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.
While researching the Yarnell branch of my family, I came across an amazing piece of history. I had long known that the Yarnell (also spelled Yarnall) family is well-documented from colonial America to the present.
Philip and Francis Yarnall came to America in 1683 to be part of William Penn’s new colony of Pennsylvania. Philip Yarnall is my 7th great-grandfather.
Recently, I thought to look at eBay for items related to my family history. One particular item caught my eye—a book titled Forty Years of Friendship: Correspondence of Lord Coleridge and Ellis Yarnall.
Ellis Yarnall was a great great grandson of Philip—I will have to do more work on the family tree to calculate our exact genealogical relationship.
Ellis was very well-traveled and was, truly, a citizen of the world. His friend, Lord Coleridge, was an English lawyer, judge and Liberal politician. He held the posts, in turn, of Solicitor General for England and Wales, Attorney General for England and Wales, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and Lord Chief Justice of England.
I purchased Forty Years of Friendship, thinking there might be an interesting bit or two of family details, but I’ve found it to be an incredible piece of history. The letters between Coleridge and Yarnall provide a window into the thoughts of two prominent gentleman about the events of their times—and they contain ideas very relevant to the present day.
The book was published in 1911, about six years after the death of Ellis. It was edited by Charlton Yarnall, Ellis’s son. (Charlton is a fascinating character himself, and I may write about him down the road.) The book opens with letters dated in 1856, as the two men discuss issues of race and slavery.
Regarding slavery, Coleridge states: “It has always seemed to me that there are peculiarities in the question which a foreigner cannot understand. I have heard Americans, with whom on every other subject I seemed to agree generally in feeling and principle, use language on this which filled me with horror, and I am sincerely persuaded that there must be something more than a foreigner can see, on the surface of the question, to explain the intense disgust which very good and gentle people among you feel for negroes and negro blood.”
Coleridge does not express support for immediate abolition of slavery, though, as “Southern men cannot be expected to submit patiently to absolute ruin, and to what I suppose would be in many cases confiscation.” He continues: “But what puzzles me is to hear the institution, pure and simple, defended, and that nothing seems to be done, or attempted to mitigate its iniquities or prepare the way for gradual abolition.”
Coleridge’s next letter brings up the presidential election of 1856, a time when tensions were running quite high in the buildup to the Civil War: “At Washington one would expect some, at least, of the best men in America to be met together and the prevailing tone of the place ought to be decorous and gentlemanlike…I really feel that either we do not in the least understand America, or else that what is bad and ruffianly has a greater ascendancy there than any true friend of liberty can think of without sorrow and mortification.”
Ellis Yarnall replies: “I rejoice that you feel interest in the great struggle in which we are engaged in this country…You do well then to watch the present contest, and your sympathy with those of us who are struggling for the success of liberal principles, is well bestowed. I have given myself to the cause with ardour, and there are many around me who are like-minded. Here in Philadelphia there is a great deal to be done; we are in one sense a pro-slavery community, for the influence of the money-getting spirit is very much opposed to the love of a wise liberty. Then, too, people of Southern birth are among us, and there have been marriage connections and there is neighbourhood—a sort of border feeling. And, as you say, timid and refined people are averse to entering into what they call politics.”
Yarnall then gets more specific: “In regard to this Slavery question the South is now greatly excited: they are a fiery people and at present are not in a condition to listen to reason. Their leaders have told them the North is refusing them their rights, and the story is believed.” Later Yarnall notes that a Southern leader had advised his constituents that if Mr. Fremont wins the election, then Southerners should “march to Washington and seize the Archives and the Treasury.”
To be continued…To be notified of future articles, enter your email in the box in the right side of this page and click Follow.
“I think healing happens in spite of what actually goes on. It creeps up on you.” –Kim Schotte
My grandfather, Joseph Aner was born on the last day of April in 1896. He was not given a middle name. This fact bothered him throughout his life as he viewed this as a sign of how quickly he was given away to be placed in an orphanage. It is not even clear than his surname was Aner—one database interprets the handwriting as saying his name was “Auer.” The New York Foundling Home records say it was Aner.
The question of his original surname is unanswerable and irrelevant really—whatever the name, it was made up. Neither of his parents bore that name. That name, like the those of his mother and father, was created to take away any traces of his true identity.
Prior to the age of five—I have not yet been able to find out exactly when—he was placed on an “orphan train” to Nebraska where he was taken in by a couple willing to raise a child. Unfortunately, the mother in that family died, and the father was unable to both work and take care of a little boy. Joseph returned to the Foundling Home to live.
What did it feel like not to have a family as a young child? Then to have one for a short time? Then to return to the orphanage?
As a psychologist, I know that children often have a type of “magical thinking” where they blame themselves as a means of making sense of their experiences. What did Grandpa think and feel?
I have talked with various people who know bits and pieces of my grandfather’s life. I know that when he came to Wardsville, Missouri, he first went to a family where he was physically abused. I have heard details of this, but see no benefit of sharing them here. Somehow he was then taken in by the Markway family, a surname he ultimately took on as his own, a name I now share.
When I began searching for Grandpa’s history, I was focused on finding his parents. After two years of searching, I knew the name of his father. A year later, I knew his mother. And, I had a photo of her.
I thought my search was complete.
But then new questions emerged.
I had noticed that Grandpa had changed his date of birth on documents. Why? Also, he had told a few of his descendants that his mother was named Abbie Doyle. How had he discovered her name? His actual birth date?
My mother had once said that Grandpa had gone back to New York and found his mother. But she didn’t know any details. This could explain how he would know her name. I have speculated that learned his actual birth date on that trip. How would I ever know if this is true?
I wondered how Grandpa ended up with the Markway family. I heard from someone in the family that the parish priest came to the Markways and persuaded them to give Grandpa a home.
I wanted to know more about Grandpa going to Nebraska—where? What exactly happened? How old was he? How long was he there?
As the questions kept growing, I had to accept that I would never know the answers, that the answers were buried under the sands of time.
Over the past twenty years, my siblings and I had requested information from the Foundling Home several times. My sister received a response stating the date Grandpa came to the Foundling Home, and that he went to the Markway family where he was “dearly loved.” I was told that there were no records, and how 120 years ago, they didn’t keep the kind of records I was seeking.
In 2019, I heard that the Foundling was digitizing their records. In February 2020, I made one more request. I didn’t have any expectations, but I had a little bit of hope. Then Covid hit New York City, and the city came to a standstill.
In early January 2021, I received an email from the Foundling, an email including “all the records” they had on Grandpa. There were just four pages. Two pages were the front and back of an index card that gave one or two sentence annual updates on Grandpa with the Markway family. (There was no mention of Grandpa going to another family in Wardsville first, nor of his time in Nebraska.) The front of this index card didn’t tell me much.
Then I looked at the back of the card, the second page of the records I received. A one-sentence note dated December 13, 1926 says: “Joseph asking about his History. Joseph Markway” So, Grandpa did return to New York and ask questions. That is where he learned his mother’s name. I still don’t know if he met his biological mother, but it now seemed possible. He was motivated, and it appears someone told him some things—his birth date for example.
The other two pages of Grandpa’s records consist of two letters from St. Stanislaus parish in Wardsville, the town where he grew up.. One, dated February 24, 1903, reports that Grandpa was placed with another family, after the man is his previous home “passed to eternity.” The letter also notes that this was a “change no doubt for the better.” This suggests Grandpa’s first home in Wardsville was abusive, as I had been told.
I have always wondered how Grandpa endured so much trauma and became such a loving person that I wanted to honor him by filling in the missing information of his life. How was Grandpa so resilient?
Psychologist Louise Silvern describes resilience as “that wonderful word for something we don’t understand.” Maybe I don’t need to understand why Grandpa survived and thrived to the point that his descendants revere him. It’s enough to have known him.
At age 30, he was searching for his mother, and in some ways I suspect, he was searching for himself. The pain of not knowing his parents, of being left in an orphanage, stayed with him. But Grandpa showed that the opening of his life did not define him. As he watched his kids and grandkids grow up, the healing crept up on him.
Ms. Copeland does a wonderful job of summarizing the science of DNA testing in brief and easily understandable ways, while also raising questions about where this new technology is taking us. Family secrets are bursting out of the closets and saying “hello” through Facebook messages.
Consumer DNA testing, such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe, has given rise to the new field called “genetic genealogy.” Yes, this is what allowed me to uncover the roots of my grandfather who came to Missouri from New York City on an orphan train.
The Lost Family struck such a chord in me that I reached out to Ms. Copeland–yes, in a Facebook message. She responded promptly, and we struck up a conversation.
I mentioned that I was a psychologist, and that my dissertation was on how people develop a sense of identity–what makes them who they are, or at least who they believe themselves to be. More specifically, my research was on how family influences an adolescent’s identity development.
Ms. Copeland then asked me a question about how difficult it can be for someone to incorporate new family information after they are well into adulthood. She asked if my profession and education gave me any particular insight into that.
I initially stumbled trying to come up with an answer. I realized I was more comfortable talking about my own experience in researching family history than I was with talking as the “professional, the psychologist.”
I referred her to a couple things I had written, one of them being the talk I gave at the 150th anniversary of the New York Foundling Home, the “orphanage” that sent my grandfather to his new life in Missouri. Ms. Copeland replied that she thought I put it well in that talk when I said: “There is a basic human need to know who you are, and how you connect to this world.”
This got me thinking some more…I developed a talk recently that was to be given at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City, MO, the town where I grew up, the town where my grandfather had lived his adult life, just a few miles where he had disembarked from that orphan train at age five.
In that talk, I repeat the idea of “our story.” Knowing it, owning it, and being able to tell it. All of this makes us, and our story, real.
I am a psychologist. Back when I was in graduate school, my favorite therapy book was titled Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel. It suggested that a good therapist may think of a client as a character in a great book–what do you need to know about the person to make them more interesting? Keep asking questions until you fill out their personality, their story.
I find myself using that same concept in my genealogy work. I don’t just want to discover my ancestor’s name and date of birth. I want to learn their story as best I can uncover it–what did they do, think, feel? What was it like to be them. How does all that contribute to who I am? Every story I uncover becomes part of my story, part of who I am.
Every person in my family tree has a story to tell. Some seem better-suited to a best-selling book than others. But then I remember the main premise of Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel…and that is…Everybody is fascinating–it’s just that some people hide it better than others…
So, as a psychologist, amateur historian, and someone always wanting to learn more about myself, there are always more stories to discover. And for me, that is part of how I know who I am, and how I connect to this world.
It was May 1901, and Joseph Aner was just five years old. As he boarded the train that would take him away from the New York Foundling Home, he was scared. He had ridden a similar train before to Nebraska, or was it Iowa? There he joined a nice family, but when his new Mom became ill, his Dad had a farm to tend to, with no time for Joseph. So, Joseph rode the train back to New York, to his first home, The New York Foundling Asylum.
This time, Joseph was going to Missouri. He knew he wasn’t going there to reunite with his “real Papa and Mama”—that’s what the caretakers told all the children. Even though he was only five, Joseph was an Orphan Train veteran.
There were 52 children on this Missouri Pacific line. In St. Louis, 15 of them met their new families. Another 36 rode deeper into Missouri, most of them to Osage City.
It there that Joseph met his new parents. Unfortunately, the first placement did not work out, and a local priest arranged for Joseph to join the family of Fred and Catherine Markway, of rural Cole County.
As long as I can remember, I knew my grandfather came from the New York Foundling Home, to Missouri, on an orphan train. As a child, I didn’t think a lot about it. I never thought about the empty space in his heart, of not knowing how he came into this world, of not knowing the beginning of his own story.
All I knew as a child was that Grandpa was the best. He made me feel loved and special. My very first memory was when I was three years old and my family moved from St. Louis to Jefferson City, MO. Jefferson City was where Grandpa lived and my Dad had grown up. My parents bought a two-bedroom home, for $6,000, for our family of seven. The house sheltered eight, though, when Grandpa moved in. Grandpa was fun, and funny, and he made me feel loved.
Grandpa died suddenly when I was 11. His belongings got divided up among my Dad and Dad’s two sisters. Dad got the name tag Grandpa had worn on the back of his jacket while riding the train in 1901. I had not seen that before, and seeing that piece of fabric, with his original name, Joseph Aner, written so elegantly in cursive,made his beginnings real to me. I wanted to know more. Who was Grandpa?
As I grew up, I remained curious about his origins, but I had no way of exploring them. In the 1990s, when I first logged onto the internet, the very first search I did was looking for the surname “Aner.” I found a few people in Philadelphia. Was there a connection to Grandpa?
Three years ago, I felt an overwhelming need to know more. I took an AncestryDNA test.
Before getting my DNA results back, I found his birth certificate online. It was difficult to find because it was filed under “Auer,” not “Aner.” As you can see, the handwriting was not clear.
The birth certificate showed Joseph Auer was born to Adelaide Auer and Joseph King, at a Catholic hospital that served the poor and destitute. Records indicated Joseph was left at the Foundling Home within a few days of his birth.
I searched and searched for information about his parents, but there were no records. The names Joseph King and Adelaide Auer were pseudonyms. His parents wanted never to be found.
I continued searching for anything that could tell me more about Grandpa. I found his World War I draft registration. Under “Place of Birth,” it said “Unknown.” That one word, “Unknown,” hit me in the gut—it was so sad.
I became obsessed, knowing that DNA testing had the potential to connect me to his origins. I felt a pressure to hurry. I belong to the last generation that knew Grandpa. And, with each generation, the DNA trail fades like an old photograph.
I learned more about his life by scouring old newspapers. He was among the first young men from Central Missouri drafted during the first World War. I talked to my older brother, Jack, about this. Jack had a lot in common with Grandpa and they would work on projects together—carpentry, car repair, painting—and sometimes Grandpa would talk to Jack about his past.
Grandpa briefly mentioned the war, hinting at traumatic experiences, but then shut down. He said just enough for Jack to know Grandpa had seen the human cost of war up close.
After the war, Grandpa married into a prominent family in Jefferson City and he started his own family. He also started his own business as an automobile dealer. He sold the cars, repaired them, and taught his customers to drive.
His business did well. In September 1929, he went on a tour of Hupmobile factories to see the new models. The next month, the stock market crashed, and his business slipped away.
After several weeks, my AncestryDNA results came in.
A few months later, I found a promising lead, a few DNA matches that connected only through Grandpa. One of these matches had a family tree that included three siblings who all would have been in their 20s or early 30s when Grandpa was born. And…they all lived in New York.
Through a lot of work, I pieced together that George Van Sten, from Brooklyn, was Grandpa’s father. George lived a rather colorful life, and he made the newspapers as a result.
I had no leads for Grandpa’s mother. As I was talking about this with my brother one day, Jack told me: “He always said his mother was Abbie Doyle.” Later one of my cousins told me the same thing.
I was stunned. How could Grandpa know this?
Jack said Grandpa was clearly bothered by what he had learned in New York, and would start to talk and then stop. His feelings of abandonment were overwhelming, and they took away his voice, preventing him from telling all that he knew about his story. It seems he was a secret, and being a secret hurt.
I searched everywhere for signs of Abbie, or Abigail Doyle. I learned that searching for Irish names in New York in the late 1800s didn’t narrow things down much.
Then one day I was looking through a family tree on Ancestry.com. I saw a name—Abbie Camille Doyle–could this really be her?
Abbie was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1873. The timing would fit…
Abbie was the youngest of six children, with four brothers and one sister. Her father, Jeremiah Doyle, and her mother, Margaret Foley, head each come to America from Ireland during the potato famine. Her parents married in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1856.
When the Civil War began, Abbie’s father joined the Union Army, and he was wounded soon thereafter. He was discharged due to “disability. This was 12 years before Abbie’s birth. What happened after that? Did her older siblings work to support the family? Her father died when she was just eight years old.
In Massachusetts records from 1899, I found Abbie married William Dolan. The marriage record listed William as residing in New York City. Additional DNA research provided overwhelming evidence that Abbie was Grandpa’s mother.
I tried to imagine what things had been like for her. I don’t know the circumstances, but she had found herself expecting a child. She gave birth as a poor single mother. Her life could not have been easy and her emotions must have been complex. She must have felt alone, with no good alternatives.
I found myself caring about this woman I had never met.
And then, I received a message from a descendant of one of Abbie’s siblings. My newfound cousin had sent me a family photo that included Abbie and three of her brothers. As I gazed into her eyes for the first time, I saw my grandfather, and I realized he had found Abbie. And so had I.