Orphan train riders, later in life, have described a wide range of experiences in their “adoptive” families. Some children were dearly loved, while others provided utilitarian roles as farm workers and servants. And, some were abused.
For modern eyes, the idea of placing children on a train and shipping them off to new families to raise them seems naive at best. But rather, than judging the orphan train experiment from a present-day viewpoint, we need to consider the situation at the beginning of the 20th century.
For this, let’s turn to an article from 1902, in Leslie’s Weekly, a popular publication of the time. The story begins:
Darkness in the narrow hallway; the sickening odor of the tenements; a woman stumbling along, her hands outstretched; the small, weak, pathetic cry of the very little child; a bundle in the corner which the woman lifts into her arms; the flutter of excitement in the tenement, and the crowding in of neighbors; a policeman arrives; and the baby, a foundling is taken to Bellevue hospital. Then a blank like this is filled out…
All quotes from Leslie’s Weekly magazine, 1902
The form lists where the child was found, its appearance, clothing, approximate age, sex, and by whom found. The magazine story conservatively estimated that 250 infants were “found” in New York every year.
When the little child, most helpless of all living things, lifts its tiny arms in appeal the answer is spontaneous. Whether you are man or woman you do not hesitate; your hand would at once give the little suppliant a gentle caress; your voice assumes a tone of soothing; the spirit of protecting kindness has entered into you. It is this same spirit which is saving the lives, every year of these two hundred and fifty foundling babies, who until recently, for the very want of it died. It is the balm of the mother’s kiss and the cradle of a mother’s arms that give health and growth and happiness to New York’s foundlings; and the system by which this beautiful work of mercy is done is one of the most unique and interesting in the metropolis.
Prior to the work of the New York Foundling Asylum and similar institutions, all foundlings were sent to Randall’s Island (commonly referred to as one of New York’s “island of the undesirables”). Historically, Randall’s Island has had an almshouse, psychiatric hospitals, a juvenile reformatory, and other city-run institutions. Randall’s Island reportedly had a facility with fine furnishings and qualified nurses, nearly 95% of all infants sent there died there. Before the development of modern infant formula, babies died of malnutrition. Disease was also rampant.
“Well, the little fellows are better off dead,” the attendants would say; “they wouldn’t have much to look forward to, anyway.”
With a change in how the little ones were cared for, a remarkable improvement is survival rate was noted. The new approach was summarized in one word by Leslie’s Weekly magazine–“mothering.”
It supplied that which the hospital (on Randall’s Island) could not give, the comforting and fondling and the little attentions, as well as the food and love of them…It is this “mothering” that has reduced the death rate among the foundlings of New York from 99 to a percent lower than all the other children of the city–a remarkable fact when one considers the conditions under which these foundlings begin their journey through the world, the lack of care and the exposure to which they are subjected at the outset.
Earlier, we looked at how a baby might be found. What would happen next to the little one? In 1902, the foundling would be taken to Bellevue Hospital, a city-run facility, and admitted to a children’s ward. By the next morning, the baby would be taken away by what today would be called a caseworker. One caseworker worked for the Catholic charities, and one for the Protestant charities.
Prior to being taken to the orphanage, the infant is baptized at the hospital, christened in the faith of the organization taking custody–half of the foundlings are marked Catholic and half are officially Protestant. Thus, all these babies are Christian.
Not long ago there was a protest from a Hebrew mother whose child, neglected by those in whose charge it was placed, was carried to Bellevue as a foundling and baptized in the Roman Catholic church. When she learned of this the shock against the strong religious faith of the mother was so great that she fainted. The woman herself sick, was unable to care for the child and it had remained in the care of the Guild of the Infant Savior.
The fact that the government agency provided for the baptism of infants, alternating between Catholic and Protestant, is unusual from a current-day perspective. The 1902 magazine story, though, emphasizes that the resulting care of the baby primarily arises from a “human,” not religious feeling, and that caretakers are…
…touched by the sight of the frail bit of flesh struggling for life; they hear the pitiful pleading of their little voice, and the tiny hands and feet, the soft eyes, the little body, all speak in irresistible argument. The religious ceremony is a formality to be quickly disposed of, so that the real personal care of the child may begin.
Rather than staying in the orphanage, the baby would be placed with a mother, often a woman who had recently lost a child. The foster mother would be paid $10-$12 a month to care for the baby until it is old enough to be weaned.
While the majority of foundlings are discovered in or near tenements where the poor and recent immigrants reside, some of the babies are left in expensive baskets or at locations suggesting they were born to women who are more economically well off. In the end, many of the little ones travel great distances on orphan trains to become part of new families.
And these foundlings grow to manhood and womanhood and to their graves under the shadow of their unknown origin. There are those, of course, who may never learn that they were foundlings; but in most cases guardians feel that their charges should be told the truth. Letters come frequently to the city officials from men who know that they were foundling babies. They ask to be told all that is known of their origin. The department of charities looks over the books and finds a record on bland No. 30 for lost children, and that is all that is ever known.
The New York Foundling Asylum led the way in developing a new system of care for abandoned infants and other children turned over for care. The Foundling recognized that children needed to feel loved, in addition to having their physical needs met.
While it now seems obvious that children have emotional needs, this was a revolutionary concept at the time. Placing the youngest of children in a home setting, allowed for these children to have better nutrition and to progress along a healthy emotional trajectory. The Foundling also closely monitored the children’s progress while in this foster care.
While the experiences of the children placed on orphan trains was mixed, it can be argued that these children may have had better chances at life than if they had remained in New York at that time.
Many newspaper accounts of orphan trains in the late 19th and early 20th century describe the children as little more than freight to be delivered. There is no acknowledgement of the complicated experiences of the little ones who come from New York City–the only place they have ever known–and then ride a train for hundreds of miles to be handed over to strangers who will be their new “parents.”
The Detroit Free Press, in 1883, provided a remarkably well-rounded depiction of a train from the New York Foundling Asylum.
The story begins by reporting that an unusually large number of men and women were at the train station that Tuesday morning. A telegram arrived informing the depot employees that a train with 40 children was running late.
The rail workers wondered why so many children were on board. A “benevolent-faced” woman in the crowd commented that the “little ones ‘ll be frightening hungry when they get to Detroit.” With this, members of the crowd began talking and realized they were all there to pick up children from the New York Foundling Asylum.
When the train finally arrived, the reporter went on board, and saw “dozens of bright young faces either comfortably surrounded by tiny blue hoods or looking out from under new felt hats.”
Then, Hugh Hughes, the placement agent for the Foundling Asylum, “a rosy faced, rather fat and decidedly jolly man stepped upon the platform of the car with a small note book in his hand and began calling names.”
As the crowd grew excited, the reporter focused on the children–“some were busy with their dolls, others hugging a picture book, and yet others with an apple or an orange, trying to eat. They were a bright, merry, yet tired lot. The first epoch of their lives had arrived.” A couple boys might have been about eight, but all the other children were from three to five years old.
The reporter was attuned to the experience of the little ones, giving voice to their trauma: “Knowing no parents and no home, save the asylum where they were on family, they were now to meet strange men and women who were to be fathers and mothers to them; they were to go to homes new to them, and entirely different from any they had ever known; they were to bid each other goodby forever.
“Did the babies realize their situation? Answers to such a question were plentiful. The older boys looked around on the smaller ones in a pitying sort of way, and quietly walked through the cars, kissing a baby here and there, yet withal speaking words of adieu to them in manly, hopeful tones. Then the little ones prattled good-bys to each other, exchanged dollies, kissed one another, and in many babyish ways proved conclusively that they knew the meaning, young as they were, of the occasion.
“Then the distribution began, and for over an hour there were scenes enacted which would have touched the heart of the most stoical. Each orphan had a bit of white cotton cloth sewed on his or her outer garment underneath the collar and between the shoulders. On this bit of cloth was written in indelible ink the asylum number–for each child in such institutions is numbered–its name age, nationality and any other necessary matters of record. It was both curious and sad to see the look of expectancy on the faces of the little ones as some new foster mother or father would enter the car…”
“They seemed to be mentally considering the disposition of those who were to take them, and as the distribution went on–the final separations becoming realities–many a curly head settled into the cushioned corner of a car seat, while an occasional sob told the sad story; then the little one last chosen accepted the caresses of its new friend silently sometimes wonderingly, but more frequently with a repose and confidence entirely at variance with its age.”
As the transfer of children to adults continued, the reporter turned his attention to the “parents.”
“It was a study, too, to see the efforts of those who took the children. There was the demonstrative woman who began at once to kiss, fondle and use baby-talk; there was the man who wanted to be tender and make a good first impression, but who couldn’t say anything but the manliest kind of manly things; there was the careful mother who at once wrapped her charge in shawls and cloaks and things; and in fact, men and women who had nearly every kind of notion as to the care of children, and with various ideas as to the best way in which to win the affections of little ones at once.”
The reporter was very observant of the varied emotions of the event: “Among others was a lady dressed in the deepest mourning, and her selection was a rosy-faced little girl whose hair fell in a shower of gold over the pretty little blue cape. Whether the choice was because of a resemblance to a baby lost does not matter. The recognition between the baby and her now mother was instantaneous and mutual. Both mother and child cried. The mother took her to her bosom as though afraid death or some evil agency would steal the treasure, and the baby nestled there as confidingly and contented as though she held the place by right of birth.”
The placement agent, Mr. Hughes, commented: “Now that will be a happy choice, because they took to each other naturally.”
The reporter replied: “It seems hard, though, this breaking up of infant associations…” In response, the placement agent stated: “It does at first glance, and especially to those who have given the subject no thought.”
The reporter challenged Mr. Hughes a bit: “Well, isn’t it paid?”
To which the placement agent replied: “In a measure, yes. But if you will study the subject in all of its phases, I think you will agree it is a noble work and the best system possible.” Mr. Hughes explained that parents are only chosen after a “careful, personal investigation by the agent of all who expressed a wish to adopt children. Their homes, their religious, social and business habits were investigated, and finally recommendations are required. Generally these recommendations are from the priests to whose parishes the applicants belong.”
When questioned further, Mr. Hughes responded: “Bless you, we don’t lose sight of a child! Not a child ever leaves our care until it has reached manhood or womanhood. The children are distributed as you have seen, and we keep a record, a complete, accurate record of everything. The parish priests and other persons among the laity keep watch and guard over them. Each orphan has a sub-guardian so to speak, who assumes the duty of watching over its growth.”
And if a child has been “placed where improper social or religious influences exist, or where for some other reason the child is not happy?”
“We invariably recall it and care for it until we can find a desirable home for it. We are very seldom called upon to do this, but when we find it necessary we do not hesitate or fail in correcting the evil.”
“These foundlings are nameless.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch–May 15, 1901
The little ones had been on the orphan train for two days when it pulled into St. Louis Union Station on Tuesday evening, May 14, 1901. Fifty-two children, with the youngest being about three years of age, and the oldest about six, were accompanied by just three adults. There were two Sisters of Charity, and one Placement Agent, Charles P. O’Hara, all from the New York Foundling Asylum.
The adults knew the drill well–keep the little ones occupied as much as possible on the train, pull into the station, get the children cleaned up, fed, rested, and then the next day, dress them up as the most irresistible little waifs anyone has ever laid eyes on.
That night, the children and their caretakers slept in their special train car. On Wednesday morning, 15 youngsters were handed over to their new families. According to a newspaper account at the time, most of the children “greeted their new parents as if they recognized them and were returning after a brief absence.”
The caretakers had told the little ones that they had been away at school and they were returning to their “mamas and papas.” In 1901, the prevailing thought was that children should not know that they were adopted. It was best that they not know the circumstances into which they had been born and how they had come to the New York Foundling Asylum.
That morning, each new parent showed a numbered ticket to the representative from the Foundling Asylum, and that number was matched to a numbered tag sewn into the clothing of a particular child. Thus each little one was matched with the preordained family. The entire process was quite efficient, taking only a few minutes, and the remaining children were placed on the trains that would take them to their final destinations.
An onlooker noted the neat appearance of the children, and Mr. O’Hara explained: “Yes, we commenced washing them at 12 o’clock yesterday. We got through this morning. We couldn’t do the work faster because there were so many of them. They travel in their old clothes, so as to have fresh ones at their destination, and each was given a bath and dressed in clean clothes.”
By 7:35 a.m., 30 children left with two Sisters of Charity, heading toward Osage and Cole Counties in Central Missouri. The other youngsters boarded the 8:45 a.m. train to Vienna, in Maries County. G. Whitling Swayne, the Traveling Agent for the Foundling Asylum, accompanied the smaller group.
Mr. Swayne was responsible for finding homes for the children. He regularly traversed the countryside, talking with small-town parish priests as well as farmers, appealing to their Catholic faith, and their own interests, to take in one or perhaps two of the little ones. Little girls could provide companionship for women who worked at home while the men were taking care of crops and livestock. Boys from the Foundling Asylum would learn to work beside the men, becoming valuable farmhands.
For Mr. Swayne, 1901 was a good year. He had found families for more than 100 youngsters, with all of the families being in Missouri.
On that afternoon of May 15, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a photograph of five of the children, dressed to appeal to even the most hardened heart. There were three little girls in dresses with bows at the collar and bonnets on their heads and two boys in suits of a style popular at the time, also with large bows at the collars, and with stylish hats on their heads.
Underneath that photo in the newspaper, the caption states: “These foundlings are nameless.” This was not true. Each child had a name while living at the “orphanage,” though that name may, or may not, have been connected to the child’s family of origin. Some children were named by a parent with the name being shared with the Foundling Asylum when the child was left there. Other children were dropped off anonymously or were found abandoned on the city streets. In those cases, the Asylum gave them a name that would follow them to their new families.
My grandfather was on that train in 1901. He was five years old, and he had a piece of fabric attached to his jacket with a name, Joseph Auer, handwritten in ink. Little Joseph had no idea who he really was or where he had come from.
Joseph would grow up within the Markway family of Wardsville, Missouri. He was fortunate that many of his fellow orphan train riders would live in the same rural community and attend the same school. Later some of them would attend the same church in nearby Jefferson City, and he would talk with them after Mass. He maintained lifelong bonds with the only other people who could understand his journey.
It took me a few years to find my grandfather’s birth mother, Abbie Doyle. As I pieced together Abbie’s life as best I could from records and small town newspapers, it was clear that Abbie was very close to her her uncle, Michael Daniel Foley and his wife, Margaret Brown Foley. There were newspaper accounts of Abbie visiting them in Fall River, Massachusetts around Christmas time, and Abbie was visiting them while pregnant with my grandfather.
This raised questions for me. I knew Abbie’s father had died in 1881, when she was just eight years old. In my five years of searching, though, I could not find what had become of her mother, Margaret Foley Doyle.
Abbie’s parents had married in 1856. Her father was born in County Kerry, Ireland, likely near Killarney. Jeremiah Doyle was wounded early in the American Civil War. Abbie’s parents show up in United States Census records in 1860, 1870, and 1880. Nearly all of the 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire, so that time is a mystery regarding the Doyle family.
When Jeremiah died, Margaret was somewhere between 45 and 49 years of age–records give varying estimates of her age. She had young adult sons who likely worked to support the family financially after their father’s death. I had wondered if circumstances forced Margaret to go to work outside the home as well.
The psychologist in me wondered what life was like for Abbie. She lost her father when she would have been in the equivalent of 2nd to 3rd grade. Abbie’s mother surely would have been grief-stricken. Who would have been there for Abbie?
Why did Abbie’s mother disappear from the records? Record-keeping in Massachusetts and the rest of New England tended to be meticulous. I had found birth, marriage, and death records on many other family members from that time. Margaret Foley Doyle kept eluding me…
Then last week, I somehow hit upon the perfect search terms, and found a death record. Margaret Foley Doyle died of cancer on July 16, 1890. So, finally, I knew another piece of Abbie’s story. She lost her father at eight, and her mother at 17.
I could not help but wonder what those intervening years had been like…and then I discovered a partial answer to this question…
With the date of Margaret Doyle’s death, I searched historical newspapers and there, in the Transcript-Telegram from Holyoke, Massachusetts, I found a notice of her death.
This information about Margaret helped complete a picture of Abbie’s early life. Abbie lost her father, and to some extent it appears, she lost her mother that very same year. Two years later, in 1892, her brother, Jeremiah, died at the age of 23. Then, just 17 months later, Abbie lost her sister, Margaret, to tuberculosis at age 26, in 1893.
I began searching for Grandpa’s origins because his early life story was missing so many pieces. Who were his parents? Why didn’t they keep him? Did they love him?
Such simple questions–but simple questions have complicated answers.
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
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.