Friday, April 5, 2013

"Remember Son, We Are French, Not Scottish": How I Found My Great Grandfather

Since finding my great grandfather who had left home without a trace and changed his name, several have asked me, "How did you do it?  How did you find him?"

As I've thought about the past 24 years that I've spent looking for him, I've tried to determine exactly how I did it. I realized it was because I was able to:

Assume Nothing
Doubt Nothing
Never Give Up

One of the reasons why it took me so long to find my great grandfather is because initially I made a huge error.  I assumed that when he told his daughter-in-law, my grandmother, that his father's name was Nathan, that it was Nathan Buchanan.  This seems like a simple assumption to make, a son should have the same last name as his father, right?.  Unfortunately, about 23 of my 24 years was spent looking for a man who didn't exist.

I began looking in census records long before the Internet.  I would sit in libraries in the dark corners, spinning reel after microfilm reel.  Looking at line after line of records.  Most likely, I saw the Demoulin family in Highland, Illinois, but I didn't know I had found the right family because I was looking for a John Buchanan.

To be honest, I probably realized long ago that John must have changed his name, but the idea of looking for a needle in a haystack was so overwhelming, I ignored the thought.

After looking for over two decades, thanks to searchable census records, I found two Nathan Buchanans whose birth year could have made him old enough to father John.  One died when he was 3, and the other was African-American and most likely a slave.  

What I should have realized long ago, was that what I didn't find was just as revealing as anything that I did find.  Nathan Buchanan, the father of John Buchanan, didn't exist.

I can't tell you how many times I've overheard visitors to the Salt Lake Family History Library fall into this same trap.  A volunteer will inform them of some information that doesn't match what they think they know.  Almost always they come back with, "That can't be right."  or "That's impossible."  I wish I could interrupt and say, "Just be quiet and let that sink in for a minute.  It actually might be true."

As debilitating as assumptions can be, so can doubting the information you have.  John said that he was born in Highland, Illinois and that his mother's name was Susan Besin.  Once I realized that his father's name wasn't Buchanan, I began to doubt whether anything he said was true.  This doubt led me towards many side journeys that ultimately were a waste of time and resources.  Had I not doubted those two facts, I could have stayed focused in my search.

Let me give another example of why it's important not to doubt what your ancestors have said.  I have another set of great grandparents from Germany.  They reported on the passenger list that they were from Wurttemberg, Germany.  Their son said that he was born in Charlottenberg.  When I spoke to a German specialist at the SLC Family History Library, she declared that I must be mistaken.  Charlottenberg was in Berlin and no where near Wurttemberg.  

Then just yesterday, I went again to SLC and spoke to a different specialist.  Instead of doubting what I said, she decided to get out a huge German Gazeteer and look.  Sure enough she found a very teeny tiny town in Wurttemberg called Charlottenberg.  Now I know where to focus my search.  

I have spent over half my life looking for John's parents.  But I have never given up.  That doesn't mean I have spent eight hours a day for 24 years looking, but whenever I have had a chance to look, I have.  Once people started posting family trees online, I looked.  When Google was invented, I looked.  When the blessed Ctrl+F feature was invented, I looked.  When came online, I looked.  When I had a chance to steal a few hours at a Family History Library, I looked.  I didn't let it consume me, but I never stopped looking.

I truly believe that our ancestors want to be found as much as we want to find them.  They may be gone from this life, but they are not gone.  If we can find time in our life to quietly meditate and ponder, we can be inspired with new ideas and places to look.  

It's almost embarrassing to tell the story of how I found him.  After years of looking, it actually was quite simple.  Before I tell you how, let me share what conclusions I had to draw first.

1. John Buchanan had made up his name and he most likely had a French last name. 

I came to this conclusion because my Dad told me that his father had said to him, "Remember son, we are French, not Scottish."  That one simple sentence completely changed the course of my research.

2. The "Susan Bogin" I found in the Illinois 1860 census was my second great grandmother.  

Most likely the census taker wouldn't know how to spell a French name and just wrote down what he or she heard.  Holding onto this belief helped me keep my focus on Illinois.

3. He might have lived in one county and been born in another.  

Most archives divide their databases by county.  After looking at several Illinois maps, I realized that the counties out there are much smaller than the ones I have lived in.  I needed to be willing to expand my search to surrounding counties.

So this is what I typed into the database on

My thinking was that if she had indeed married, I wouldn't know what her last name was.  My plan was to click on every Susan that appeared.

Here's what I found.

Only 9 results.  I clicked on the first name, Susan Demaulin.  Here's what it said.

For some reason, his name was recorded as John and not Joshua.  Apparently John was a nickname for Joshua.  As soon as I saw his name, I knew.  I knew I had just ended a quest that began almost a quarter of a century earlier.

But what's next?  Now I need to prove it.  

This is where the real work began.  I had to what is known as


which is to figure out who had living descendants in this family.  Turns out this was no easy task.  This requiures looking at lots of census records, marriage records, and obituaries.  I finally found the obituary I needed online.

I first went to and looked to see who had this family in their family tree.  I then contacted them.  I finally got one response back.  He said that it wasn't his family, but a distant cousin's.  He also said that he was busy serving a mission in the Dominican Republic with his wife.  He later died while serving in the Dominican Republic and so we were never able to meet.   

I decided to keep looking.  One name that kept popping up was Linda A. Foote-Martin.  So I googled her. I found her on Pinterest and Facebook.  I sent her a message through Facebook.  She wrote me back and we began to exchange emails.  She said that in their records they have a Joshua Demoulin who was last heard of in 1905.

So far, everything was matching, but I needed something that would let me know that I truly had a match.  Because all of these living descendants were from Nathan's second wife and not Susan, they didn't have too much on their ancestor's half-siblings.  I needed to find a descendant of Susan's.

Thanks to more census records, an obituary, and LinkedIn, I found one.  Stephen Lane in Virginia.  I wrote him an email.

Here is the end of the email he wrote back:

And that's when I knew.  I knew because I knew the birthday October 18, 1869 as well as I knew my own. I had typed it hundreds of times.  It was John Buchanan's birthday.

I could see two different couples both named Nathan and Susan giving birth to a son John in Illinois.

I could maybe even believe both couples lived near Highland, Illinois.

But no one was going to convince me that two different French-speaking families whose parents were Nathan and Susan both gave birth to a son named John in the same town on the same day.

We had a match, and I had just received an email from my third cousin.

So thanks to inspiration, perspiration, and some luck, I found my great grandfather who left home without a trace and changed his name.  The little stinker.

My father and I flew to Highland, Illinois where we meet several members of the DeMoulin line.  We meet a cousin who looked exactly like an older picture of John Buchanan.  This removed what little doubt remained.

To read more about my search for the DeMoulin Family click here.

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