My Greatest Discovery (COG 121)

I've gone back and forth on what, exactly, has been my greatest genealogical discovery in nearly fifteen years of research.  Indeed, several finds would qualify, but the most recent one was quite special because it came to me when I really needed it.

I had been working on a biography on John W. Berger for my grandmother's Christmas present.  Although not very interested in genealogy, she has always been supportive of my efforts and genuinely interested in what I had to show her.  She also knew the majority of my time had been spent researching lines other than hers (for a variety of reasons, but the main one being that until recently hers were filled with stubborn brick-walls).  Therefore, I knew a book on her grandfather would be special.

I also had a soft spot for John myself.  I knew both so much, and yet so little about him.  He left letters and pictures and many records, but there were some periods in his life, especially his early years, which were a cipher.  I knew who his parents were but had no records explicitly stating their connection.  I also had many questions: When did he become a minister?  How did he end up in Evansville, Vanderburgh, Indiana (where he married)?  Where in Germany did he do his missionary work?  When exactly did he come back?  When did he come to California and later, Oakland?  What lasting effects, if any, did the Civil War have on him physically?

The deadline was looming for the book and while I had a lot of facts, I hadn't felt like I had done a good job of fleshing him out as a person.  I was feeling frustrated one evening and decided to brain storm.  What was the one thing John had been involved in most of his adult life and held most dear?  His church.  Luckily, the Methodist Church keeps wonderful records - but I didn't have time to write away for something and sit back for a month waiting.  So, I went hunting online.  I don't know what I was expecting but I felt the questions most likely to be answered were the ones pertaining to his work as a minister.

And then everything stopped.  I found it.  Was this correct?  What was this?  Is it my John Berger?  It is!  Oh my gosh, oh my gosh...

It turned out to be the book Historical Data and Life Sketches of the Deceased Ministers of the Indiana Conference of the Evangelical Association, 1835 to 1915 (a dryer title you will never find), another, equally interesting version can be found here.  I had spent the last few weeks working on the biography of a man who already had one written about him.  A very good one, indeed, filled with the kind of detail you can usually only dream of and the kind only gleaned from first had accounts not usually written down in books.

I learned about all the places he served as a minister (he was a circuit rider so there were many) and even got found two new pictures of him - one as a young man.  I also learned that he did his missionary work in Essen, Germany and came to California for his health.  I learned that he had probably met his wife at the church conference that had been held in Evansville a few months before they married.  And, I finally had black and white proof for what I long knew, who his parents were.

Then there were all the special, little surprises in store: he was finally persuaded to become a minister when he narrowly avoided being hit by lightning; while in Germany, he was once detained by a policeman on suspicion of being a spy; while a minister in Wabash, Indiana, he was thrown from his buggy and broke his leg and while still recovering, a fire broke out and burned the stable and part of the parsonage; he frequently contributed to church papers and served a variety of roles within the church; he felt his church should not merge with the non-German speaking Methodist Church; he was well loved most everywhere he preached.

I still can't really believe this even existed and was online but am so grateful to everyone from the original authors to the folks at the Internet Archive for putting this out there.

And how did the Christmas present turn out?  Great!  I ended up building the book around this biography (fleshing out areas in the biography only minimally touched on) and ended up with a nearly fifty page book (not bad when you consider the original biography was only about three pages long).  And best of all, my grandmother loved it!

This post was written for the 121st Carnival of Genealogy.


  1. What a timely discovery, Leah! No wonder you were so excited. Being a circuit rider, there's a good possibility he kept a journal. Have you found any signs of that? I've heard stories from families of Methodist circuit riders who have actually located their ancestor's journal--a real treasure!

    1. Good point about the journal! I do have many letters that he wrote to his wife from the road, but a journal would be a wonderful find.

  2. What a wonderful discovery! I can only hope to find something like this on my lines. By the way, it's nice to see someone else has ancestors in California, especially Oakland. That's is where my relatives eventually wound up.

  3. How wonderful, Leah! You just never know when luck will come your way. Congrats on a terrific discovery and thanks for sharing it in the COG!

  4. Leah, Yours was the bestest kind of Christmas present to receive --- and give. and thank the good old internet for making those last minute efforts possible.

  5. What a wonderful gift for your grandmother! I truly enjoyed your story. Sometimes you have to wade through lots of mis-information on the internet but this proves there are treasures to be found.


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