mentioning his father at all, which was a little unusual.  What she does recall is that her grandmother, Malla Johnson, once referred to the father-in-law she had never met as a "crook."  Whoaa!  What exactly did that mean?  I could not ask Malla to explain, since she died before I was born, and my mother knew nothing more about the matter than the brief words that had spilled from her grandmother's mouth one day.

Ole M. Johnson, 1886

In the end, I chose not to document Baard Johnson's memory in quite this manner.  After all, a person is innocent until proven guilty, and Baard could hardly stand up and represent himself at this point.  Family members who personally knew my mother's grandparents, Ole (Baard's son) and Malla Johnson, insist they were exceptionally honest, kind, and hardworking people. But, I also know from my mother that they could be a little critical and judgmental at times, and it is entirely possible that whatever alledgedly caused them to regard Baard Johnson as dishonest could have been based upon a single incident, or even on a misinterpreted action.

Author Sharon DeBartolo Carmack encourages writers to portray their ancestors as whole and sympathetic characters in her book, "You Can Write Your Family History" (Betterway Books, 2003).  Any person who has ever lived has imperfections in addition to good points.  If Baard Johnson did make a mistake (or several), which caused his family to question his honesty, it is not for me to judge him, especially without all of the related facts.

Among the pages of the "official" Johnson family history, this is how I chose to describe a perceived flaw in character or supposed lack of judgment, all at once acknowledging a dicey, but somewhat nebulous concern, while preserving the dignity of Baard Johnson's memory:

...The gap in childbirths is perhaps more adequately explained in terms of emotional strain or an underlying difference of opinion.  Bertina Johnson was known to be of a kind and gentle character, and it is difficult to imagine her turning away from her husband without some kind of provocation.  Still, the reason for the large gap in childbirths remains uncertain.
Therefore, I leave it up to future generations of the Johnson family to draw their own conclusions on the matter of Baard Johnson's character... unless, of course, they happen to read this blog entry!

1 comment:

LisaV said...

Fascinating story. How wonderful that you have so many photographs that date back to the 1800s. You must have done a lot of homework : )