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.
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 my previous posts, I told the story of my paternal grandfather, who spent his early years at the New York Foundling Home, and came to Central Missouri on an “Orphan Train” and was adopted by the Fred Markway family.
My grandfather was known as Joseph Aner while at the Foundling Home. Recently, I was searching online and found a Joseph Auer who was born on April 30, 1896, my grandfather’s birthday. I sent away for his original birth certificate, and unbelievably, only five days later, I received this from the City of New York:
My grandfather was born Joseph Auer and his mother’s name was Adelaide Auer. He was born at 531 E. 86th Street in New York City. I searched online to see if that building was still standing–no such address showed up. I continued to search and found that Misericordia Hospital used to be on that site, a hospital that was affiliated with the Foundling Home. This hospital primarily served poor women, many of whom were unwed mothers. This fit my family’s long-held hypothesis that Grandpa came from very difficult circumstances–after all, he was left at an orphanage.
Misericordia Hospital has merged with other hospital systems and changed locations over the years, and currently is in The Bronx, another borough of New York City.
Grandpa’s birth certificate contained other information. First of all, no middle name was listed. My sister, Susan, remembers that Grandpa was bothered by this. At some point, though, he took on (or was given?) the middle name of “John.” The birth certificate also states that he was the first child born to his mother–there is no way to know if this is accurate, but DNA testing and research has revealed no other people that appear related to the mother (at least yet).
In my life, I was born in St. Louis, and my family returned to Jefferson City when I was three years old. I lived there until going to college at St. Louis University. I stayed in St. Louis to attend graduate school at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. In 1995, I returned to Jefferson City with my wife and son. A couple years ago, I returned to St. Louis.
Upon moving to Jefferson City, my wife commented on how many people inquired if we were related to the other Markway families. I told her the answer was always “Yes.” Below is a picture of my grandfather with his adoptive family–it is pretty clear he came from a different gene pool. Given that this Markway family was so large, and that many of them had numerous children, the family grew rapidly.
You may have noticed that I haven’t discussed my grandfather’s birth father in this post. The birth certificate lists a name, but the name likely is fiction. Through DNA testing and many hours of genealogical work, I have identified the likely father. More on him later…
My grandfather was left at the New York Foundling Home as an infant in 1896. As a toddler, he was placed on an “orphan train,” and was taken in by a family in Nebraska. The mother of that family died, and my grandfather was sent back to New York. A few years later, in 1901, he again boarded the orphan train and came to Missouri where he was adopted by the Markway family.
In my previous blog post, I wrote about my efforts to track down his history. How could I discover his birth parents without having names? Supposedly he had tracked down his birth mother when he was a young adult, but how would he have done so? The Foundling Home said it had no records, which made sense, because it was a place where anyone could leave a child, no questions asked. Grandpa once told my brother, Jack (who is named after him–Joseph John Markway), that his mother was named Abby Doyle. Was he right? Or is this just something he was told?
I began my search by taking the Ancestry DNA test. Several weeks after spitting into a small tube, my results came back. I didn’t recognize most of the names on my list, and I quickly realized how little I knew about my extended family. My brother, Jack, showed up as a match, as did my first cousin, Gary Ferguson. Some other fairly close matches showed up that I recognized as being from my mom’s side. I started studying the family trees that some of my matches had posted, and those trees gave me some clues as to how to separate people into groupings related to my four grandparents.
(In a future post, I will go into more detail about the technical aspects of this for those who are interested.)
It seemed every time I had a theory about my grandfather and who is family might be, my theory would get shot down the next day.
But there was one person, estimated as a 3rd or 4th cousin, that I couldn’t connect to any other family names. Ancestry.com has a feature that allows you to see who else shares DNA with that person, and only a very few people matched that person. And, as it turned out, those people only matched others within that small group. They didn’t match anyone on my mom’s side. They didn’t match my dad’s maternal side. And some of them showed up as matches to Gary Ferguson, telling me they were on my paternal side.
Hmmm…how did these people fit?
I looked deeply into the one family tree that one woman from that family posted. There was a branch of that family that lived in New York City. I continued looking for other information, but there was not much there. Finally, I reached out through the Ancestry website to Pam, the woman estimated to be a 3rd-4th cousin match. Pam was very gracious and shared what information she had about her family, but not surprisingly, she had no knowledge of an infant placed at the Foundling Home.
I kept searching DNA connections, family trees, and historical documents online. Another DNA connection popped up, who also shared DNA with Pam. I contacted Robert, and we pieced together that he was Pam’s second cousin. They did not know of each other (but will soon meet each other for the first time–all because I’m searching for my grandfather’s parents).
Then, I found a third DNA connection that shared ancestors with Pam and Robert. Connie had a very extensive family tree online. Clearly, she took her genealogy seriously.
By this time, it was becoming clear that I was looking at someone in the Van Sten family as a possible great-grandparent. But I didn’t know if that would be Grandpa’s mother or his father.
I uploaded my DNA file to a website called GEDmatch. (You may have heard of it in the news recently when a serial killer was found through use of that site.) GEDmatch accepts DNA data from all the major testing companies and allows you to find connections from various other companies. I also uploaded by DNA to My Heritage and Family Tree DNA (FTDNA).
I felt hopeless when I found out Robert was distantly related to someone on my mom’s side. But then I realized that relationship was so distant that it didn’t explain why Pam was so closely related to me.
I talked to my brother, Jack, about signing up for an Ancestry membership so that I could see how closely he was related to our shared matches. (Ancestry and other companies can actually tell you how much DNA you share with another person, measure in centiMorgan. That is how you can estimate your potential relationship to that individual.)
I had a lot of circumstantial evidence that the Van Sten family was important in my search but no real proof. Every day, I look at the new connections that show up on Ancestry but I get no real new information.
Yesterday, when searching through documents online. I found a woman who checked into a poorhouse, described as “pregnant and destitute.” Her mother was a Van Sten. This woman, Nellie, gave birth close to my grandfather’s supposed birth date, in New York. And, I found a birth certificate…she had a son! I could find no other information online about his. Had I found my grandfather?
This morning I found that the answer was no. Sadly, I found a death certificate for the baby. He only lived a month.
I was ready to take a break from searching, at least until the results came in from another DNA test I took several weeks ago. Through FTDNA, I had taken a Y-DNA test. Y-DNA is something that is passed on from father to son only. So, in theory at least, it is possible that the DNA from my male ancestors could show up connected to a family surname many generations back.
The test came back today and it showed me as matching some individuals with the name “Vanstone.” So, I believe a Van Sten was my great-grandfather. There are two Van Sten brothers who were in the likely age group and lived in NYC at the right time.
Now I have to continue my detective work to see if I can determine which brother. Then I can turn my attention to my great-grandmother.
Today, though, I can’t believe I have traveled this far.
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.