“You never know how little actions you do may affect someone else,” said Joshua McNaugton, a South Dakota man who grew up knowing next to nothing about his father.
Except that his father had been murdered, according to McNaughton’s mom. But he didn’t know whether to believe it or not.
McNaughton’s mother and other family members were extremely reluctant to share information about his father, and McNaughton always longed to find out more. “I always had this feeling that he was around, but he wasn’t around,” said McNaughton.
As he got older, McNaughton began searching the Internet for information on his dad. What he had to go on: his dad’s name, Brett Alan VanDreumel, and the fact that he may have lived for a time in Oklahoma, Texas, or other nearby states.
McNaughton found nothing. “It was almost as if he didn’t exist,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Spring, Texas, LDS boy scout Connor Murphy, then age 14, was looking for an Eagle Scout project. Connor had always had a passion for history, said his mom, so when his bishop told him about a project called Billion Graves, it seemed a natural fit.
Billion Graves is a company that preserves information from headstones so people now and in the future can access it, said Lisa Moncur, a writer and blogger for Billion Graves.
How it works: People anywhere in the world can photograph headstones in a cemetery, then (using a free Billion Graves app) can GPS-locate and upload those images to a website, where the information from the graves is cataloged and can be easily searched by users of the site.
“I liked how you can take these pictures and it can become available for anybody, so like someone from a different country doesn’t have to come over here, they can just get the information from the Internet,” said Murphy.
Murphy spent many hours organizing a day with a local cemetery, recruiting volunteers, and training them in how to take and upload photos for Billion Graves.
Finally, one hot Saturday in August of 2012, Murphy and about 30 volunteers worked for several hours photographing the headstones in the Calvary Hills cemetery in Spring, Texas and sending the images to Billion Graves. The day went well, and Murphy’s project was over.
But its effects were not.
Nearly a year later, back in South Dakota, McNaughton, about to become a first-time dad himself, decided to look for his own dad one more time. This time, he found something: an image of a gravestone. The name, dates, and location all fit. “I was so happy,” said McNaughton. “I told my wife,’ I think I’m gonna cry , I found my dad.’”
McNaughton emailed the Billion Graves staff to thank them for their part in helping him find his dad at last. He also said he was hoping to locate some of his dad’s living relatives with the new information from the headstone.
Moncur received Josh’s email in June of 2013 and was captivated by his story. She interviewed him as well as Murphy, posting the story on the Billion Graves blog an effort to inspire others in their work with Billion Graves. With McNaughton’s permission, she also invited readers who might have access to relevant information to help Josh find his family. (To see her story, visit http://blog.billiongraves.com/2013/07/the-power-of-a-picture/ .)
Murphy was surprised when Moncur contacted him for an interview and related McNaughton’s experience. He had never imagined he might connect someone with long-lost living relatives. “I thought all the people there were long dead,” he said.
In less than a week, a blog reader had reached out to McNaughton. Using Ancestry.com and Facebook, she was able to help Josh locate a living uncle, his dad’s brother. Now, several months later, Josh has now been able to find nearly all the living relatives on his dad’s side, including an uncle and cousins he talks to regularly. He is making plans to visit Texas and meet them in person.
And he finally knows the truth about his father. “It’s like a weight has been lifted,” said McNaughton. Sadly, he learned that his dad was, in fact, murdered at the age of 24, when McNaughton was still very young. (His father was known to have been shot and stabbed, though the details of the case are not clear.)
But although the story of his father’s life has a tragic ending, McNaughton is pleased with the happy ending of his own search for the living relatives he never knew. “They also had been thinking of me and wondered what happened to me. Since my mom had changed my last name, they hadn’t been able to find me. Now they know I’m Brett’s son. He was their brother and he died, and I’m this guy they don’t know much about, but they really want to meet me.”
McNaugton says having these new-found family members be a part of his life is “great. I do have my other family, but knowing these people is something I’ve never had before. They’ve been there for me and given me advice and such. It means a lot.”
McNaughton feels deep gratitude toward Murphy and Moncur. He said they were both “amazing.”
“Sometimes you do something and you think it’s not going to do much, but in the long run it may do something that helps someone,” said McNaughton. “Something as little as just taking a picture and sending it in to Billion Graves took years off my search of looking for my dad.”
“My wife and I just had a baby girl,” said McNaughton, “and [my dad’s relatives] want to meet her, and thanks to Connor we’re going to get to meet each other.”
Murphy thinks perhaps it was all meant to be: he had originally planned to photograph another cemetery closer to his home, but was unable to make contact with anyone there to set up his project. Instead he chose Calvary Hills, which contained the headstone that could solve the mystery that had plagued McNaughton all his life. Murphy said, “It was mind-blowing how I could actually do something like that, and unite a family that was so far away.”
Moncur said that while Billion Graves gets many thank-you emails from people who have located deceased ancestors, McNaughton’s story is “very unique in that he found living relatives.”
Connor’s mom, Stephanie Murphy, said she also never expected this outcome from his project. “I was surprised it saw such immediate results. You think of that benefitting someone involved in family history, not someone searching for living family members. It gave me a new perspective on the importance of this whole project.”
She said the experience has changed her son’s perspective. “I think seeing how something that just started out as an interest to him had such a wide reach to influence people he didn’t know has opened his eyes to see that the good things we do CAN make a big impact, even though we aren’t aware at the time.”
Since the Billion Graves project, Muphy has earned his Eagle Scout award and also continued his positive influence on others through family history work. A few months after his project, he was asked to speak at a regional family history conference where he shared information about Billion Graves and how others can become involved. He has been indexing for the LDS Church family history project since the age of 12 and is now an indexing arbitrator (helping make decisions about ambiguous or disputed records). He is serving as a family history consultant in his ward. He has helped the Scouts in his ward earn the Genealogy merit badge. “Connor also wears his t-shirt from the family history conference to school sometimes,” said his mom. “His friends ask him, ‘What is geneaology, what’s family history?’ It is a way for him to talk about it and share the gospel.”
But Murphy’s example has had perhaps the greatest influence with his younger brothers. “Gavin  will come home from school, do his homework, then spend some time on indexing,” said his mom. “William  also helps with indexing. They see that as a good way to spend their time, and it’s sparked more conversations in our home about family history. They want to know the stories.”
Connor’s mom emphasized that he did not expect or seek any recognition from his project. “Connor loved the project because he’s always loved history, it’s something he’s passionate about. It translated naturally to family history. He did it not for any kind of recognition, but because it was meaningful to him—anything else that came was a bonus.”
For more information about Billion Graves, visit their website at http://billiongraves.com. If you are interested in organizing your own Billion Graves service project or Eagle project, you can go to http://blog.billiongraves.com/2013/07/tutorial-tuesday-how-to-host-a-cemetery-service-project/ .
Click on photos to enlarge.