The Roark Family: From Ireland to Missouri

My grandmother, Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell, was one of nine children born to George Blue Kneisly and Clemency Roark.

Prior to getting into genealogy, I knew nothing about the Roarks. The Roark line is quite interesting, running parallel with Irish and American histories.

Available records allow for tracing the family back to the 1500s and to County Leitrim, in the province of Connacht (or Connaught) in Ireland. Leitrim is in the North of the current Republic of Ireland, bordering on Northern Ireland. Leitrim is one of the smallest counties in Ireland, and is known for its “slow pace of life;” however, the county is growing rapidly in population and has a highly educated citizenry.

Leitrim has many nicknames, including “O’Rourke County.” The O’Rourkes are one of the prominent families in the area. Historically, O’Rourke has also been spelled “O’Roark” and Roark.

The first of our ancestors to come to America was Martin Timothy O’Rourke who was born in Leitrim in 1700. The date he arrived in the New World is uncertain, but records indicate he married Sarah Parker in Philadelphia, in 1738. He made his way down to Virginia, where he died in 1769.

Records are sketchy, but Martin and Sarah had a descendant, William Roark, born in 1757 in Orange County, North Carolina. William served in the Revolutionary War, with records indicating his official rank was “Musician,” in the 1st Regiment from North Carolina. William married Sarah Dorris in 1780. He also served in the War of 1812, as a Private, with the 11th Mounted Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers.

William Roark’s Revolutionary War Record

William was rewarded for his time in the Revolutionary War, being given a Bounty Land Grant of 1000 acres of land in Allen County, Kentucky. William became a Baptist minister.

William and Sarah had a son, Levi, born in Orange County, North Carolina, in 1788. Levi, also a Baptist minister, married Clemency Pipkin in Smith County Tennessee in 1809. They had children born in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri, as the family migrated westward.

Levi and Clemency made it to Miller County, Missouri. They brought their children, including Benjamin Downing Roark. Benjamin had been born in Kentucky. At the age of 18, Benjamin married Rachel Gilleland. The Gillelands had followed a similar migratory path to Missouri, where Rachel’s father was appointed Postmaster for the small town of Enon.

Benjamin Downing Roark (1835-1928) and Rachel Gilleland Roark (1835-1916).

Benjamin Downing Roark was born in 1835 and he died in 1928. Rachel Gilleland Roark was born in the same year as her husband, and she died in 1916. They were my grandmother, Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell’s maternal grandparents. Benjamin and Rachel had many descendants, as shown below, in a family photograph of a gathering for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Benjamin and Rachel Roark’s 50th wedding anniversary, with names written by Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell, 1903.

One of their offspring, Clemency (named after Clemency Pipkin), married George Blue Kneisly, and they had several children, including my grandmother, born in 1899.

The information above covers just one line of Roarks that came to America. There are others with amazing stories.

County Leitrim is on the borders on Northern Ireland (Ulster). The O’Rourkes were originally Catholic, but some of them converted to the Presbyterian religion, and were forced into hiding. That was a factor, for at least some of them, in leaving Ireland. Family lore describes some of the males coming to America as boys, stowing away on ships with extended family.

Nathan Roark, from Belfast, hid away on a ship at the age of nine. He spent several years on the ship, which never returned to Belfast, and ultimately disembarked at Baltimore and stayed in America. At the age of 15, he set out to make a home in this country.

It is believed that the Roarks, O’Rourkes, and O’Roarks in the United States all came from around Leitrim, and all share common ancestors.

The New York Foundling History Part II: The Early Years

I have always pictured Sister Mary Irene FitzGibbon, the originator of the New York Foundling Home, as a humble servant doing God’s work in taking care of abandoned infants. While this image may be correct, the more I learn, I realize she had to be so much more.

Sister Mary Irene FitzGibbon

Prior to starting the Foundling, she filed incorporation papers with the state of New York, part of the process of working toward a more secure financial foundation.

Recently, while researching the Foundling’s history, I ran across a report from a commission appointed by the State of New York. The Extract from the Ninth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities of the State of New York Relating to Orphan Asylums and Other Institutions for the Care of Children, summarizes the workings of all orphanages in New York, and includes several pages describing the Foundling.

I was stunned to read the following statement: “The primary objective of the institution is to prevent infanticide.”

While I knew the Foundling served to save abandoned babies, I had never heard it described in such a direct manner.

The report went on to say: “Those identified with the work assert that ‘there is no class of suffering humanity whose cry for help and life is so sad and touching as the foundling’s. Scarcely has the unfortunate inhaled the vital air, unaware of all of life except its first necessities and sufferings, before its disposal becomes a grievous question with the attendants upon its birth.'”

In current times, it is nearly impossible to imagine the plight of an unmarried woman giving birth around 1870–without a husband or other family to support her, the woman would face the daunting task of survival. The primary work available to the woman would be as a teacher or a servant, and neither would be available to a woman with a child. So what was she to do? A facility such as the Foundling gave her the option of leaving her baby with an agency that would care for the child and, ultimately, find a home for the little one.

The work the Foundling did was not popular. As the report notes: “Many and almost insurmountable difficulties necessarily attended the beginning of such an undertaking; the wants to be supplied were numerous and varied, and many voices were raised to oppose, and even to condemn, the whole work as a real evil under the guise of an imaginary good.” Opponents argued that the Foundling was encouraging and supporting sin.

The report noted: “The first month of its existence twenty-eight little unfortunates were admitted, which the Sisters considered abundant proof not only that vice was prevalent, and that such an asylum for the waif was sorely needed, but also that the opening of the asylum had nothing whatever to do with the existence of the waif or the sin of its parents.”

Sister Mary Irene went against many of the views of her time in that she focused on the child rather than the “sin of its parents.”

Sister Mary Irene is quoted in the report as she summarizes the, at the time, brief history of the Foundling Home:

“We began work about six years ago, without a cent, in a dwelling-house of Twelfth Street, our principal object being to prevent infanticide and save the reputation of the women.” The very idea of “saving the reputation of the women” was a radical concept–she wanted to care for the mothers as well as the children.

“Since that small beginning we have received over six thousand children and over one hundred women.” (At this point in the Foundling’s history, it primarily received infants–6,000 is an astounding number. The women were mothers who stayed at the Foundling to nurse their babies. In order to stay, they nursed their own baby and one other baby. The goal was to get the mother back on her feet so she could resume her place in society, and hopefully take care of her own child. The idea of trying to help a woman keep her baby was revolutionary.)

“The three Sisters who began the work with me were Sister Teresa Vincent, Sister Ann Aloisious (sic) and Sister Frances Liguori. They all continue in it except one. We remained on Twelfth Street one year, and then rented a house on Washington Square, paying $7,000 a year in rent. We remained there three years. In the meantime, we obtained this lot of ground from the city on lease for ninety-nine years, at a nominal rent. By an act of the Legislature the city was authorized to grant us $100,000 provided we could procure a similar amount by private subscriptions. We collected it in about a month. At one single fair we realized $71,000. The rest was derived from private subscriptions. The sum of $320,000 has been expended on the property, buildings, etc. We left Washington Square and came to our new building Feb. 1, 1873. We had about 50 children then.”

That such a “humble nun” had the vision to incorporate the Foundling Home and the business acumen to raise large sums of money and create an economically viable agency is astounding.

Sister Mary Irene summarized: “We commenced this work with two cups and saucers. The first morning we had to beg our breakfasts. We slept on straw on the floor the first year, rolling the mattresses up during the day.” The report noted: “Since that time about a million dollars have been expended by the Sisters, and they now have what is said to be one of the best buildings in the city.” (A million dollars…in six years…)

The report noted: “On the date of the visitation (when the commission members went to the facility), there were five hundred children, and about one hundred nurses in the institution. In addition about one thousand children were being boarded out, at the expense of the asylum. These children are brought, at frequent interval, by those having them in charge, to the Sisters, to be examined as to their health. On Wednesday, preceding our visit, one thousand children were thus brought to the asylum, and after passing inspection, were taken back to the homes in which they were being nursed.”

“‘A great many children in the Asylum,’ Sister Irene said, ‘are between the ages of two and five, the oldest child is about six years. Our first plan was to take the children and keep them; now we return them to their mothers who sometimes come and claim their children. There is no child that cannot, from its first arrival be traced. We have returned hundreds to their parents.'” (Again, the idea of “family reunification” was quite forward-thinking. It is not clear how children could be “traced” or what this means exactly.)

The report contained detailed physical descriptions of the facilities: “Nursery No. 1 contains sixteen iron cribs and sixteen iron bedsteads. Each crib accommodates two infants, the larger beds, which stand one beside each crib, are for the nurses. The cribs have straw mattresses and husk beds.” (The nursing women slept next to each crib, immediately available to the babies as needed.) The cribs also had mosquito netting to protect the little ones.

The facility, located on 68th Street, between Third and Lexington Avenues, consisted of an Administration building that was five stories high, made of brick and stone. It was ninety-nine feet wide by sixty feet deep. It also had a kitchen for the community, dining rooms and offices.

The day-to-day operations were a huge logistical undertaking. There were sewing, linen, and visiting rooms, as well as dormitories and an infirmary. On each side of the Administration building, Ward buildings with large pavilions at each end were under construction. Each story would have a children’s washroom, a small kitchen, a room for stem drying of linen, and a closet and bathroom for nurses. In the basement would be offices for physicians, dispensaries, waiting rooms, nurses and sewing rooms, small kitchens, storerooms and closets. (Imagine the endless work of maintaining food and hygiene for so many little ones and the staff.)

Basements also had coal bins and ices vaults. The entire facility was heated by steam and lighted by gas.

The facility had very tall ceilings, with the first floors having ceilings that measure 15′ 6″, and upper floors being a minimum of 14′ tall. The height of the ceilings and the large windows allowed for considerable light and airflow, minimizing the contagiousness of illness.

So, Sister Mary Irene led an agency from the equivalent of a single family apartment, to a larger home, to a facility that was the size of a small college. While she certainly must have had considerable help, she also must have possessed amazing leadership ability, business skill, and compassion to have brought this about.

The New York Foundling History Part I: Overwhelming Need

Shortly after the American Civil war, New York was a bustling and chaotic place. As Stephen O’Connor described it, “torrential immigration and the nation’s easy transition to industrial capitalism had divided American cities into hostile camps of the affluent and the desperately poor. In no city was this division more pronounced than New York, which started the nineteenth century with a population of less than 40,000 and ended it with close to a million and a half.”

The commissioner of the almshouse (poorhouse) stated that many of the Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine would have been better off “cast in the deep sea than linger in the pangs of hunger, sickness and pain, to draw their last agonized breath in the streets of New York.”

Desperate parents discarded infants or left them at churches. These abandoned babies died at extremely high rates from disease, exposure, or malnutrition. Those providing care to infants generally accepted that they may simply be providing the child with a “better death.”

Older children living in the streets may have lost a parent to illness or alcohol. These children might sell newspapers or find some other means to make a little money. They often slept in alleyways.

Traditionally, cities dealt with these children as young criminals. Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, wanted to provide the young ones with an education, jobs, and a place to stay. He opened a home that fed them and offered classes and religious services. He eventually came up with the idea of “orphan trains” where he would send children away from the filth and disease of the big city, and to Protestant farm families, where the children would learn the value of hard work and they would have fresh air.

Around the same time, Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbons approached her superior, Mother Mary Jerome, about her idea for a hospital for foundlings. Mother Mary Jerome took the idea to Archbishop John McCloskey who enthusiastically supported the idea.

In October 1869, the Sisters of Charity purchased a four-story brownstone, and they planned to open within a few months. They had to adjust their plans when, the very first evening they occupied the new home, October 11, they heard a crying baby. And later that night, another arrived. Within three weeks, the nuns were caring for 45 babies. Two and a half months later, the total was 81. Their mission had begun, as the New York Foundling Home.

Within a year, they had to move to a new location. In their first two years, they cared for over 2,500 infants.

While the need was tremendous, not all were supportive. Some people argued that such a home would make it easier, or would even encourage, parents to commit adultery or to abandon their children. On the other hand, babies were already dying in large numbers, and the need was great. The archbishop also knew that the Children’s Aid Society was a “competitor,” and was providing children with a Protestant faith foundation.

Taking care of so many little ones was physically and emotionally exhausting. Little was known about germs and disease, and this was a time where illnesses could spread rapidly. Prior to the invention of infant formula, malnutrition was common, and infants often died for lack of mother’s milk. The Foundling developed a program where babies were sent to live with women who served as wet-nurses throughout the New York and New Jersey area. The Foundling would check up on the condition of the little ones, and once a month, the women were required to bring the infant in for a medical examination. If the child was in good condition, the woman would be paid a small amount. All infants placed out would be returned to the institution when they reached the age of two.

While many of the children at the Foundling arrived there as infants, some children arrived at older ages, frequently due to a change in life circumstances in a family. Perhaps the death of a parent, loss of work, alcoholism or other illness–a desperate parent would leave a child for safekeeping, hoping to return later when things improved. Sometimes a mother would stay at the Foundling, nurse her own child and one other. The Foundling hoped to get the mother back on her feet and she’d be able to leave and care for her little one.

By the 1870s, multiple organizations were following the example of Charles Loring Brace’s Children’s Aid Society and using “orphan trains” to place children in new homes. The most widely accepted estimate is that approximately 250,000 children were sent on trains, but there is no single record to verify the actual number.

While modern thought may see the placing of children on trains and shipping them to new families to be naive and unimaginable, the sheer number of children coming into the small number of aid organizations in the big Eastern cities dictated that something had to be done. The Foundling, for example, within 25 years of opening its doors, had over 2,000 children in residence, plus additional children in outplacements, and had an active program of sending children to new homes. All of these children had immense needs, and the Foundling did its best to meet those needs. And while the exact numbers cannot be calculated, there are millions of descendants of those children who survived because of the care provided by the Foundling.

Coming Next: Part II–The Early Years

Then: Part III–The Orphan Trains

Part IV–Searching for Orphan Train Ancestors

Yarnall and Coleridge: A First-Hand Account of History

While researching the Yarnell branch of my family, I came across an amazing piece of history. I had long known that the Yarnell (also spelled Yarnall) family is well-documented from colonial America to the present.

Philip and Francis Yarnall came to America in 1683 to be part of William Penn’s new colony of Pennsylvania. Philip Yarnall is my 7th great-grandfather.

Recently, I thought to look at eBay for items related to my family history. One particular item caught my eye—a book titled Forty Years of Friendship: Correspondence of Lord Coleridge and Ellis Yarnall.

Ellis Yarnall was a great great grandson of Philip—I will have to do more work on the family tree to calculate our exact genealogical relationship.

Ellis was very well-traveled and was, truly, a citizen of the world. His friend, Lord Coleridge, was an English lawyer, judge and Liberal politician. He held the posts, in turn, of Solicitor General for England and Wales, Attorney General for England and Wales, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and Lord Chief Justice of England.

I purchased Forty Years of Friendship, thinking there might be an interesting bit or two of family details, but I’ve found it to be an incredible piece of history. The letters between Coleridge and Yarnall provide a window into the thoughts of two prominent gentleman about the events of their times—and they contain ideas very relevant to the present day.

The book was published in 1911, about six years after the death of Ellis. It was edited by Charlton Yarnall, Ellis’s son. (Charlton is a fascinating character himself, and I may write about him down the road.) The book opens with letters dated in 1856, as the two men discuss issues of race and slavery.

Regarding slavery, Coleridge states: “It has always seemed to me that there are peculiarities in the question which a foreigner cannot understand. I have heard Americans, with whom on every other subject I seemed to agree generally in feeling and principle, use language on this which filled me with horror, and I am sincerely persuaded that there must be something more than a foreigner can see, on the surface of the question, to explain the intense disgust which very good and gentle people among you feel for negroes and negro blood.”

Coleridge does not express support for immediate abolition of slavery, though, as “Southern men cannot be expected to submit patiently to absolute ruin, and to what I suppose would be in many cases confiscation.” He continues: “But what puzzles me is to hear the institution, pure and simple, defended, and that nothing seems to be done, or attempted to mitigate its iniquities or prepare the way for gradual abolition.”

Coleridge’s next letter brings up the presidential election of 1856, a time when tensions were running quite high in the buildup to the Civil War: “At Washington one would expect some, at least, of the best men in America to be met together and the prevailing tone of the place ought to be decorous and gentlemanlike…I really feel that either we do not in the least understand America, or else that what is bad and ruffianly has a greater ascendancy there than any true friend of liberty can think of without sorrow and mortification.”

Ellis Yarnall replies: “I rejoice that you feel interest in the great struggle in which we are engaged in this country…You do well then to watch the present contest, and your sympathy with those of us who are struggling for the success of liberal principles, is well bestowed. I have given myself to the cause with ardour, and there are many around me who are like-minded. Here in Philadelphia there is a great deal to be done; we are in one sense a pro-slavery community, for the influence of the money-getting spirit is very much opposed to the love of a wise liberty. Then, too, people of Southern birth are among us, and there have been marriage connections and there is neighbourhood—a sort of border feeling. And, as you say, timid and refined people are averse to entering into what they call politics.”

Yarnall then gets more specific: “In regard to this Slavery question the South is now greatly excited: they are a fiery people and at present are not in a condition to listen to reason. Their leaders have told them the North is refusing them their rights, and the story is believed.” Later Yarnall notes that a Southern leader had advised his constituents that if Mr. Fremont wins the election, then Southerners should “march to Washington and seize the Archives and the Treasury.”

To be continued…To be notified of future articles, enter your email in the box in the right side of this page and click Follow.

The Mystery of Joseph Aner: January 2021

“I think healing happens in spite of what actually goes on. It creeps up on you.” –Kim Schotte

My grandfather, Joseph Aner was born on the last day of April in 1896. He was not given a middle name. This fact bothered him throughout his life as he viewed this as a sign of how quickly he was given away to be placed in an orphanage. It is not even clear than his surname was Aner—one database interprets the handwriting as saying his name was “Auer.” The New York Foundling Home records say it was Aner.

The question of his original surname is unanswerable and irrelevant really—whatever the name, it was made up. Neither of his parents bore that name. That name, like the those of his mother and father, was created to take away any traces of his true identity.

Prior to the age of five—I have not yet been able to find out exactly when—he was placed on an “orphan train” to Nebraska where he was taken in by a couple willing to raise a child. Unfortunately, the mother in that family died, and the father was unable to both work and take care of a little boy. Joseph returned to the Foundling Home to live.

What did it feel like not to have a family as a young child? Then to have one for a short time? Then to return to the orphanage?

As a psychologist, I know that children often have a type of “magical thinking” where they blame themselves as a means of making sense of their experiences. What did Grandpa think and feel?

I have talked with various people who know bits and pieces of my grandfather’s life. I know that when he came to Wardsville, Missouri, he first went to a family where he was physically abused. I have heard details of this, but see no benefit of sharing them here. Somehow he was then taken in by the Markway family, a surname he ultimately took on as his own, a name I now share.

When I began searching for Grandpa’s history, I was focused on finding his parents. After two years of searching, I knew the name of his father. A year later, I knew his mother. And, I had a photo of her.

I thought my search was complete.

But then new questions emerged.

I had noticed that Grandpa had changed his date of birth on documents. Why? Also, he had told a few of his descendants that his mother was named Abbie Doyle. How had he discovered her name? His actual birth date?

My mother had once said that Grandpa had gone back to New York and found his mother. But she didn’t know any details. This could explain how he would know her name. I have speculated that learned his actual birth date on that trip. How would I ever know if this is true?

I wondered how Grandpa ended up with the Markway family. I heard from someone in the family that the parish priest came to the Markways and persuaded them to give Grandpa a home.

I wanted to know more about Grandpa going to Nebraska—where? What exactly happened? How old was he? How long was he there?

As the questions kept growing, I had to accept that I would never know the answers, that the answers were buried under the sands of time.

Over the past twenty years, my siblings and I had requested information from the Foundling Home several times. My sister received a response stating the date Grandpa came to the Foundling Home, and that he went to the Markway family where he was “dearly loved.” I was told that there were no records, and how 120 years ago, they didn’t keep the kind of records I was seeking.

In 2019, I heard that the Foundling was digitizing their records. In February 2020, I made one more request. I didn’t have any expectations, but I had a little bit of hope. Then Covid hit New York City, and the city came to a standstill.

In early January 2021, I received an email from the Foundling, an email including “all the records” they had on Grandpa. There were just four pages. Two pages were the front and back of an index card that gave one or two sentence annual updates on Grandpa with the Markway family. (There was no mention of Grandpa going to another family in Wardsville first, nor of his time in Nebraska.) The front of this index card didn’t tell me much.

Then I looked at the back of the card, the second page of the records I received. A one-sentence note dated December 13, 1926 says: “Joseph asking about his History. Joseph Markway” So, Grandpa did return to New York and ask questions. That is where he learned his mother’s name. I still don’t know if he met his biological mother, but it now seemed possible. He was motivated, and it appears someone told him some things—his birth date for example.

The other two pages of Grandpa’s records consist of two letters from St. Stanislaus parish in Wardsville, the town where he grew up.. One, dated February 24, 1903, reports that Grandpa was placed with another family, after the man is his previous home “passed to eternity.” The letter also notes that this was a “change no doubt for the better.” This suggests Grandpa’s first home in Wardsville was abusive, as I had been told.

I have always wondered how Grandpa endured so much trauma and became such a loving person that I wanted to honor him by filling in the missing information of his life. How was Grandpa so resilient?

Psychologist Louise Silvern describes resilience as “that wonderful word for something we don’t understand.” Maybe I don’t need to understand why Grandpa survived and thrived to the point that his descendants revere him. It’s enough to have known him.

At age 30, he was searching for his mother, and in some ways I suspect, he was searching for himself. The pain of not knowing his parents, of being left in an orphanage, stayed with him. But Grandpa showed that the opening of his life did not define him. As he watched his kids and grandkids grow up, the healing crept up on him.

Why Family History?

Lost familyI have been reading a fascinating new book by Libby Copeland. The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are.

Ms. Copeland does a wonderful job of summarizing the science of DNA testing in brief and easily understandable ways, while also raising questions about where this new technology is taking us. Family secrets are bursting out of the closets and saying “hello” through Facebook messages.

Consumer DNA testing, such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe, has given rise to the new field called “genetic genealogy.” Yes, this is what allowed me to uncover the roots of my grandfather who came to Missouri from New York City on an orphan train.

The Lost Family struck such a chord in me that I reached out to Ms. Copeland–yes, in a Facebook message. She responded promptly, and we struck up a conversation.

I mentioned that I was a psychologist, and that my dissertation was on how people develop a sense of identity–what makes them who they are, or at least who they believe themselves to be. More specifically, my research was on how family influences an adolescent’s identity development.

Ms. Copeland then asked me a question about how difficult it can be for someone to incorporate new family information after they are well into adulthood. She asked if my profession and education gave me any particular insight into that.

I initially stumbled trying to come up with an answer. I realized I was more comfortable talking about my own experience in researching family history than I was with talking as the “professional, the psychologist.”

I referred her to a couple things I had written, one of them being the talk I gave at the 150th anniversary of the New York Foundling Home, the “orphanage” that sent my grandfather to his new life in Missouri. Ms. Copeland replied that she thought I put it well in that talk when I said: There is a basic human need to know who you are, and how you connect to this world.”

This got me thinking some more…I developed a talk recently that was to be given at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City, MO, the town where I grew up, the town where my grandfather had lived his adult life, just a few miles where he had disembarked from that orphan train at age five.

In that talk, I repeat the idea of “our story.” Knowing it, owning it, and being able to tell it. All of this makes us, and our story, real.

I am a psychologist. every personBack when I was in graduate school, my favorite therapy book was titled Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel. It suggested that a good therapist may think of a client as a character in a great book–what do you need to know about the person to make them more interesting? Keep asking questions until you fill out their personality, their story.

I find myself using that same concept in my genealogy work. I don’t just want to discover my ancestor’s name and date of birth. I want to learn their story as best I can uncover it–what did they do, think, feel? What was it like to be them. How does all that contribute to who I am? Every story I uncover becomes part of my story, part of who I am.

Every person in my family tree has a story to tell. Some seem better-suited to a best-selling book than others. But then I remember the main premise of Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel…and that is…Everybody is fascinating–it’s just that some people hide it better than others…

So, as a psychologist, amateur historian, and someone always wanting to learn more about myself, there are always more stories to discover. And for me, that is part of how I know who I am, and how I connect to this world.

Young Boy Rides the Orphan Train: My Grandfather’s Story

It was May 1901, and Joseph Aner was just five years old. As he boarded the train that would take him away from the New York Foundling Home, he was scared. He had ridden a similar train before to Nebraska, or was it Iowa? There he joined a nice family, but when his new Mom became ill, his Dad had a farm to tend to, with no time for Joseph. So, Joseph rode the train back to New York, to his first home, The New York Foundling Asylum.

This time, Joseph was going to Missouri. He knew he wasn’t going there to reunite with his “real Papa and Mama”—that’s what the caretakers told all the children. Even though he was only five, Joseph was an Orphan Train veteran.

There were 52 children on this Missouri Pacific line. In St. Louis, 15 of them met their new families. Another 36 rode deeper into Missouri, most of them to Osage City.

It there that Joseph met his new parents. Unfortunately, the first placement did not work out, and a local priest arranged for Joseph to join the family of Fred and Catherine Markway, of rural Cole County.

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Joseph Markway, first person on the left in the second row.

As long as I can remember, I knew my grandfather came from the New York Foundling Home, to Missouri, on an orphan train. As a child, I didn’t think a lot about it. I never thought about the empty space in his heart, of not knowing how he came into this world, of not knowing the beginning of his own story.

All I knew as a child was that Grandpa was the best. He made me feel loved and special. My very first memory was when I was three years old and my family moved from St. Louis to Jefferson City, MO. Jefferson City was where Grandpa lived and my Dad had grown up. My parents bought a two-bedroom home, for $6,000, for our family of seven. The house sheltered eight, though, when Grandpa moved in. Grandpa was fun, and funny, and he made me feel loved.

Grandpa died suddenly when I was 11. His belongings got divided up among my Dad and Dad’s two sisters. Dad got the name tag Grandpa had worn on the back of his jacket while riding the train in 1901. I had not seen that before, and seeing that piece of fabric, with his original name, Joseph Aner, written so elegantly in cursive,made his beginnings real to me. I wanted to know more. Who was Grandpa?

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As I grew up, I remained curious about his origins, but I had no way of exploring them. In the 1990s, when I first logged onto the internet, the very first search I did was looking for the surname “Aner.” I found a few people in Philadelphia. Was there a connection to Grandpa?

Three years ago, I felt an overwhelming need to know more. I took an AncestryDNA test.

Before getting my DNA results back, I found his birth certificate online. It was difficult to find because it was filed under “Auer,” not “Aner.” As you can see, the handwriting was not clear.

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The birth certificate showed Joseph Auer was born to Adelaide Auer and Joseph King, at a Catholic hospital that served the poor and destitute. Records indicated Joseph was left at the Foundling Home within a few days of his birth.

I searched and searched for information about his parents, but there were no records. The names Joseph King and Adelaide Auer were pseudonyms. His parents wanted never to be found.

I continued searching for anything that could tell me more about Grandpa. I found his World War I draft registration. Under “Place of Birth,” it said “Unknown.” That one word, “Unknown,” hit me in the gut—it was so sad.

I became obsessed, knowing that DNA testing had the potential to connect me to his origins. I felt a pressure to hurry. I belong to the last generation that knew Grandpa. And, with each generation, the DNA trail fades like an old photograph.

I learned more about his life by scouring old newspapers. He was among the first young men from Central Missouri drafted during the first World War. I talked to my older brother, Jack, about this. Jack had a lot in common with Grandpa and they would work on projects together—carpentry, car repair, painting—and sometimes Grandpa would talk to Jack about his past.

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Joseph Markway (standing) with his best friend, Lawrence Prenger, in their World War I Army uniforms.

Grandpa briefly mentioned the war, hinting at traumatic experiences, but then shut down. He said just enough for Jack to know Grandpa had seen the human cost of war up close.

After the war, Grandpa married into a prominent family in Jefferson City and he started his own family. He also started his own business as an automobile dealer. He sold the cars, repaired them, and taught his customers to drive.

His business did well. In September 1929, he went on a tour of Hupmobile factories to see the new models. The next month, the stock market crashed, and his business slipped away.

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After several weeks, my AncestryDNA results came in.

A few months later, I found a promising lead, a few DNA matches that connected only through Grandpa. One of these matches had a family tree that included three siblings who all would have been in their 20s or early 30s when Grandpa was born. And…they all lived in New York.

Through a lot of work, I pieced together that George Van Sten, from Brooklyn, was Grandpa’s father. George lived a rather colorful life, and he made the newspapers as a result.

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George was engaged to a woman for several years. She then married someone else and he sued for the return of presents he had given her.

I had no leads for Grandpa’s mother. As I was talking about this with my brother one day, Jack told me: “He always said his mother was Abbie Doyle.” Later one of my cousins told me the same thing.

I was stunned. How could Grandpa know this?

Jack said Grandpa was clearly bothered by what he had learned in New York, and would start to talk and then stop. His feelings of abandonment were overwhelming, and they took away his voice, preventing him from telling all that he knew about his story. It seems he was a secret, and being a secret hurt.

I searched everywhere for signs of Abbie, or Abigail Doyle. I learned that searching for Irish names in New York in the late 1800s didn’t narrow things down much.

Then one day I was looking through a family tree on Ancestry.com. I saw a name—Abbie Camille Doyle–could this really be her?

Abbie was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1873. The timing would fit…

Abbie was the youngest of six children, with four brothers and one sister. Her father, Jeremiah Doyle, and her mother, Margaret Foley, head each come to America from Ireland during the potato famine. Her parents married in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1856.

When the Civil War began, Abbie’s father joined the Union Army, and he was wounded soon thereafter. He was discharged due to “disability. This was 12 years before Abbie’s birth. What happened after that? Did her older siblings work to support the family? Her father died when she was just eight years old.

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In Massachusetts records from 1899, I found Abbie married William Dolan. The marriage record listed William as residing in New York City. Additional DNA research provided overwhelming evidence that Abbie was Grandpa’s mother.

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I tried to imagine what things had been like for her. I don’t know the circumstances, but she had found herself expecting a child. She gave birth as a poor single mother. Her life could not have been easy and her emotions must have been complex. She must have felt alone, with no good alternatives.

I found myself caring about this woman I had never met.

And then, I received a message from a descendant of one of Abbie’s siblings. My newfound cousin had sent me a family photo that included Abbie and three of her brothers. As I gazed into her eyes for the first time, I saw my grandfather, and I realized he had found Abbie. And so had I.

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Abbie Doyle, on the right in the front row, likely not long after my grandfather’s birth. Her brother, Michael on the left, with his wife, Annie, in the middle. Annie is holding her daughter, also named Abbie Doyle. The little girl, standing, is Elizabeth (Lillian) Doyle. In the back row are: Cornelius Doyle, left, and John Doyle, right.

 

The Kneisly Family: From Reformation to Revolution

When I was in graduate school, working to become a psychologist, I ran across a wonderful book titled, Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel. This book said every person is fascinating–you just have to ask the right questions to get them to reveal the hidden story.

This is why I love history–it’s not just about dates and nations. It’s about people, about drama and overcoming adversity. This is definitely true for the Kneisly family. I had no idea that my ancestors lived through so many events I had read about. I didn’t ask the right questions of my grandmother, Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell. I wonder if she had any idea of the richness of her heritage.

I started my genealogy journey searching for my paternal grandfather’s story. He was the interesting one, born in mystery to unknown parents. I wanted to find his parents, to discover where he came from. And when I accomplished my goal, I took a break from genealogy, not sure if I would return.

But then, I took a look at my maternal grandmother’s origins, and found a story of the Protestant Reformation, religious persecution, forced migration, exodus to America, the Revolutionary War…

And today, because of the internet, I am able to ask questions and get some amazing answers.

Let me set the opening scene for the Kneisly story…

The earliest record of the family is of a Martin Nussli , born in 1510. Believe it or not, I found a portrait of his grandson, Konrad, and his wife, Margaretha Wanner Nusslie, and daughter. Konrad was born in 1570. My niece noted that Margaretha appears pregnant in this picture. I did some research and discovered that the couple had 11 children, so my niece may very well be correct. (I believe this to be Margaretha. He was married previously to Dorothea Bolesterli Nussli, but she died within a few years of their marriage.)

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Konrad and  (most likely) Margaretha (Wanner) Nussli, with one of his 11 children, circa early 1600s

For context, it was in 1517 that Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses that began the Protestant Reformation. What began as disagreement over dogma led to extreme fragmentation of Christianity with tragically violent consequences. Europe was very different back then–countries did not exist in the same way they do today. Religious entities held power, and enforced unity and purity of belief.

Zurich, Switzerland in the early 1600s was on the front lines of religious tumult. Martin Luther and his split from the Roman Catholic church had led to additional groups exploring other religious ideas. One of these groups followed a former Catholic priest, Menno Simons, a leader in an Anabaptist sect. His followers became known as “Mennonites.”

The Nussli family was Mennonite. Johannes “Hans” Nusli, born near Zurich in 1628. His story is amazingly well-documented…but only because his life was so difficult…

By the 1640s, the Mennonites were horribly persecuted, and they were easy victims. They lived a faith with a commitment to non-violence, even when it came to self-defense. A group of Mennonites around Zurich were taken hostage in 1647, and as one book describes the circumstances, they were later “driven from Zurich by fire and by sword.” Hans was jailed for a year. Other Nussli’s were chained in dungeons, dressed in nothing buy long gray coats, and subjected to mockery.

Hans left Zurich between 1646 and 1649. He went to Bern, where other Mennonites had congregated. Before long, they were then driven out that area, and they were refugees headed for the Alsace region (on the modern-day French/German border).

He and his family lived there for about 14 years, when they again had to leave, and headed for the Alsace region (now the German-French border area). Hans died in 1688, but his descendants carried on.

Census records from 1707 in Alsace show Anthoni Knussli, age 52, having a wife named Magdalena. They had six children: Hans (19), Anthony (14), Elizabeth (11), Maria (7), Barbara (4), and an infant daughter named Sybilla.

That same year, 1707, a group of Mennonites went to London to meet with William Penn and discuss colonizing Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In 1717, records show that the Knussli family traveled to Rotterdam, then to London, and then to Philadelphia.

Travel at that time was an arduous undertaking. People were packed onto ships like cargo, sleeping in what are best described as wooden boxes. Seasickness was routines as were other illnesses. But the Knussli clan had faith the travel would be worth it–in terms of religious freedom, as well as the opportunity to be able to farm their own land. Among that first group was my direct ancestor, Antonius.

(An interesting historical footnote: England’s Queen Ann provided financing for the Kneisly’s journey.)

Antonius (also listed as Anthony) made his way to Conestoga Township in Lancaster County. (Many family names from the records of Lancaster County in the early 1700s show up in my list of DNA matches on Ancestry.com.) in 1711, Antonius and his wife had a son, George.

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A map of the Kneisly and Kauffman land in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Kauffman name also shows up among my DNA matches.

George is noted for several reasons in the historical record. First, he is recognized as a “patriot” for participating in the Revolutionary War despite being 65 years old in 1776. His “participation” consisted of paying taxes to support the “Confederate Army” as it is listed in the documents.

George also built Kneisly’s Mill, a grist mill that still stands today. I found photos of the mill, which today, operates as an art studio.

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Kneisly’s Mill, built between 1773-1779, still stands today and serves as an art studio now. Also known as Nolt’s Mill or Kauffman’s Mill. Catherine Nolt was his wife.

George and Catherine had a son, George Jr., who served as a private in Captain James Beard’s 8th Company, 4th Battalion. All in all, 14 Kneislys are listed in records of having served in the Revolutionary War.

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The headstone of George Kneisly, Jr. Notice the inscription is in German.

Having moved from Zurich to Bern in Switzerland, to Alsace, on to Rotterdam in Holland, to London, and then to Colonial America, the Kneislys were not done. From Lancaster County, some of them moved south to Maryland and Virginia. My direct ancestors ventured to the Western frontier, to near what is now Dayton, Ohio. (At one time, there was a railroad stop known as “Kneisly Station.”)

In Ohio, the next George Kneisly, built paper mills and a distillery (with a capacity of sixty barrels a day). He apparently did quite well, acquiring considerable land along the Miami River. His businesses built housing for his employees, and he had stores to supply what the employees’ families needed. So, he made money from their labor, and from their daily needs–the entire town was built around the company and it included the proverbial “company store.” (Much of the Kneisly land there is now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.)

The next Kneisly did not do so well, and it appears he likely had a mental illness (that’s my diagnosis as a psychologist based on old family records), dying at age 31. He was described as going on “sprees” and gambling away his money. Those same family records, without saying so directly, suggest that he may have been murdered by those to whom he owed money. His wife was encouraged to give up her children, to “bind them out” as indentured servants since she was still attractive and young enough to get married again. (That’s what her father-in-law told her. He may not have been the most sympathetic person in my family tree…)

Mary Stuart Kneisly, did not bind out her children. Instead, she worked hard and eventually married a minister. At least one of her children served in the Union Army during the Civil War, enlisting numerous times against her wishes until she realized she could no longer stop him. After the War, she followed him to Missouri, where he purchased land. Mary, born in 1818, lived a long life, dying in 1900.

The Kneislys and their descendants farmed around Olean, Missouri, and in nearby counties. A 2007 history of Olean in the Jefferson City New-Tribune lists Charlie Kneisly (my grandmother’s brother) as being one of the town’s barbers.

There are Kneisly descendants throughout the United States, with many still near Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and Dayton, Ohio. As the family has spread out, the spelling of the name has evolved differently in various areas–Kneisley, Knicely, Nicely, Gnussli, and others…One of my favorite recent images I have found of a distant relative is that of Andrew Kneisly, who is a professional rugby player, and who has played on the U.S. national team.

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Andrew Kneisly has also played for the Philadelphia Fight–what a great name for a rugby team.

In talking with my close family, I have been asked about when the Kneislys converted to being Mennonites. I can’t answer this with any certainty, but it appears it may have been in the early 1600s. And, given that central Missouri has many Mennonite communities, did they move to the area for that reason? The evidence suggest not–this was likely to be coincidence as land in Missouri was easily available after the Civil War, and many people came to Missouri at the time.

I also can’t say with any certainty when my ancestors stopped living as Mennonites, but it likely was quite a while back. Participating in the Revolutionary War suggests they no longer were strict Mennonites, or perhaps their interpretation of the tenets of their faith had evolved. Many sources note that most Mennonites, Quakers, and other “non-resistant” faiths did not serve in the War. This is a story remaining to be discovered.

Fortunately, for an amateur genealogist such as me, the Mennonites went into great detail documenting their history. With the Kneislys having played a prominent role in the early Mennonite communities, I have been able to find the answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. I’ve enjoyed telling the family story–thanks for reading.

 

The Kneisly Family: An American Story

Recently, I heard someone refer to their family as “just simple farmers.” I would argue that there is no such thing–every family has an amazing story if you just dig deep enough. Average, down-to-earth people may seem “simple” because they are focusing on surviving day-to-day, working to support their families. But they are part of the unfolding of history, history that is only understood later when we can view it from a distance.

My maternal grandmother was Lily Myrtle Kneisly. The Kneislys were well-known around central Missouri, having farmed and worked around Enon, High Point, California, Eldon, Russelville, and Clarksburg. Their family history can be traced back to Switzerland, escaping religious persecution by going to Alsace, and eventually to Colonial America. Those stories will be told in future posts to this blog. But first, let’s go to my grandmother…

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The Kneisly Family: Back Row–Ruby Kneisly Porter, Charles, Lily Myrtle (my grandmother), Stanley, and Virgie. Front Row–Roy, Clemency, Edwin, Herbert, and George.

I remember my grandmother having an old “Big Chief” tablet that had a history of the family, handwritten by her “Aunt Nan Agee.” Here it is, with some minor editing to make it easier to read:

History of Some of the Kneislys–by Nancy Belle Kneisly Agee

Part 1) Many years back, my grandfather came over from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania and from there four of his sons came to Ohio, and settled near Dayton Ohio. At the time of my birth, which will be 88 years ago the 30th of Nov. 1938. My grandfather was the wealthiest man in those parts. He owned cotton factories, saw mills, and distilleries, along the little Miami river. He also kept merchandise to supply his employers.

My grandmother’s maiden name was Seigel,of German descent also. Their family consisted of several boys, and one girl Serah. There was to my knowledge four boys, named: John, George, Adam, and Will. Serah married Dr. Ely. He died and left her a widow. I recollect her visiting my mother when I was quite young.

My Grandfather’s name was George and my father’s name was George Jr. My father was drowned near the paper mills six weeks before I was borned. My mother had dismissed the boarders and was alone with us children. He was in the habit of going away for several days at a time on his sprees and had gambled until he had nothing left, so grandfather made him Pay Master at the paper mills.

One evening, he came home early to supper and said he was going fishing, that he had promised to meet some parties at the fishing rock. So when morning came and he did not show up, and the dog, an old Newfoundland kept going to the river and coming back, howling so pitifull, she went to the mill to inquire about him. So they went to the fishing rock and dragged the river and found his body all wrapped up in his trot line. They called the coroner. My Mother never saw him after he was dead.

In a few days she went to Grandfather Kneisly to see if he would loan her some money, until she could go to work again. And what do you suppose he said to her? “Pops, you are still young and good looking, bind your children out and you can marry again.” (Binding refers to selling the children to another family where they would be indentured servants.) She replied, “No father, I will not bind them. I will work my finger nails off first.”

Then she went home and wrote to her Father. He came and moved her home, and in six weeks I was borned then. She remembered a Mr. Nixon, a big mill man she had often heard my father speak of. She wrote to Mr. Nixon for a job in his paper mill and a house. He answered back that his houses were all full, but he had a small cottage that was empty, and she could have a job in his mill. So in six weeks, grandfather Stewart moved her to the Nixon Mill, one half mile of Clifton Ohio.

There she lived in the little cottage working and sending the older Elizabeth, Dave, and Jane, to school and Sunday School, and church for three years. But the tide was bound to turn. One quarter of a mile from town you came to a bridge across a small stream of water that flowed through the meadow of a large farm. You left the main road and followed the river down to Mr. Nixon’s Mills. About another quarter mile, you came to the little cottage where my Mother lived. Next was five other large houses with two families in each house. On a little farther, you came to the paper mills across a narrow plat farm. You walked in to the upper part called the rag room where the woman worked.

Part 2) One Sunday, Mother was fixing the children off to Sunday School when there was a knock on the door. She thought it was some neighbor. She called, “Come in,” and in walked an old gentleman. Well, she was so confused that she forgot to set him a chair. She said, “I was just getting the children off to Sunday school.” He replied, “Go ahead and don’t let me bother you. I just called on a little business.”

So Mother sent the children on and the old gentleman broached the subject of his visit–he was alone with a large farm and he would love to marry her, and move her and her children to his home. Mother replied, “I haven’t given a thought about marriage, but would study about it” and let him know. So he continued his visits. Mother, being wise, decided she would be doing well to go with him, so they were married. I was three years old, my sister Elisabeth was about eleven, and Jane about nine, Dave about seven, and Jim about five.

So Father Braley and Mother worked together sending the children to school, Sunday school and church for several years. One day, Father was building a fence when he let a rail fall. It skinned his shin bone, making quite a wound. He neglected to doctor until it became poisoned, causing him to have a chronic sore. That was before civil war. Mother and the boys still kept the work going on the farm. In the year of Sixty, the war broke out, and he died, leaving Mother a widow again. Elisabeth had married a Dave Berg of the Methodist church. Jane had gone to Aleto, Illinois, to my Aunt McDoy’s.

Dave went and joined the Army. That was about the year of 1863. That left Mother, Jim, and I at home. Jim ran away, went to the Army. Mother followed him, taking him out twice. The third time, Mother followed him to Cincinnati. There they talked her out of taking him back as a man by the name of Shadric had sworn him in as his guardian and left with the Eight-hundred bounty, so she came home without him. That left Mother and I at home to care for the home and livestock.

Dave would write to Mother not to sell the livestock, that he would be home soon as he could. She wrote for Jane to come home and be with her and I. She came and when the War was over. Dave came home as soon as he could.

One day Mother looked out and up the lane, she saw Jim coming. She started running to embrace him. He called out, “Mother, don’t touch me–I’m lousy, (covered in lice). Take me some clothes to the garden.” So she did. He changed his clothes and buried his war clothes before coming in the house. So there we were, all that was left of us, at home again.

Mother had received a letter from Illinois that Elisabeth had died from the cows eating a poison weed. Dave Berg and his three children got well. I suppose some of them are still living. Their names were Sam, Henry, and Emma Jane.

Part 3) I was going to school to graduate as a teacher for two six months terms. Dave was going with a girl at Yellow Springs. Her name was Anna Blue. They were married. He brought her home. Jim was working for George Brayley, grinding bark for the tannery house.

Dave traded his government bonds for land in Missouri. Joining Wess Hackys, he wanted to go to Missouri to his land. Mother thought she could not part away from him, so she sold her dowry in the farm. Father Brayley left her to his son George, and sold her belongings, and sent Dave on before to buy her a place. He bought the old Hicks place, paid Seventy Dollars for it.

We then came to Jefferson City. Mother, Jane, Jim and I and Dave’s wife. We were there over Sunday and Monday Morning. We started home, were on the road all day, reaching home late in the evening. In the morning, the man that moved us took Mother and I as far as Mt Pleasant to get the deed fixed. He went on home and Mother and I walked back 2-1/2 miles the post office in Mr Franklin’s Store.

That was the day I first met Mr Franklin, Alice Simpson’s father. He claimed it was love on first sight on his part. He was a frequent visitor to our home until Mother gave her consent for us to be married. He would come every Sunday with a horse and buggy and take me out to Salem to church. Well that fall, in October, we were married. He was 30 yrs. old that day and Nov. the 30th I was Eighteen. We were at his Brother Will’s for a few weeks and we went to housekeeping. He was a partner in the store with his Brother Will,

We bought a house and a cow and moved. We were very happy. He worked in the store and I worked fixing up my home. Mother would come up to see us for several months. He had to go to town to California for his goods. While he was there, came a hard rain and raised the Moreau, a stream he had to ford. It was so swift he came very near being washed down the stream. That night he was taken sick. Mother was there. We called the doctor.

The doctor worked and stayed with him until daylight. He got so he could walk to the store. One day he got to shaking. They carried him home. The doctor called it St. Anthony dance. He had those spells quite a while, nothing but the shooking machine would stop them. One evening, several men came in. I was sitting, visiting with them when I saw one of them straighten his feet. I looked at him and saw the death pallor on his face. I didn’t remember anything more.

When I became conscious, he was laid out. The doctor told the woman, “Don’t let her get up.” They tried, but I did get up and knelt down by the casket. They carried me back to bed. Doctor gave me some dope. They took him away for several weeks. I couldn’t realize he was gone. Mother moved me home so she could take care of me. I would go out and set for hours. I imagined I could hear his horses feet. he rode horseback and I could always tell when he was coming.

One day I realized he was gone. I was out sitting by a strawstack crying. Mother came out and said, “Nan, you must be reconciled–you will bring more trouble on your self. I am doing all I can to save you and your baby.”

So I went in the house with her and it wasn’t long until Allie was borned. The doctor came every day until I was out of danger. Mother would set by the fire place and watch her play with her hands. When Brother, Jim heard the baby was borned that it was a girl, he walked home from Wess Hackney’s, where he was working, and the first thing he said, “Mother, what are you going to name her?” She said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Call her Alice.” So we called her Alice, after Alice Williams, the girl Jim loved first, so that’s that.

Stay tuned for more on the Kneisly family…

 

 

 

Finding Abbie Doyle

There was the name I had been searching for–Abbie Camille Doyle, born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1873. Could this really be her? The person I had wondered about since I was a child, ever since I learned about my grandfather coming to Missouri at the age of five, riding the orphan train from the New York Foundling Asylum.

Grandpa had said his mother was “Abbie Doyle.” Now, here I was, looking at a family tree of someone that shared DNA with me. I didn’t know this person, but she listed Abbie Doyle in her family tree, and this was the first concrete clue that my grandfather really knew his mother’s name.

I still have no idea, really, how Grandpa would have discovered her name. I had heard stories that, as an adult, he had gone to New York and discovered something about his mother. I wish I knew more. I wish I had asked more questions.

All I could do was imagine the emotions he felt that made him embark on such a journey. Individuals separated from their biological origins sometimes feel they are carrying someone else’s secret, and feeling that you are a secret can hurt.

Somehow, Grandpa had uncovered at least part of the secret of his origins, but how much did he know?

My older brother, Jack, recalls: “We worked on cars together and sometimes he would start talking. He said when he went back to New York, he found her, or a relative of her, but then he would stop and say that I wouldn’t want to know more…and I should forget what he was talking about.”

Grandpa gave clues…but then he retreated. I suspect he wanted to lock his feelings away, that perhaps he was better off forgetting what he knew, but part of him wanted to talk. With such mixed emotions, Grandpa instructed Jack to forget everything. Yet, more than 50 years later, Jack remembers.

For me, looking for Grandpa’s parents has not simply been a puzzle to be solved. I have felt compelled to search because his story has always been a part of my own story. Grandpa felt he was a secret, and in some way, this feeling has been passed down through the generations. My father had attempted to research Grandpa’s origins, but before DNA testing and the internet, there was not much chance of success.

When I took the Ancestry DNA test, I was surprised to see that my brother, Jack, had already done so, as had one of my cousins. My sister, Sue, had written the Foundling Home, requesting information, as had I. Why were we all searching? What were we searching for?

While looking for information about my grandfather, I came across his first World War I draft registration card. Under place of birth, it said, “Unknown.” This word, “Unknown,” hit me in the gut. It also seemed strange, because he knew where he was born. I have felt so many different emotions while investigating the origins of his story.

As a psychologist, I know families don’t reveal secrets easily, and after several generations, secrets become buried like ancient cities lost under the blowing sands of time. I recently heard a saying–“The past is a different country.” And traveling there is not an easy voyage.

After seeing Abbie’s name in a family tree, I contacted the person who had posted that tree online. Most people don’t respond to messages about their family genealogy. They may not have any information to share. They may fear that any questions about their history involve a scam of some type. They may have taken a DNA test simply to learn more about their genetic heritage, not realizing that there would be thousands of relatives popping up online.

This time, though, I got a response. After sharing a little information back and forth, I got right to the point. I said that Abbie Doyle may be my grandfather’s mother. Additional communication identified a couple of her cousins who also shared DNA with me–they all descended from Abbie Doyle.

So I had “evidence.” But I wanted more. I reached out to others who appeared to be connected to the Doyle family. Some of them shared quite a bit of DNA with Jack and me. No response. And from their Ancestry user names, I had no idea who they were.

I then began scouring every record I could find online. I had gone from wanting to know my great-grandmother’s name to wanting to know who she was. With a name, birthdate, and place of birth, I was able to learn a great deal. Abbie was the youngest of six children, with four brothers and one sister. Her father, Jeremiah Doyle, and her mother, Margaret Foley, had each come to America from Ireland during the potato famine. Her parents married in Holyoke, Massachussetts, in 1856. Holyoke is in western Massachusetts, about 150 miles from New York City.

When the Civil War began, her father joined the Union Army, and he was wounded soon thereafter. He was discharged due to “disability.” This was 12 years before Abbie’s birth. What happened after that? Did her older siblings work to support the family? Her father died when she was just eight years old.

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I wondered what happened to Abbie after that. So far, much of what I had learned of Abbie came from census records. The 1890 census could potentially be a gold mine of information…but, unfortunately, nearly all those records were lost in a fire.

So, from 1881 until 1899, there was a huge black hole of information. (My grandfather was born in 1896, and false names are listed for his parents on his birth certificate.)

In Massachusetts records from 1899, I found an Abbie Doyle who married a William Dolan in West Springfield, Massachusetts. This is near Holyoke. So, this could be the same Abbie Doyle.

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But what about William Dolan? Was there anything about him that would be helpful? Then I noticed on the marriage record, he was listed as residing in New York. One of my DNA relatives told me that she descended from William Dolan and Abbie Doyle. Two of her cousins shared DNA with me as well, meaning that we all shared a common ancestor. This was more evidence…

This DNA match told me that William had been a Senator. In an old newspaper I found an obituary for William J. Dolan, who had married Abigail Doyle, and who served one term in the Massachusetts legislature. William’s wife, Abigail, was a shared ancestor for four people I had identified so far.

At this point, I had considerable evidence that Abbie was my grandfather’s mother, but I was hesitant to say I had found proof. What was holding me back? Why couldn’t I declare my search complete?

I began by just wanting to know a name. But over time, I was getting to know her. She was a person, with a complex life, and I assume, complex emotions. I don’t know the circumstances, but she had found herself expecting a child. She gave birth at a hospital for unwed mothers. She gave this baby to the New York Foundling Asylum, hoping that he would have a good life. She likely had no other good options. She must have felt alone. I can only imagine the emotions that she had to hide deep within.

I found myself caring about this woman I had never met. I wanted to make sure my conclusion was correct.

And then, I received an email from another DNA match, a descendant of one of Abbie’s siblings. This person was able to identify several of our shared DNA matches. When I analyzed the amount of DNA I shared with all these other people, all the numbers added up. I now had seven different lines of people who descended from Jeremiah and Margaret Doyle, with all of these people sharing DNA with Jack, my cousin Gary, and me.

My new email cousin then sent me some photographs. One was a family picture that included Abbie and three of her brothers. As I gazed into her eyes for the first time, I saw her looking right back at me. I saw my grandfather, and I realized he was not “unknown.” And neither was Abbie.

Picture Cover 2
Abbie Doyle, front row, far right. Also front row: Michael Doyle and his wife, Annie Nolan Doyle. Back row, far right, Abbie’s brother, Cornelius. I’m not certain who the man is at back row, left.

Epilogue

In searching for Abbie, I found many other bits of information:

  • It is a small, small world. I share at least one Facebook friend with a member of the Dolan family.
  • Some of Abbie’s descendants live in the St. Louis area, where I currently live.
  • Abbie’s husband, William, graduated from Harvard. Some descendants attended US military academies.
  • The Doyles were known for beautiful singing voices and thick hair. My siblings and I have thick hair.
  • Abbie had two years of college and worked as a nurse.
  • One of her grandsons ran for Congress.
  • One of her granddaughters dated Elvis Presley, performed in Las Vegas, and sang in New York’s Latin Quarter.

kitty
Kitty Dolan

I am very grateful for all the assistance I have received from others, particularly those who took a chance and responded to my messages. Thank you, especially, to the relative who shared photographs. I will continue looking for more information and for more stories. Thank you for reading.