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
There was the name I had been searching for–Abbie Camille Doyle, born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1873. Could this really be her? The person I had wondered about since I was a child, ever since I learned about my grandfather coming to Missouri at the age of five, riding the orphan train from the New York Foundling Asylum.
Grandpa had said his mother was “Abbie Doyle.” Now, here I was, looking at a family tree of someone that shared DNA with me. I didn’t know this person, but she listed Abbie Doyle in her family tree, and this was the first concrete clue that my grandfather really knew his mother’s name.
I still have no idea, really, how Grandpa would have discovered her name. I had heard stories that, as an adult, he had gone to New York and discovered something about his mother. I wish I knew more. I wish I had asked more questions.
All I could do was imagine the emotions he felt that made him embark on such a journey. Individuals separated from their biological origins sometimes feel they are carrying someone else’s secret, and feeling that you are a secret can hurt.
Somehow, Grandpa had uncovered at least part of the secret of his origins, but how much did he know?
My older brother, Jack, recalls: “We worked on cars together and sometimes he would start talking. He said when he went back to New York, he found her, or a relative of her, but then he would stop and say that I wouldn’t want to know more…and I should forget what he was talking about.”
Grandpa gave clues…but then he retreated. I suspect he wanted to lock his feelings away, that perhaps he was better off forgetting what he knew, but part of him wanted to talk. With such mixed emotions, Grandpa instructed Jack to forget everything. Yet, more than 50 years later, Jack remembers.
For me, looking for Grandpa’s parents has not simply been a puzzle to be solved. I have felt compelled to search because his story has always been a part of my own story. Grandpa felt he was a secret, and in some way, this feeling has been passed down through the generations. My father had attempted to research Grandpa’s origins, but before DNA testing and the internet, there was not much chance of success.
When I took the Ancestry DNA test, I was surprised to see that my brother, Jack, had already done so, as had one of my cousins. My sister, Sue, had written the Foundling Home, requesting information, as had I. Why were we all searching? What were we searching for?
While looking for information about my grandfather, I came across his first World War I draft registration card. Under place of birth, it said, “Unknown.” This word, “Unknown,” hit me in the gut. It also seemed strange, because he knew where he was born. I have felt so many different emotions while investigating the origins of his story.
As a psychologist, I know families don’t reveal secrets easily, and after several generations, secrets become buried like ancient cities lost under the blowing sands of time. I recently heard a saying–“The past is a different country.” And traveling there is not an easy voyage.
After seeing Abbie’s name in a family tree, I contacted the person who had posted that tree online. Most people don’t respond to messages about their family genealogy. They may not have any information to share. They may fear that any questions about their history involve a scam of some type. They may have taken a DNA test simply to learn more about their genetic heritage, not realizing that there would be thousands of relatives popping up online.
This time, though, I got a response. After sharing a little information back and forth, I got right to the point. I said that Abbie Doyle may be my grandfather’s mother. Additional communication identified a couple of her cousins who also shared DNA with me–they all descended from Abbie Doyle.
So I had “evidence.” But I wanted more. I reached out to others who appeared to be connected to the Doyle family. Some of them shared quite a bit of DNA with Jack and me. No response. And from their Ancestry user names, I had no idea who they were.
I then began scouring every record I could find online. I had gone from wanting to know my great-grandmother’s name to wanting to know who she was. With a name, birthdate, and place of birth, I was able to learn a great deal. Abbie was the youngest of six children, with four brothers and one sister. Her father, Jeremiah Doyle, and her mother, Margaret Foley, had each come to America from Ireland during the potato famine. Her parents married in Holyoke, Massachussetts, in 1856. Holyoke is in western Massachusetts, about 150 miles from New York City.
When the Civil War began, her 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.
I wondered what happened to Abbie after that. So far, much of what I had learned of Abbie came from census records. The 1890 census could potentially be a gold mine of information…but, unfortunately, nearly all those records were lost in a fire.
So, from 1881 until 1899, there was a huge black hole of information. (My grandfather was born in 1896, and false names are listed for his parents on his birth certificate.)
In Massachusetts records from 1899, I found an Abbie Doyle who married a William Dolan in West Springfield, Massachusetts. This is near Holyoke. So, this could be the same Abbie Doyle.
But what about William Dolan? Was there anything about him that would be helpful? Then I noticed on the marriage record, he was listed as residing in New York. One of my DNA relatives told me that she descended from William Dolan and Abbie Doyle. Two of her cousins shared DNA with me as well, meaning that we all shared a common ancestor. This was more evidence…
This DNA match told me that William had been a Senator. In an old newspaper I found an obituary for William J. Dolan, who had married Abigail Doyle, and who served one term in the Massachusetts legislature. William’s wife, Abigail, was a shared ancestor for four people I had identified so far.
At this point, I had considerable evidence that Abbie was my grandfather’s mother, but I was hesitant to say I had found proof. What was holding me back? Why couldn’t I declare my search complete?
I began by just wanting to know a name. But over time, I was getting to know her. She was a person, with a complex life, and I assume, complex emotions. I don’t know the circumstances, but she had found herself expecting a child. She gave birth at a hospital for unwed mothers. She gave this baby to the New York Foundling Asylum, hoping that he would have a good life. She likely had no other good options. She must have felt alone. I can only imagine the emotions that she had to hide deep within.
I found myself caring about this woman I had never met. I wanted to make sure my conclusion was correct.
And then, I received an email from another DNA match, a descendant of one of Abbie’s siblings. This person was able to identify several of our shared DNA matches. When I analyzed the amount of DNA I shared with all these other people, all the numbers added up. I now had seven different lines of people who descended from Jeremiah and Margaret Doyle, with all of these people sharing DNA with Jack, my cousin Gary, and me.
My new email cousin then sent me some photographs. One was a family picture that included Abbie and three of her brothers. As I gazed into her eyes for the first time, I saw her looking right back at me. I saw my grandfather, and I realized he was not “unknown.” And neither was Abbie.
In searching for Abbie, I found many other bits of information:
It is a small, small world. I share at least one Facebook friend with a member of the Dolan family.
Some of Abbie’s descendants live in the St. Louis area, where I currently live.
Abbie’s husband, William, graduated from Harvard. Some descendants attended US military academies.
The Doyles were known for beautiful singing voices and thick hair. My siblings and I have thick hair.
Abbie had two years of college and worked as a nurse.
One of her grandsons ran for Congress.
One of her granddaughters dated Elvis Presley, performed in Las Vegas, and sang in New York’s Latin Quarter.
I am very grateful for all the assistance I have received from others, particularly those who took a chance and responded to my messages. Thank you, especially, to the relative who shared photographs. I will continue looking for more information and for more stories. Thank you for reading.
April 30, 2019 is my grandfather’s 123rd birthday. Joe Markway was friendly and sociable, making him well-known around Jefferson City, Missouri. Grandpa died when I was just 11, and the main thing I remember about him is his sense of humor. I can still hear his laugh and see his smile. I had no idea how much sadness he must have endured.
He was born in 1896. His birth certificate lists his mother as Adelaide Auer, or Aner, depending on how you read the cursive handwriting of the time. He was born at Misericordia Hospital in Manhattan, a hospital that primarily served poor, unwed mothers. The next day, he was left at the New York Foundling Home, a Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity.
Grandpa came to central Missouri in 1901 on an Orphan Train, and he was taken in by Fred and Catherine Schnieders Markway. I have seen only one photograph of him with the Markway family and it is clear that he is not their natural-born son, as he is several inches shorter than everyone else.
His early life could not have been easy—being left at an orphanage, first going to Nebraska on an orphan train but having to return to the Foundling Home when the father in his first adoptive family became ill, and then going on a second orphan train to Missouri and becoming part of yet another family.
He endured more trauma as a young man fighting in World War I. My older brother, Jack, asked Grandpa about that once, and it was clear that my grandfather was haunted by his experience in the war, and he didn’t want to talk about it.
At some point—no one currently living knows exactly when—Grandpa returned to New York to look for his birthmother. Upon returning to Missouri, he supposedly said that he was “a Markway now.” No one knows what he found in New York. Jack recalls our grandfather as sometimes starting to talk about being left at the Foundling Home, and then stopping, as though talking about it made the emotions all too real. But once, Grandpa spoke of his mother being named “Abbie Doyle.” I have no idea how he would have found that name.
Joe Markway married Bernadine Katherine Bruegging in 1921, and a year later, my father was born. Two years later, the couple had their second child, Mary Dolores, but she would die at the age of two. They went on to have two more daughters.
As I put together this summary of my grandfather’s life, I am struck by the sheer quantity of sadness. At the same time, all this sadness is somewhat surprising because that is not what I saw from him. I don’t know how he handled it all.
As a relatively young man, in his early 30s, he opened his own business, an automobile dealership. He sold Hupmobiles, and up and coming brand at the time. I remember hearing stories about how to sell someone a car, you also had to teach them to drive. He eventually also sold other brands—Plymouth and DeSoto. His business was growing and he was well-liked. He knew how to sell and he loved the mechanical aspects. He repaired the cars he sold—he did everything.
But then, the Great Depression hit. The Jefferson City newspapers report that he was touring Hupmobile factories in September 1929 to learn about the new models coming out. One month later, the stock market crashed, and I assume new cars became few and far between. Newspaper ads for Cole County Motor Company show new cars for sale in 1930, and then used cars for sale, and by 1932 the classified ads primarily focus on automobile repairs with only an occasional car for sale. There are no signs of his business after 1932.
After that, Grandpa appears to have had a few different jobs, but his primary career after that was as an auto mechanic, working for local tire and auto repair companies.
I have many memories of my grandfather, but they are more like photographs or short film clips. I can’t connect them all to the broader story. He died in 1970 when I was 11.
When my family moved back to Jefferson City from St. Louis, I was just three. Our family of seven moved into a two-bedroom house, and Grandpa and my brother, Jack, finishing the attic of the house into one big bedroom I shared with my two older brothers. For a while, Grandpa shared that bedroom as well. That attic, with no air conditioning, was rather unpleasant in the summer.
I don’t remember how long Grandpa lived with us, or why he left. I seem to remember him going to live with my aunt and uncle, the Fergusons, and their kids. (If you live in Jefferson City, you may very well know one or more of them—Rob, Gary, Shelley, and Lynn.)
I was always curious about Grandpa’s past but never really expected to learn more.Over the years, I had contacted the New York Foundling Home (now the Foundling Hospital), seeking information. Once they responded that they had no information, and another time they said the only records they had showed him as being adopted by the Markway family and that he was happy there.
A little over two years ago, I took an Ancestry DNA test. I hoped to find Grandpa’s mother—I don’t know why I didn’t think about finding his father. I really had no idea what I was doing. I had searched online for Aners (and Auers) online previously but hadn’t found anything too promising. When I got my test results, my DNA matches, several weeks later, I had no idea what I was looking at. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who shared DNA with me. As of today, I have approximately 34,000 people who have taken an Ancestry DNA test and are related to me.
My mother, Ruby Yarnell Markway, was related to everyone in the United States it seemed. Many of her ancestors came to colonial America in the 1600’s, and they were prolific to say the least. So, it was quite a task looking for people who were not part of her family. Eventually, though, I identified a small number of people who turned out to be connected to Grandpa’s father. I have communicated a great deal with them and hope to meet one of them this fall.
To that point I still had not identified anyone connected to Grandpa’s mother. I had searched everywhere for an Abbie Doyle, but searching for a common Irish name in New York at the turn of the century is not a very productive use of time.
I scoured census records for women named Adelaide Auer and Adelaide Aner, but couldn’t find anyone by those names who would have been the right age.Then, one day, I found one of my DNA relatives had an “Ada Auer” in her family tree. I was so excited—this could be the one! But, further research revealed that she only became Ada Auer years after my grandfather’s birth when she got married.
I felt like giving up. What were the odds I was going to find Grandpa’s mother when I didn’t even really have a name. Adelaide Auer likely was a fake name.
I have asked myself why I’m so obsessed with this, why I feel a need to know where Grandpa came from. My answers are hard to explain. I somehow feel I owe it to him, I know that with each passing generation, the task grows more difficult. He clearly felt that need to know his roots and going back to New York. I don’t know where he would have even started, other than maybe returning to the Foundling Home and asking questions.
So, I tried to start with a clean slate. I was able to identify a group of people connected to my paternal side—they shared DNA with me, my brother, and my cousin, Gary Ferguson—but did not show any connection to my paternal grandmother (the Brueggings and their ancestors) nor to the Van Stens (my grandfather’s father). As I searched, I realized I was tracing a vein of gold in the gold mine.
But things were far from simple. Where do I go from here? How do I figure out how these people connect? I started looking through the family trees of those people who had shared them online. There was good news and bad news—I was finding some recurring names…but they were Irish. Every family had children named Michael, Patrick, John, and my favorites, Mary Margaret and Margaret Mary. Every generation was like this!
As my frustration grew, I was looking at a family tree, and there it was—Abigail Camille Doyle, born 1873 in Northampton, Massachusetts.
In Parts I and II, I told the story of my grandfather, Joseph Aner Markway, and how he came to mid-Missouri on an Orphan Train from the New York Foundling Home. I had found some distant relatives through Ancestry DNA who did not connect to any know part of my family tree, and the common thread was a Van Sten family from New York, where Grandpa Markway was born.
Through further DNA testing with Family Tree DNA (ftdna.com) which offers a test that traces the male lineage within a family (Y-DNA testing), I found others who share male ancestors named Vanstone, from Devon, England. My research has found that Vanstone likely is the Anglicized version of Van Sten, a name that appears to have come from Holland and Belgium (countries were not well-defined hundreds of years ago as they are now).
I found another surprise with the Y-DNA testing, though–two of the three male relations that showed up were Vanstones, but one was not. The woman managing that DNA test told me that the descendants of her great, great grandfather do not genetically match with the descendants of his “brothers,” suggesting that he likely was adopted. In other words, he was a descendant of the Vanstones.
Anyway, back to my grandfather…yesterday, I may have found his birth certificate online. For the past 18 months, I have searched for any records of Joseph Aner (the name he was known by at the Foundling Home), Joseph Doyle (family lore was that his mother was named Doyle), and Joseph Van Sten (the family name of his apparent father). Nothing ever showed up in the New York records.
I searched other genealogy web sites that sometimes have different information. Yesterday, on Family Search, sponsored by the Church of Latter Day Saints, I was searching for Joseph Aner, when the site also showed birth records for the surname, Auer, and up popped a birth certificate for Joseph Auer with a birth date of April 30, 1896 (one of two birth dates I have seen for him–the other being May 1). The certificate showed the parents were not married. The mother’s name was Adelaide Auer and the father was listed as Thomas King, perhaps a fictitious name as often happened in out-of-wedlock births.
My grandfather reportedly had gone back to New York as a young adult trying to find his mother and had been told her name was “Abby.” Might it had been Addy? I don’t really have any information on this yet. Adelaide Auer disappears from the records at this point–she is not listed in the census records of the U.S. or any state. All I know is that she supposedly was 24 years old at the time of his birth, and that she was born in the U.S. The father supposedly was 38, assuming anything about the father on the birth certificate is accurate.
In all my research, I also found that when Joseph Markway registered for the draft in World War I, he was living in Nebraska and living as a farm laborer. I have no idea why he had traveled so far to work. Surely there was farm work in Cole and Osage counties at the time. Did he go to Nebraska because that is where he had first been adopted off an Orphan Train? (He reportedly had been returned to the New York Foundling Home when the mother in that family had died and the father could not take care of him.) Did he go to Nebraska with a friend as part of some adventure, or did he go on his own?
I had heard that Grandpa Markway had owned a car dealership in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In searching the website, newspapers.com., I found advertisements for Cole County Motors, selling Hupmobiles, DeSotos, and Plymouths, with Joe Markway as the manager. My father had told stories of that time, where you not only sold a car to the customer, but you also had to teach them how to drive it.
Apparently the Great Depression was not kind to auto dealers, as the business disappeared, and he later became a mechanic for Arthur Ellis.
I have learned so much about Grandpa in my search, and I’m not finished. Along the way, I have also discovered some amazing stories about other parts of my family–stay tuned, those bits of history are coming soon!
My grandfather, Joseph John Markway, came to mid-Missouri at the age of 4 or 5 on an “Orphan Train.” He was born in New York and within a few days of his birth, he was left at the New York Foundling Home.
At that time, New York city was teeming with immigrants, orphans, and “street urchins,” people poor and desperate. The Foundling Home had a basket on its front steps so people could drop off babies that they couldn’t care for.
My grandfather was one of those babies. Many of those ended up on an Orphan Train, sent westward, hopefully to be accepted into loving Catholic families. (Other institutions had Orphan Trains that delivered children to Protestant families.) The train would roll into a town, and families would examine the children as if they were livestock, and then choose one or more. Families often were looking for potential farmhands or household help. Sometimes, families had prearranged to adopt children, and they waited for their child to be delivered. Local parishes, to various degrees, would check out and recommend local families as potential new homes for the “orphans.”
When my grandfather arrived in Taos, Missouri, he wore a name tag that said “Joseph Aner.” That likely was not the surname of his father. The Foundling Home may not have ever known either of his parents. Or, if it did, the Home was known for changing names—perhaps to hide the child’s origins, protect the parents anonymity, or even to give the child a name to hide undesirable ethnic origins
The Orphan Train adoptions did not always turn out well. The orphanages or Orphan Train organization would check up on the children annually, and the children were encouraged to write letters back telling the agency how they were doing. Occasionally, children returned to the sending agency for various reasons. I remember hearing that my grandfather was one of those, but I don’t really know.
The 1900 United States Census shows him as being an “inmate” of the Foundling Home–inmate was the term used at the time to describe anyone that lived in an institution.
The next year, in 1901, he made the trek from New York city to Central Missouri where he was claimed by the Fred Markway family, a family that already had 12 children and another adoptive son.
(My mother, Joseph’s daughter-in-law, once told me that he had gone back to New York as a young man and tracked down his mother. But after finding her, he returned to Missouri and said, “I’m a Markway.” I only heard this story in the last couple years of my mother’s life.)
This story piqued my interest. How in the world did my grandfather find his mother? How was that even possible? Did that mean the Foundling Home had records? What did he find out about her that made him “disown” her?
For some reason, my grandfather’s story has always gnawed at me. When my family moved to Jefferson City when I was there years old, he helped adapt our modest 2 bedroom home to fit my parents and their five kids. My grandfather moved in and shared the converted attic with me and my two brothers. I can’t remember how long he lived with us—I don’t think it was long before he moved in with my dad’s sister’s family.
Grandpa Markway was a fun grandparent. I remember him as being mischievous—I don’t really know what I mean by that exactly. But every time he would leave after a visit, he would say, “See you in the funny papers!”
One of my clearest memories is that he would pitch me a wiffle ball, and no matter how far I would hit it, even if it was over the barbed wire fence into the neighboring pasture (yes there was a pasture next to our house within the limits of Jefferson City), he would go get the ball. My older brothers would always make me crawl under the fence, but not Grandpa.
During my first year of playing little league baseball, he came to every single game. I wasn’t necessarily special—he went to all his grandkids’ events—but it meant a lot to me.
I remember the day he died. I overheard my parents talking. He died unexpectedly in the morning after getting out of bed. He was setting the time on his watch. My parents chose not to tell me before I went to school. That day, I did poorly on an Arithmetic test and the teacher asked me why. I know the Irish nun felt horrible after I blurted out, “Probably because my Grandpa died today!”
So, why am I writing this now? Over the years, I have wondered where he came from—probably because that is part of where I came from. I would do a little research online, but what was I really looking for? I signed up with Ancestry.com and I searched for people named Aner before realizing that may not have really been his name. How could I find out anything without having a tangible starting point?
When my son, Jesse, was in middle school, he had to do a family tree for one of his classes. It was easy to trace my mother’s family—they have been in America forever and reproduced prolifically. One ancestor left his entire estate to descendants to the nth degree, meaning that a professional genealogist had to be hired be the probate court to track everybody down. Many people ended up with $10 or so, but there was a tremendous record of family history as a result.
But Grandpa Markway’s family was a mystery.
In the past year, possibilities came up. I had seen the ads on television of the guy learning his family wasn’t really Italian and the woman wearing the traditional Nigerian clothing. I decided to take a DNA test through Ancestry.com.
The DNA testing shows how closely you are connected with other people who have also taken the test. As of today, 583 fourth cousins or closer have been identified. Nearly all can be traced to my mother’s side or my paternal grandmother’s side, but…there are a few that don’t seem to connect to any identified ancestral lines…
In talking with my older brother, “Jack”, whose nickname hides the fact that he was named after our grandfather, I learned that Grandpa Markway would occasionally share tidbits of information. Jack seems to remember that Grandpa once said that his mother was named Abby Doyle…and that she was a “saloon singer.” (It sounds like she lived a different life than the Puritans and Quakers I have found on my mother’s side.)
In checking my known DNA connections on Ancestry (and other sites that allow uploading of my DNA information from Ancestry, I have found a few people named Doyle who are very distant relatives (4 or more generations back to a common ancestor). I found one woman whose grandmother was “Lizzie Doyle” and another woman who had a Lizzie Doyle in her history, with Lizzie being the daughter of Anastasia Doyle. In trying to research this, I learned that “Anastasia” in 1800s Ireland was equivalent to “Jennifer” in 1980s America…
Trying to research Irish genealogy made the desperation of the potato famine hit home for me. The historical record for families literally disappears as individuals leave for America…Australia…and anyplace else that would take them in. A single family might disperse all across the globe just to survive.
So, it makes sense that I have connected with people across the world in the search for my grandfather who grew up around Jefferson City, Missouri.
Where do things stand now? I connected with a woman from Boston (who currently lives in France). I’m genetically connected to her mother…who married INTO a Doyle family and we’re trying to figure out the relationship. We apparently are connected through a McInnis/McKay family in Nova Scotia, but the records in Nova Scotia from that time are poor. I’ve joined an Irish genealogy group online and found that I match genetically with several of its members…and surprisingly, I’ve found that my mother had more Irish ancestry than I ever imagined. I’m in the process of connecting with several other relatives who appear to have possible connections to my grandfather.
I have found an Abby Doyle in New York Census records and she could have been my great grandmother. She died in a state psychiatric hospital. Could this be the woman my grandfather was “ashamed of?”
When I was training to be a psychologist, my father could not understand my career choice. He had little respect for the mental health field. But, one day, he told me that my grandfather had purchased and read books by Sigmund Freud. Was there a genetic reason I had an interest in psychology? Or did I somehow have an interest passed down to me because my grandfather was trying to understand his mother? This is all speculation at this point…
Now back to the question of why am I so curious about my grandfather. As I mentioned earlier, I felt a special connection to him. Today, though, I realized I am part of the last generation that knew him. And, as genetics get diluted with each generation, I may be part of the last generation that will have an identifiable genetic connection to his birth family.
Beyond that, I can’t express the longing to know more of his story. I know the truth, at best, will be complicated. But, for some reason, I just want to know.