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.
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.
For the past two years, I’ve been searching for clues regarding my paternal grandfather’s origins, and I can now say, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that I have found his father.
My grandfather, Joseph Auer came to central Missouri on an Orphan Train from the New York Foundling Home and was adopted by the Fred Markway and Catherine Schnieders Markway family. Joseph longed to find his birth family, but that was not possible in that era. The Foundling Home asked no questions when a child was left in its care, and the culture of the time required secrecy.
For a while, I have known that my grandfather’s origins could be traced back to the Van Sten family of New York City two brothers possibly being my great-grandfather.
Fortunately for me in my search, multiple descendants of the Van Sten family took DNA tests with Ancestry, and this allowed me to compare my DNA (as well as my brother Jack’s) with that of my fellow Van Sten descendants. Through multiple DNA tests, I have verified that I am descended from a male member of the Van Sten family–so Catherine could be eliminated as a potential great-grandparent. There were three males of that generation, one of whom died in childhood, leaving James and George as possibilities.
DNA testing results showed that Jack and I shared slightly more DNA with descendants of Catherine than with descendants of James (the differences are small statistically, but strongly suggest that James is not our direct ancestor). That left George. He never married, and has no other direct descendants that I’ve been able to identify.
So, what do I know about George and the rest of the Van Sten family?
The first definitive documentation I can find on this family is a James Vansten, born in Ireland in 1809, marrying Sarah Murphy, also born in Ireland (in 1810). They were married at St. Nicholas Catholic church in Liverpool. James’ occupation is listed as a “cordwainer,” or shoemaker.
James and Sarah had a son, Richard born in Liverpool, England in 1834. The family left England for the United States when Richard was two-years-old. James and Sarah had a total of five children. Sometime before 1855, it appears, Sarah may have died (she is not listed in the New York Census record for that year).
Richard Van Sten had a brother that was not listed in the census record above. That brother was named George, but this George died near the end of the Civil War after serving in the Union Army. I do not know if he died as a result of the war, or from other causes.
Richard’s wife, Mary Ann Ryan, was born in New York. She was seven years younger than Richard, and they married when she was about 18. They had four children. Catherine came first in 1860. Then there was James in 1861, followed by Richard Jr. in 1864–but the family endured a tough time when Richard Jr. died four years later. Then, in 1868, George arrived, apparently named after his late uncle. George lost his mother when he was just five. George’s father found a housekeeper, Annie McCaffrey, to help with the children. George’s father died in 1888 when George was 20.
Throughout his life, George was involved in social activities. In 1891, at the age of 23, he was elected Chair of the Dramatic Committee of the Booth Dramatic Society in Brooklyn. In 1901, he was playing Euchre at the Flatbush (Brooklyn) Knights of Columbus and he won a prize. In 1918, he attended a Knights of Columbus dance in Brooklyn.
In 1915, George was involved in a lurid lawsuit after his fiance married another man. (I wrote about that in more detail here.)
George died in Philadelphia, of chronic bronchitis) in 1934. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Brooklyn.
In talking with people who are very distantly related to me, many generations back, I have found various potential branches of the family. The Vanstones came from Devon, England. That is likely the origin of the Van Stens, with the spelling changing for unknown reasons–perhaps it was just a transcription error.
So where does this leave me in my journey? Well, I still have no clear leads on my great-grandmother. There my be clues in my DNA connections, but I have not yet identified them. But…I’m still looking.
Soon, I will write about my maternal side. I have found some wild and fascinating stories about Mennonites getting taken hostage by their church in Switzerland and forced to leave the country, about families being invited by William Penn to come to Pennsylvania, and about descendants of these families coming to Missouri when they are given land. They end up in Cole, Miller, and Moniteau counties.