In the spring of 2017, I began looking for my grandfather’s parents. Grandpa was born in 1896 and left at an orphanage, the New York Foundling Asylum. In the 1900 United State Census he is listed as an “inmate” there.
In 1901, he was placed on an “orphan train” along with about 50 other children, and he rode from New York City to rural central Missouri. He was placed with one or two people (the records are unclear) before ending up with the Fred Markway family in Wardsville, near Jefferson City.
Why was I searching for my grandfather’s parents 47 years after his death? I can’t really explain it, but I felt a need to do it for him.
I have many memories of Grandpa. He was kind, funny, and attentive. I remember the Chevy that he drove. Every Tuesday, he came to visit my family and he always brought me a small bag of Planter’s Peanuts. He came to every one of my baseball games.
Grandpa died when I was just 11. As I was young, I only remember his light-hearted side.
My older siblings remember a more complex man. Jack remembers Grandpa mentioning things that weighed on him–such as being left at an orphanage, and serving in World War I. Jack had a vague memory of Grandpa once saying that his birth mother was named Abbie Doyle.
While Grandpa had been gone since 1970, I feel he has remained with me. I am a psychologist, a career choice that some of my family members found very odd. My father, shortly before his death in 1996, told me that my grandfather (who worked as an auto mechanic) owned a collection of books by Sigmund Freud.
I don’t really know why I began searching for my grandfather’s parents in 2017. But one reason had to be that it now seemed possible to find an answer. Modern consumer DNA testing offered by companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe allow people to find family connections that go back several generations. Technology offered hope.
Over the following two to three years, I was able to track down Grandpa’s family. His father likely was a George Vansten from Brooklyn. Somehow, Grandpa did know his mother’s name–Abbie Doyle. She was from around Springfield, Massachusetts. I eventually found records showing that she lived in New York City.
Technology and various historical records led me to Grandpa’s origins. But even with all the things I had found, my grandfather’s story was incomplete.
How did he know his mother’s name?
Earlier this year (2021), I received a bit of information from the New York Foundling. They sent me copies of an index card from their records and a letter from pastor of St. Stanislaus Church in Wardsville, MO. The index card was a record of Grandpa being transferred from the care of the Foundling Asylum to the Markway family, and then an annual record of how Grandpa was doing with the new family. Notes were very brief, generally stating he was doing well, and in later years, mentioning that he worked on the farm with his “brothers.”
On the back of the index card was a surprising bit of information. A note dated December 13, 1926 said: “Joseph asking about his history. Joseph Markway”
What does this mean? Did he go to New York and ask about his mother? Was he told her name on that date?
Technology helped me identify Grandpa’s parents, but it could not tell me the story.
I accepted that I would never know exactly what happened, but I had already learned more than I could have hoped.
This whole process had been an incredibly emotional journey, and along the way my family reconnected. My immediate and extended families had their share of struggles over the years, but in my searching, I talked with cousins I hadn’t seen in years. My siblings and I shared memories and put pieces together that helped us understand each other better. It seemed Grandpa was working to bring us together.
Then, a few weeks ago, one of my cousins was going through some things in his parents’ house. His mother had died a couple years ago, and his father was moving to a new place. My cousin, Gary, found a surprise–a box of Grandpa’s possessions–a time capsule of Grandpa’s life.
There was a large family portrait of Grandpa with his Markway family. There were items related to his service in World War I–when he was drafted, where he went to basic training, and when he was discharged from the Army. Numerous records, all listing his birthplace as “unknown.” Photos of his children, including numerous pictures of his daughter who died at 17 months of age.
There was a marriage certificate from St. George Church in Affton, Missouri. Why my grandparents married in St. Louis County on a Monday, I likely will never know.
Then, there was this letter–a letter from the New York Foundling Hospital dated January 7, 1926. It reads:
My dear Joseph:
Your letter to the Catholic Home Bureau was referred to us, as this is the Institution that placed you in a foster home.
I have looked up the records and I have nothing to show that your parents are living. Your mother brought you here on May 13, 1896. Her name was Abbie Doyle. As you know, you were born on April 30, 1896. I will get your baptismal record by writing to the Hospital where you were born, and I might be able to get a record of your birth. At least I will try to do so, the first time I have anybody going to the Bureau of Statistics. If I am successful and secure this, I will mail it to you at once. At any rate, you will hear from me again. I need not say that many children are left without their parents in infancy, you surely can appreciate it, but as no inquiry was every made concerning you, I cannot put you in touch with anybody belonging to you. If such inquiry should ever be made, I will be only too happy to write you.
Begging God to bless you and hoping the new year will be a very successful one, I am
Very sincerely yours,
Sister M. Cyrilla
It took me several days to process this new information. Grandpa received this letter in January. Eleven months later, he requested more information from the Foundling–did he do this in person? I don’t know for sure–I can only speculate. I do know that Grandpa later received his baptismal certificate. Sister Cyrilla kept her word and sent that to him. As for his birth record, I don’t know if he ever saw this, but I found it in the New York City Archives. The birth record listed his mother as Adelaide Auer and his father as Joseph King, both names were made up.
In all my searching I had already discovered he had been born at Misericordia Hospital, a facility that served indigent women, many of them giving birth out of wedlock. I had assumed he had been born there to a single mother, and that the hospital had transferred him to the Foundling Asylum.
But this new information revealed my version of Grandpa’s story was incorrect. Abbie Doyle, his mother, carried him in her own arms when she left the hospital. She carried him to the Foundling Asylum, to a place that could care for him. She identified herself by name as she handed him over.
People who have known about my search over the past four years have asked me if I wish I had known about this letter from the beginning.
I have mixed emotions. But my conclusion is no–I don’t wish that I had known. If the letter had surfaced earlier, I likely would not have searched. I would not have learned so much about my ancestors. I would not have learned so much about the Foundling Home and my grandfather’s story.
I also realize I was not just searching for my grandfather. There was something missing for me, something I have found in the process. The struggles of my ancestors allow me to appreciate my imperfect family. No matter how easy we have it, life is hard. But, each of us, just like Abbie, hold the next generation in our arms and do our best, somehow, to find a way to show that we love them.
Between 1854 and 1927, and estimated 250,000 children were transported on “orphan trains” to new families. While a small percentage of those children were old enough to remember their biological families before going to orphanage or agency care, many knew nothing of their family origins and spent their entire lives wondering how they came into this world.
My grandfather was left at the New York Foundling about two weeks after being born in 1896. He did not know how he ended up there.
Joseph John Markway’s rode an orphan train to Missouri at the age of five, where he ended up with the Fred Markway family in Wardsville, near Jefferson City, the state capital.
Grandpa died in 1970, when I was 11. I was not old enough to appreciate that he was haunted by not knowing where he was born or even who his parents were. Throughout my life I heard stories about Grandpa going back to New York looking for his mother. No one seemed to know the details though. Did he find out who she was? Did he track her down and meet her? Everybody seemed to remember the story a little differently.
Over the years, I (and my siblings) made fleeting attempts to get information from the Foundling, but the most we ever learned was when he came to the Foundling and when he came to Missouri.
In 2017, I felt an overwhelming urge to find Grandpa’s origins. Ancestry DNA ads on television got me thinking it might be possible. I began researching what I could learn from DNA tests such as Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and Family Tree DNA. I ran across a couple Facebook groups–DNA Detectives and DD Social–created by genetic genealogist, Ce Ce Moore.
With DNA testing and all that I learned about how to interpret the results, I was able to identify Grandpa’s parents.
I have since helped some other orphan train descendants find their ancestor’s biological parents. I then started a Facebook group called Orphan Train DNA where members help each other in their searching and share historical information. I thought it might be helpful for me to describe how I found my grandfather’s parents so others could follow similar steps.
I began the genetic journey by deciding what DNA test to take. I went with Ancestry DNA as it has the largest database of customers, and therefore, had the most potential DNA matches (potential genetic relatives). Ancestry also has a huge number of historical records to aid in research.
Step 1: Take a DNA Test. I recommend AncestryDNA first. If you can afford to take a second one, also take 23andMe.
As soon as the test arrived, I filled the vial with saliva and returned it for analysis. A few weeks later, my results were in. I saw that my brother, Jack, had already tested, as had my first cousin, Gary. The first thing I did was search for the surname Aner (what I thought was my grandfather’s original surname) to see if I had any relatives with that name. I did not.
My search would not be easy. I had over 40,000 relatives, people who shared at least a small amount of DNA with me, and I would have to begin sorting through my DNA matches to see how we might connect.
Step 2: Identify Known Family Lines and Color-Code Them on Ancestry.
Through DNA Detectives, I had learned how to do this. I had also learned to look at the amount of shared DNA to estimate how closely my matches might be related to me.
Step 3: Look at How Much DNA is Shared/Learn about Centimorgans
Ancestry listed the shared amount of DNA, measured in centimorgans (cM’s), for each match. Here are a couple examples:
Ancestry and other sites, in addition to showing the amount of cM’s shared, give an estimate of how you might be connected. Since I knew my brother and cousin, I knew the exact relationships. If I hadn’t known the relationship, I could have clicked on the number of cM’s and I would have seen all the possible relationships that could exist with the amount of shared DNA:
The next step for me was to begin sorting my DNA matches into different ancestral lines. This was fairly easy in the beginning because I knew the surnames of my maternal grandparents (Kneisly and Yarnell) and their parents (Kneisly, Yarnell, Dunham, Roark). I also knew my father’s maternal side (Bruegging and Maus).
I went through my highest matches and separated them into maternal and paternal sides. Ancestry allowed me to mark which side they came from–I used a star for maternal side matches. I used one of the colored dots for paternal matches. This was easy to do.
I had some difficulty at first identifying very many paternal side matches. (My orphan train grandfather was on my paternal side.) Many of my maternal ancestral lines came to America in the 1600s. They had very large families. The majority of my matches, by far, were from my maternal side.
Step 4: Continue to Refine Ancestral Lines and Color-Code
Fortunately, since my paternal first cousin, Gary had tested, that helped me identify some relatives from my paternal side.
As I sorted my highest matches into my paternal and maternal sides, I clicked on “shared matches” for each individual. I then placed each of those shared matches into the maternal or paternal categories, assuming that they fell into a particular line based on who they shared DNA with.
This method was not foolproof, however. As I used colored dots to sort my matches, I found that some of these individuals matched both my paternal and maternal sides. (I eventually learned that some of my matches somehow connected in the distant past, most likely in Ireland, but perhaps other places as well. I also learned that this is not unusual.)
Step 5: Identify DNA Matches that Appear to Connect with Your Orphan Train Ancestor
After separating my matches into paternal and maternal lines, I used the same concept to separate my paternal lines according to whether they matched my paternal grandmother’s side of the family or not. I began by color-coding a few matches with surnames that I recognized from my grandmother’s side. I then looked at the shared matches of these individuals and marking all those shared matches with the same color.
At this point, the remaining people that shared DNA with me, my brother, and with my cousin Gary, must all be related through my Grandfather’s ancestors.
The number of individuals seeming to connect through my grandfather was relatively small. I sent messages to several of them, without getting many responses. I didn’t really know what to say in a message–what was I really asking? I realized that it was very unlikely that I would get any information from others unless I had a specific question. I needed to look at any available family trees that my matches had posted on Ancestry, and see if there were any names showing up in multiple family trees.
Step 6: Study Family Trees of DNA Matches in Your Orphan Train Ancestor’s Lines
Unfortunately, not many of these individuals had posted trees. There was one person who had an extensive family tree, though. This person, Connie, shared DNA with one clear group of people among my grandfather’s line, but not with another group. I realized I had found my grandfather’s paternal and maternal relatives. But I had no idea which was which. Connie responded to messages and was very interested, but I needed more information.
Step 7: Build Out Family Trees of Targeted Matches as Best You Can
I looked at those DNA matches that also connected with Connie. One of those matches shared 98 cMs with me, meaning she might be a third cousin (sharing great great grandparents with me). I reached out to Pam in a message. She had a family tree posted but it didn’t have the family name I was looking for. The surname Van Sten appeared to be the link. Through several messages back and forth with Pam, I eventually learned she descended from the Van Sten family as well. I had my link. This was confirmed when I received a response from a third shared DNA match, Robert.
But I still did not know if I was closing in on my grandfather’s mother or his father.
Step 8: “Fish in All Ponds”
When searching for genetic family, you need to be in as many DNA databases as possible. I also tested with 23andMe. I downloaded my DNA file from Ancestry, and uploaded in to GEDmatch and MyHeritage. All of these sites gave me additional matches to explore.
In DNA Detectives, I had read about another type of DNA test. Y-DNA is passed down along paternal lines, from paternal grandfather to father to son. A Y-DNA test had the potential to identify the family name of my grandfather’s father, but it was a gamble. The test is not cheap and the results depend solely on who else has tested. I decided to give it a try.
The only company offering Y-DNA testing was Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). Upon receiving the kit, I promptly followed the instructions and then returned it. I waited and waited for the results. When they were ready, I anxiously signed in.
At the level I had tested (37 markers–37 units of Y-DNA were examined), I had seven matches. Two were named Palmer, and there were four other surnames. I felt disappointed at first. Then I noticed the surname Vanstone. Perhaps at some point in the distant past the name Vanstone became Van Sten for some member of the family.
I then upgraded my Y-DNA test to 111 markers, the most extensive (and most expensive) test available. The results came back with four matches, two of them named Vanstone. (Through considerable research I found that the names Vanstone and Vansten could be traced in historical records back to Devon, England. I also learned that the name “Van Sten” was originally Vansten when the family came to the United States in the 1830s.)
I now knew that Vansten was my grandfather’s paternal side. (From this point, I will use the spelling Vansten.)
There were two Vansten males that were candidates to be identified as Grandpa’s father. One had known descendants and one did not. I will not go into all the details here, but I was able to determine that George Vansten is most likely to have been my great-grandfather.
Step 9: Look at Newspapers and Other Historical Records
George never married, but he was engaged for several years. His family was in the ice business. George traveled some–I have found records of him in several cities in New York state, in Pennsylvania, and in Massachusetts. He participated in many social events. The Vanstens were socially prominent and attended the wedding of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s daughter in New York.
Through general genealogy research, as well as newspapers, I learned that the Vanstens also endured tragedy. George’s mother died when he was young. He had two siblings who died before their fifth birthdays.
After nearly two years of research, I was talking to my brother Jack one day. Jack is older than I and knew my grandfather well. Jack, whose formal name is Joseph John, was named after Grandpa. Jack casually told me that Grandpa had stated that his mother was “Abbie Doyle.”
I was stunned. I had no idea Grandpa knew his mother’s name. I had no idea how he would have known. I had heard a rumor that he went to New York and learned her name, but I didn’t know that this was anything other than a family story. I had never heard enough details to know that he had learned a name.
I then searched all my DNA matches for the name Doyle. This didn’t help. Doyle is a fairly common name, and all the matches I found were on my mother’s side.
I then searched all the family trees of my DNA matches on Ancestry, looking for the name Doyle. It was then that I noticed something…
Some of these DNA matches shared DNA with me, with matches on my mother’s side, and with my paternal cousin, Gary! I had marked all these people as maternal matches because they connected with my maternal side. This had caused me to overlook that they also matched my paternal side.
Once I separated out those that also matched Gary, a pattern emerged. There was a small, but significant, number of them that matched each other. I now had a paternal line that did not connect with any of the Vansten descendants. I had found my grandfather’s maternal side.
I feverishly began looking through the family trees of these people. In May of 2019, in one of those family trees, I found this:
This appeared to be my great-grandmother, but how would I prove this?
I started building family trees for my matches. This was very difficult, though–most of them didn’t show any family trees on Ancestry, not one of them was named Doyle, and many of them used some type of nickname on Ancestry. I didn’t know who any of them were.
I reached out to a fairly distant match. Fortunately, she responded. I was vague initially, stating I was curious how we might be related. After she expressed a willingness to explore our possible connections, I told her what I was looking for–my grandfather’s mother. As we continued to look at our shared connections and our possible relationship, she replied that this could very well be my great-grandmother.
It felt so good to have someone acknowledge that I might be on the right track. Somehow it felt as though, 123 years after my grandfather’s birth, someone was acknowledging him as part of his biological family.
I continued to research this Doyle family. I could not put the pieces together. I found other Abigal Doyle’s. I found other Doyles sharing the same names as the first Abbie’s siblings. I was so confused. Was I wrong with my first hypothesis? Who was this Abbie Doyle from Massachusetts?
Somewhere along the way I learned about the naming patterns in Irish families–first sons named after paternal grandfather, first daughters named after maternal grandmother, and many other generally followed traditions…all of which meaning that there were a limited number of names used generation after generation…but to complicate things, these patterns were not always followed perfectly…
I eventually received a response to a message I had sent to a woman who had not used her own name on Ancestry. She provided me with some family history–I was then able to build out the Doyle family tree. This also allowed me to do more research. I was able to confirm my connections to the descendants of Jeremiah Doyle and Margaret Foley.
I found records of Abbie Doyle in and around Springfield, Massachusetts. She was born in 1873. Her father was Jeremiah Doyle and her mother was Margaret Foley Doyle. Jeremiah died when Abbie was eight. A brother died when she was 19, and a sister died one year later. Life must have been very hard.
Local newspapers told me more. In 1895, at the age of 21, Abbie was living with her aunt and uncle, Michael Foley and Margaret Brown Foley. In 1896, Abbie visited her aunt and uncle and then returned to where she had been living–New York City!
I now had proof that Abbie was living in New York at the time Grandpa was born.
I continued to look for records, stories, and DNA connections related to Abbie. I found her marriage record–she married William Dolan in 1898, and they then lived in New York. A newspaper story mentioned her singing in Christmas eve services in Fall River, Massachusetts. Conducting the choir was William Dolan. I can’t prove that where Abbie met her future husband, but it would make sense.
Some of my DNA connections descend from Abbie and William Dolan. I already had considerable evidence that I had found Grandpa’s mother, but now I felt certain.
Step 10: Remember to Follow the DNA, Not Names
(Along the way, I found my grandfather’s birth certificate by using a website from an Italian Genealogical Society. The site links to numerous databases for New York City–it is not only for those of Italians descent. My grandfather was known as “Joseph Aner” but I found his birth certificate filed under Joseph Auer.” His parents were named as Adelaide Auer and Joseph King. It is not surprising that false names were used. At the time, it was thought best that the child would never be able to trace his parents.)
As I built trees for these matches, I looked up other descendants of Abbie on Facebook and other sites. I found something startling–one of Abbie’s descendants lived in Jefferson City, Missouri, my hometown. He and his family belonged to the same Catholic parish I did while growing up. The younger members of this family attended my high school. I reached out via email and received an incredibly kind and accepting response.
I spent so much time looking for Grandpa’s origins, and it turned out that parts of his biological family were right here in my hometown.
At the time I am writing this, it has been about four and a half years since I started searching. I have learned so much about DNA, the orphan trains, and my family. In 2019, I spoke to guests at the 150th anniversary celebration of the New York Foundling. I use what I have learned to help others who are searching.
Feel free to comment, to ask questions, and to tell your own story. Thank you for reading.
An estimated 100,000 children from the New York Foundling Asylum rode orphan trains and found new families. Those orphan train riders now have millions of descendants in the United States.
My grandfather was born in New York in 1896, and he rode the orphan train twice, ultimately ending up with the Fred Markway family in Wardsville, Missouri.
I spent years looking for information regarding my grandfather’s origins. Ultimately, I found some answers via DNA testing (more on DNA testing in my next post). In the process, I researched the history of orphan trains, and the history of the New York Foundling Asylum in particular.
I now lead a Facebook group (Orphan Train DNA), along with Ann Flaherty, for orphan train descendants trying to solve their family mysteries. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions with my responses. (Please note that this information is specific to the New York Foundling. In the future, I will share information related to the Children’s Aid Society and other orphan train agencies.)
Is there a “master list” of orphan train riders and the families that took them in?
Not really. Records of trains and riders from the NY Foundling are practically non-existent. There are some newspaper accounts of trains coming to communities. The National Orphan Train Complex will do a search for a reasonable fee, but records are more available from the Children’s Aid Society and other agencies other than the NY Foundling. But…it is worth contacting the National Orphan Train Complex just in case.
My ancestor’s name was ________________. Why can’t I find any records with that name?
Records may or may not exist for the name you associate with your ancestor. Many infants were left at the Foundling Asylum without a name. Others were left with just a first name. Some had their name changed. A high percentage of infants left at the Foundling were born out of wedlock. There was a great deal of shame associated with such circumstances. My grandfather knew the name he had as a child. He is listed in the 1900 United States Census under that name as an “inmate” (resident) of the Foundling Asylum. He then went on an orphan train and lived with three different families, before ultimately, finding a true home with the fourth family. This leads right into the next question…
Why can’t I find my ancestor’s birth certificate?
Ah…this question has many answers, all of which require some understanding of the times. First of all, the birth may not have been registered. Many children were born into dire poverty and desperate circumstances. Most infants that arrived at the Foundling did not have a happy background. Most were left there anonymously. Even if the birth was registered, the information of the birth certificate may have been false. (My grandfather’s birth certificate has fictitious names for his parents–I learned their names through a lot of work with DNA results.) Sometimes children were named at the Foundling Asylum. So, in summary, a birth may not have been registered, or it may have been registered under a name other than the one you know. Also, not all children brought to the Foundling were born in New York. Your ancestor may have been born in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, or Massachusetts, for example.
How do I search for a birth certificate?
You can search on sites such as Ancestry.com. I have also found it helpful to look at www.italiangen.org. This site connects to multiple databases for the city of New York. Look under the name you believe your ancestor was given at birth, but also search under alternate spellings. There are ways to use “wildcards” in your search in case their might be a spelling mistake, or a transcription error. The http://www.italiangen.org site has instructions on using wildcards. You can also search vital records for various states.
I know my ancestor came from the NY Foundling, but he/she doesn’t show up on the census records as being there. Why?
To show up on the census, your ancestor would have had to be the NY Foundling’s physical location when the census took place. The Foundling Asylum was not just a building–it was a complex program. Your ancestor could have been in a “foster home” affiliated with the Foundling. Many infants were placed out in foster care for their first two years. This allowed them to be with women who could nurse them. Some records suggest that half or more of the infants brought to the Foundling Asylum were placed out. So, you may be correct that your ancestor was under the care of the Foundling–but they may have been living with a family and not in an institution.
I understand New York passed a new law in 2019 opening up adoption records. Does that mean I can get new records from the Foundling now?
Unfortunately, no. The new law allows adoptees (and direct descendants) to get original birth certificates, but it does not open any other records.
I have not found any adoption records. Why not?
Only a relatively small percentage of orphan train riders from the Foundling were formally adopted. The Foundling organization preferred that children not be formally adopted–without formal adoption, the Foundling could remove a child from the home if necessary, but the Foundling would not be able to do so once a formal adoption occurred. If your ancestor was adopted that would be a matter of local laws and those records might be with the county court.
Does the Foundling have all the records or have some of them been stored elsewhere?
Here is what I have been told by representatives from the Foundling: “All records are at The New York Foundling but are not available for viewing. All adoption records are sealed therefore families receive non-identifying information in the form of a letter. No copies of the documents are provided.”
What records might I possibly get from the NY Foundling?
According to the Foundling:
General information the orphan train riders could receive are:
Date entered care at NYF
Date of birth
Baptismal Date, Church and Reverend
Orphan Train: date placed with family, Family name, and State
Date of adoption
Date of Indenture
Please note that this information is not available to all because information may be missing from documents or information has faded over time.
We cannot provide parents name, date of birth, place of birth or astrology.”
How can I learn more about my ancestor’s history when all I have is a first name?
It is sometimes, but not always, possible to take a DNA test and do a lot of detective work to track down your ancestor’s family of origin. I was fortunate enough to do so and have helped some other people do so. I have also attempted to help some others without success. My next post will explain the basics of this process. The Facebook group, Orphan Train DNA, also helps people learn the process. I also encourage you to join the Facebook group, DNA Detectives, that is filled with people that will help you to learn how to use DNA results to trace your family history.
Coming soon–Using DNA to trace find your orphan train rider’s ancestry