The Mystery of Joseph Aner: Part II

Little ones at the New York Foundling Home

My grandfather was left at the New York Foundling Home as an infant in 1896. As a toddler, he was placed on an “orphan train,” and was taken in by a family in Nebraska. The mother of that family died, and my grandfather was sent back to New York. A few years later, in 1901, he again boarded the orphan train and came to Missouri where he was adopted by the Markway family.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about my efforts to track down his history. How could I discover his birth parents without having names? Supposedly he had tracked down his birth mother when he was a young adult, but how would he have done so? The Foundling Home said it had no records, which made sense, because it was a place where anyone could leave a child, no questions asked. Grandpa once told my brother, Jack (who is named after him–Joseph John Markway), that his mother was named Abby Doyle. Was he right? Or is this just something he was told?

I began my search by taking the Ancestry DNA test. Several weeks after spitting into a small tube, my results came back. I didn’t recognize most of the names on my list, and I quickly realized how little I knew about my extended family. My brother, Jack, showed up as a match, as did my first cousin, Gary Ferguson. Some other fairly close matches showed up that I recognized as being from my mom’s side. I started studying the family trees that some of my matches had posted, and those trees gave me some clues as to how to separate people into groupings related to my four grandparents.

(In a future post, I will go into more detail about the technical aspects of this for those who are interested.)

It seemed every time I had a theory about my grandfather and who is family might be, my theory would get shot down the next day.

But there was one person, estimated as a 3rd or 4th cousin, that I couldn’t connect to any other family names. has a feature that allows you to see who else shares DNA with that person, and only a very few people matched that person. And, as it turned out, those people only matched others within that small group. They didn’t match anyone on my mom’s side. They didn’t match my dad’s maternal side. And some of them showed up as matches to Gary Ferguson, telling me they were on my paternal side.

Hmmm…how did these people fit?

I looked deeply into the one family tree that one woman from that family posted. There was a branch of that family that lived in New York City. I continued looking for other information, but there was not much there. Finally, I reached out through the Ancestry website to Pam, the woman estimated to be a 3rd-4th cousin match. Pam was very gracious and shared what information she had about her family, but not surprisingly, she had no knowledge of an infant placed at the Foundling Home.

I kept searching DNA connections, family trees, and historical documents online. Another DNA connection popped up, who also shared DNA with Pam. I contacted Robert, and we pieced together that he was Pam’s second cousin. They did not know of each other (but will soon meet each other for the first time–all because I’m searching for my grandfather’s parents).

Then, I found a third DNA connection that shared ancestors with Pam and Robert. Connie had a very extensive family tree online. Clearly, she took her genealogy seriously.

By this time, it was becoming clear that I was looking at someone in the Van Sten family as a possible great-grandparent. But I didn’t know if that would be Grandpa’s mother or his father.

I uploaded my DNA file to a website called GEDmatch. (You may have heard of it in the news recently when a serial killer was found through use of that site.) GEDmatch accepts DNA data from all the major testing companies and allows you to find connections from various other companies. I also uploaded by DNA to My Heritage and Family Tree DNA (FTDNA).

I felt hopeless when I found out Robert was distantly related to someone on my mom’s side. But then I realized that relationship was so distant that it didn’t explain why Pam was so closely related to me.

I talked to my brother, Jack, about signing up for an Ancestry membership so that I could see how closely he was related to our shared matches. (Ancestry and other companies can actually tell you how much DNA you share with another person, measure in centiMorgan. That is how you can estimate your potential relationship to that individual.)

I had a lot of circumstantial evidence that the Van Sten family was important in my search but no real proof. Every day, I look at the new connections that show up on Ancestry but I get no real new information.

Yesterday, when searching through documents online. I found a woman who checked into a poorhouse, described as “pregnant and destitute.” Her mother was a Van Sten. This woman, Nellie, gave birth close to my grandfather’s supposed birth date, in New York. And, I found a birth certificate…she had a son! I could find no other information online about his. Had I found my grandfather?

This morning I found that the answer was no. Sadly, I found a death certificate for the baby. He only lived a month.

I was ready to take a break from searching, at least until the results came in from another DNA test I took several weeks ago. Through FTDNA, I had taken a Y-DNA test. Y-DNA is something that is passed on from father to son only. So, in theory at least, it is possible that the DNA from my male ancestors could show up connected to a family surname many generations back.

Catherine Van Sten Olney, b. 1860, possibly the sister of my great-grandfather

The test came back today and it showed me as matching some individuals with the name “Vanstone.” So, I believe a Van Sten was my great-grandfather. There are two Van Sten brothers who were in the likely age group and lived in NYC at the right time.

Now I have to continue my detective work to see if I can determine which brother. Then I can turn my attention to my great-grandmother.

Today, though, I can’t believe I have traveled this far.