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:
- Case number
- 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