Orphan train riders, later in life, have described a wide range of experiences in their “adoptive” families. Some children were dearly loved, while others provided utilitarian roles as farm workers and servants. And, some were abused.
For modern eyes, the idea of placing children on a train and shipping them off to new families to raise them seems naive at best. But rather, than judging the orphan train experiment from a present-day viewpoint, we need to consider the situation at the beginning of the 20th century.
For this, let’s turn to an article from 1902, in Leslie’s Weekly, a popular publication of the time. The story begins:
Darkness in the narrow hallway; the sickening odor of the tenements; a woman stumbling along, her hands outstretched; the small, weak, pathetic cry of the very little child; a bundle in the corner which the woman lifts into her arms; the flutter of excitement in the tenement, and the crowding in of neighbors; a policeman arrives; and the baby, a foundling is taken to Bellevue hospital. Then a blank like this is filled out…
All quotes from Leslie’s Weekly magazine, 1902
The form lists where the child was found, its appearance, clothing, approximate age, sex, and by whom found. The magazine story conservatively estimated that 250 infants were “found” in New York every year.
When the little child, most helpless of all living things, lifts its tiny arms in appeal the answer is spontaneous. Whether you are man or woman you do not hesitate; your hand would at once give the little suppliant a gentle caress; your voice assumes a tone of soothing; the spirit of protecting kindness has entered into you. It is this same spirit which is saving the lives, every year of these two hundred and fifty foundling babies, who until recently, for the very want of it died. It is the balm of the mother’s kiss and the cradle of a mother’s arms that give health and growth and happiness to New York’s foundlings; and the system by which this beautiful work of mercy is done is one of the most unique and interesting in the metropolis.
Prior to the work of the New York Foundling Asylum and similar institutions, all foundlings were sent to Randall’s Island (commonly referred to as one of New York’s “island of the undesirables”). Historically, Randall’s Island has had an almshouse, psychiatric hospitals, a juvenile reformatory, and other city-run institutions. Randall’s Island reportedly had a facility with fine furnishings and qualified nurses, nearly 95% of all infants sent there died there. Before the development of modern infant formula, babies died of malnutrition. Disease was also rampant.
“Well, the little fellows are better off dead,” the attendants would say; “they wouldn’t have much to look forward to, anyway.”
With a change in how the little ones were cared for, a remarkable improvement is survival rate was noted. The new approach was summarized in one word by Leslie’s Weekly magazine–“mothering.”
It supplied that which the hospital (on Randall’s Island) could not give, the comforting and fondling and the little attentions, as well as the food and love of them…It is this “mothering” that has reduced the death rate among the foundlings of New York from 99 to a percent lower than all the other children of the city–a remarkable fact when one considers the conditions under which these foundlings begin their journey through the world, the lack of care and the exposure to which they are subjected at the outset.
Earlier, we looked at how a baby might be found. What would happen next to the little one? In 1902, the foundling would be taken to Bellevue Hospital, a city-run facility, and admitted to a children’s ward. By the next morning, the baby would be taken away by what today would be called a caseworker. One caseworker worked for the Catholic charities, and one for the Protestant charities.
Prior to being taken to the orphanage, the infant is baptized at the hospital, christened in the faith of the organization taking custody–half of the foundlings are marked Catholic and half are officially Protestant. Thus, all these babies are Christian.
Not long ago there was a protest from a Hebrew mother whose child, neglected by those in whose charge it was placed, was carried to Bellevue as a foundling and baptized in the Roman Catholic church. When she learned of this the shock against the strong religious faith of the mother was so great that she fainted. The woman herself sick, was unable to care for the child and it had remained in the care of the Guild of the Infant Savior.
The fact that the government agency provided for the baptism of infants, alternating between Catholic and Protestant, is unusual from a current-day perspective. The 1902 magazine story, though, emphasizes that the resulting care of the baby primarily arises from a “human,” not religious feeling, and that caretakers are…
…touched by the sight of the frail bit of flesh struggling for life; they hear the pitiful pleading of their little voice, and the tiny hands and feet, the soft eyes, the little body, all speak in irresistible argument. The religious ceremony is a formality to be quickly disposed of, so that the real personal care of the child may begin.
Rather than staying in the orphanage, the baby would be placed with a mother, often a woman who had recently lost a child. The foster mother would be paid $10-$12 a month to care for the baby until it is old enough to be weaned.
While the majority of foundlings are discovered in or near tenements where the poor and recent immigrants reside, some of the babies are left in expensive baskets or at locations suggesting they were born to women who are more economically well off. In the end, many of the little ones travel great distances on orphan trains to become part of new families.
And these foundlings grow to manhood and womanhood and to their graves under the shadow of their unknown origin. There are those, of course, who may never learn that they were foundlings; but in most cases guardians feel that their charges should be told the truth. Letters come frequently to the city officials from men who know that they were foundling babies. They ask to be told all that is known of their origin. The department of charities looks over the books and finds a record on bland No. 30 for lost children, and that is all that is ever known.
The New York Foundling Asylum led the way in developing a new system of care for abandoned infants and other children turned over for care. The Foundling recognized that children needed to feel loved, in addition to having their physical needs met.
While it now seems obvious that children have emotional needs, this was a revolutionary concept at the time. Placing the youngest of children in a home setting, allowed for these children to have better nutrition and to progress along a healthy emotional trajectory. The Foundling also closely monitored the children’s progress while in this foster care.
While the experiences of the children placed on orphan trains was mixed, it can be argued that these children may have had better chances at life than if they had remained in New York at that time.
“These foundlings are nameless.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch–May 15, 1901
The little ones had been on the orphan train for two days when it pulled into St. Louis Union Station on Tuesday evening, May 14, 1901. Fifty-two children, with the youngest being about three years of age, and the oldest about six, were accompanied by just three adults. There were two Sisters of Charity, and one Placement Agent, Charles P. O’Hara, all from the New York Foundling Asylum.
The adults knew the drill well–keep the little ones occupied as much as possible on the train, pull into the station, get the children cleaned up, fed, rested, and then the next day, dress them up as the most irresistible little waifs anyone has ever laid eyes on.
That night, the children and their caretakers slept in their special train car. On Wednesday morning, 15 youngsters were handed over to their new families. According to a newspaper account at the time, most of the children “greeted their new parents as if they recognized them and were returning after a brief absence.”
The caretakers had told the little ones that they had been away at school and they were returning to their “mamas and papas.” In 1901, the prevailing thought was that children should not know that they were adopted. It was best that they not know the circumstances into which they had been born and how they had come to the New York Foundling Asylum.
That morning, each new parent showed a numbered ticket to the representative from the Foundling Asylum, and that number was matched to a numbered tag sewn into the clothing of a particular child. Thus each little one was matched with the preordained family. The entire process was quite efficient, taking only a few minutes, and the remaining children were placed on the trains that would take them to their final destinations.
An onlooker noted the neat appearance of the children, and Mr. O’Hara explained: “Yes, we commenced washing them at 12 o’clock yesterday. We got through this morning. We couldn’t do the work faster because there were so many of them. They travel in their old clothes, so as to have fresh ones at their destination, and each was given a bath and dressed in clean clothes.”
By 7:35 a.m., 30 children left with two Sisters of Charity, heading toward Osage and Cole Counties in Central Missouri. The other youngsters boarded the 8:45 a.m. train to Vienna, in Maries County. G. Whitling Swayne, the Traveling Agent for the Foundling Asylum, accompanied the smaller group.
Mr. Swayne was responsible for finding homes for the children. He regularly traversed the countryside, talking with small-town parish priests as well as farmers, appealing to their Catholic faith, and their own interests, to take in one or perhaps two of the little ones. Little girls could provide companionship for women who worked at home while the men were taking care of crops and livestock. Boys from the Foundling Asylum would learn to work beside the men, becoming valuable farmhands.
For Mr. Swayne, 1901 was a good year. He had found families for more than 100 youngsters, with all of the families being in Missouri.
On that afternoon of May 15, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a photograph of five of the children, dressed to appeal to even the most hardened heart. There were three little girls in dresses with bows at the collar and bonnets on their heads and two boys in suits of a style popular at the time, also with large bows at the collars, and with stylish hats on their heads.
Underneath that photo in the newspaper, the caption states: “These foundlings are nameless.” This was not true. Each child had a name while living at the “orphanage,” though that name may, or may not, have been connected to the child’s family of origin. Some children were named by a parent with the name being shared with the Foundling Asylum when the child was left there. Other children were dropped off anonymously or were found abandoned on the city streets. In those cases, the Asylum gave them a name that would follow them to their new families.
My grandfather was on that train in 1901. He was five years old, and he had a piece of fabric attached to his jacket with a name, Joseph Auer, handwritten in ink. Little Joseph had no idea who he really was or where he had come from.
Joseph would grow up within the Markway family of Wardsville, Missouri. He was fortunate that many of his fellow orphan train riders would live in the same rural community and attend the same school. Later some of them would attend the same church in nearby Jefferson City, and he would talk with them after Mass. He maintained lifelong bonds with the only other people who could understand his journey.
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.
It was May 1901, and Joseph Aner was just five years old. As he boarded the train that would take him away from the New York Foundling Home, he was scared. He had ridden a similar train before to Nebraska, or was it Iowa? There he joined a nice family, but when his new Mom became ill, his Dad had a farm to tend to, with no time for Joseph. So, Joseph rode the train back to New York, to his first home, The New York Foundling Asylum.
This time, Joseph was going to Missouri. He knew he wasn’t going there to reunite with his “real Papa and Mama”—that’s what the caretakers told all the children. Even though he was only five, Joseph was an Orphan Train veteran.
There were 52 children on this Missouri Pacific line. In St. Louis, 15 of them met their new families. Another 36 rode deeper into Missouri, most of them to Osage City.
It there that Joseph met his new parents. Unfortunately, the first placement did not work out, and a local priest arranged for Joseph to join the family of Fred and Catherine Markway, of rural Cole County.
As long as I can remember, I knew my grandfather came from the New York Foundling Home, to Missouri, on an orphan train. As a child, I didn’t think a lot about it. I never thought about the empty space in his heart, of not knowing how he came into this world, of not knowing the beginning of his own story.
All I knew as a child was that Grandpa was the best. He made me feel loved and special. My very first memory was when I was three years old and my family moved from St. Louis to Jefferson City, MO. Jefferson City was where Grandpa lived and my Dad had grown up. My parents bought a two-bedroom home, for $6,000, for our family of seven. The house sheltered eight, though, when Grandpa moved in. Grandpa was fun, and funny, and he made me feel loved.
Grandpa died suddenly when I was 11. His belongings got divided up among my Dad and Dad’s two sisters. Dad got the name tag Grandpa had worn on the back of his jacket while riding the train in 1901. I had not seen that before, and seeing that piece of fabric, with his original name, Joseph Aner, written so elegantly in cursive,made his beginnings real to me. I wanted to know more. Who was Grandpa?
As I grew up, I remained curious about his origins, but I had no way of exploring them. In the 1990s, when I first logged onto the internet, the very first search I did was looking for the surname “Aner.” I found a few people in Philadelphia. Was there a connection to Grandpa?
Three years ago, I felt an overwhelming need to know more. I took an AncestryDNA test.
Before getting my DNA results back, I found his birth certificate online. It was difficult to find because it was filed under “Auer,” not “Aner.” As you can see, the handwriting was not clear.
The birth certificate showed Joseph Auer was born to Adelaide Auer and Joseph King, at a Catholic hospital that served the poor and destitute. Records indicated Joseph was left at the Foundling Home within a few days of his birth.
I searched and searched for information about his parents, but there were no records. The names Joseph King and Adelaide Auer were pseudonyms. His parents wanted never to be found.
I continued searching for anything that could tell me more about Grandpa. I found his World War I draft registration. Under “Place of Birth,” it said “Unknown.” That one word, “Unknown,” hit me in the gut—it was so sad.
I became obsessed, knowing that DNA testing had the potential to connect me to his origins. I felt a pressure to hurry. I belong to the last generation that knew Grandpa. And, with each generation, the DNA trail fades like an old photograph.
I learned more about his life by scouring old newspapers. He was among the first young men from Central Missouri drafted during the first World War. I talked to my older brother, Jack, about this. Jack had a lot in common with Grandpa and they would work on projects together—carpentry, car repair, painting—and sometimes Grandpa would talk to Jack about his past.
Grandpa briefly mentioned the war, hinting at traumatic experiences, but then shut down. He said just enough for Jack to know Grandpa had seen the human cost of war up close.
After the war, Grandpa married into a prominent family in Jefferson City and he started his own family. He also started his own business as an automobile dealer. He sold the cars, repaired them, and taught his customers to drive.
His business did well. In September 1929, he went on a tour of Hupmobile factories to see the new models. The next month, the stock market crashed, and his business slipped away.
After several weeks, my AncestryDNA results came in.
A few months later, I found a promising lead, a few DNA matches that connected only through Grandpa. One of these matches had a family tree that included three siblings who all would have been in their 20s or early 30s when Grandpa was born. And…they all lived in New York.
Through a lot of work, I pieced together that George Van Sten, from Brooklyn, was Grandpa’s father. George lived a rather colorful life, and he made the newspapers as a result.
I had no leads for Grandpa’s mother. As I was talking about this with my brother one day, Jack told me: “He always said his mother was Abbie Doyle.” Later one of my cousins told me the same thing.
I was stunned. How could Grandpa know this?
Jack said Grandpa was clearly bothered by what he had learned in New York, and would start to talk and then stop. His feelings of abandonment were overwhelming, and they took away his voice, preventing him from telling all that he knew about his story. It seems he was a secret, and being a secret hurt.
I searched everywhere for signs of Abbie, or Abigail Doyle. I learned that searching for Irish names in New York in the late 1800s didn’t narrow things down much.
Then one day I was looking through a family tree on Ancestry.com. I saw a name—Abbie Camille Doyle–could this really be her?
Abbie was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1873. The timing would fit…
Abbie was the youngest of six children, with four brothers and one sister. Her father, Jeremiah Doyle, and her mother, Margaret Foley, head each come to America from Ireland during the potato famine. Her parents married in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1856.
When the Civil War began, Abbie’s father joined the Union Army, and he was wounded soon thereafter. He was discharged due to “disability. This was 12 years before Abbie’s birth. What happened after that? Did her older siblings work to support the family? Her father died when she was just eight years old.
In Massachusetts records from 1899, I found Abbie married William Dolan. The marriage record listed William as residing in New York City. Additional DNA research provided overwhelming evidence that Abbie was Grandpa’s mother.
I tried to imagine what things had been like for her. I don’t know the circumstances, but she had found herself expecting a child. She gave birth as a poor single mother. Her life could not have been easy and her emotions must have been complex. She must have felt alone, with no good alternatives.
I found myself caring about this woman I had never met.
And then, I received a message from a descendant of one of Abbie’s siblings. My newfound cousin had sent me a family photo that included Abbie and three of her brothers. As I gazed into her eyes for the first time, I saw my grandfather, and I realized he had found Abbie. And so had I.
(Through searching for my grandfather’s roots, and writing this blog, I was invited to speak at the 150th anniversary event for the New York Foundling Home which operates today as “The Foundling.” It continues in operation, serving those with special needs, including: foster care, developmental disabilities, and child abuse and neglect. Below is the text of my remarks. I will be writing more soon about my experience meeting other descendants of orphan train riders–one of the most moving days of my life.)
Good Morning! I’m honored to be speaking today for the 150th anniversary of the New York Foundling Home, now the Foundling Hospital, or just “The Foundling.”
I want to begin by asking you to think about what brought you here today? What is your connection to the Foundling—is it relatively recent or long ago? Have you ever talked about that connection?
Stories are powerful things—researcher and writer, Brene Brown—says that “our brains are wired for stories,” particularly stories about overcoming adversity, stories of courage, stories that inspire us. Stories give us hope and remind us of what is possible.
Today, I’m going to tell my grandfather’s story, which is also my story. And, in some ways, it is the story of all of us here today.
As long as I can remember, I knew my grandfather came from the New York Foundling Home, to Central Missouri, on an orphan train. As a kid, I didn’t think a lot about it. I never thought about the empty space in his heart, of not knowing how he came into this world, of not knowing the beginning of his own story.
All I knew back then was Grandpa was the best. He made me feel loved and special. When I was three years old, my family moved back to Jefferson City MO from St. Louis. Jefferson City was where Grandpa lived and where my Dad grew up. My parents bought a two-bedroom house for our family of seven.
Grandpa was very handy, and he finished off the attic to be the bedroom for me and my two brothers. For a while, Grandpa also shared that room. It was tight, but I loved him being there.
I could go on and on with memories of Grandpa, but let me just say he was always fun and funny.
Grandpa died suddenly when I was 11. His belongings got divided up among my Dad and my Dad’s two sisters. Dad got the nametag Grandpa had worn on his clothing on the orphan train in 1901. I hadn’t seen that before, and now, seeing that name scrawled on a piece of fabric, Joseph Aner (or was it Auer?—no one knows for sure—various records interpret the cursive handwriting differently)—that nametag suddenly made his background more real to me. Who was he really?
As I grew up, I remained curious about his origins, but I had no way of exploring them. In the 1990’s when, I first got the internet, I dialed up and searched for the surname “Aner” and found a few people in Philadelphia, but that was it. Who knew if there was any connection…
Then, a couple years ago, I took an Ancestry DNA test. I still couldn’t find any connection to anyone named Aner, or Auer. After what seemed like a lifetime of searching, I found a birth certificate, with a child born April 30, 1896—that was Grandpa’s birthday. The child was Joseph Auer, born to Joseph King and Adelaide Auer, born at a Catholic Hospital serving poor, unwed mothers. Records indicate Joseph Aner arrived at the Foundling a couple days after being born, apparently with clear expectations that his parents would never be found.
It’s not surprising that parents would use made-up names when giving a child to an orphanage. A child born out of wedlock was a significant “stain” on a family at that time. An unwed mother, even under the best of circumstances, would have difficulty providing for a child. Women generally were not employed at that time, and having a child could even disqualify them from getting a job. Having a child could also limit her chances of getting married in the future.
I looked through every available online record, trying to piece together what I could about Grandpa’s life. I found his first World War I draft registration. Under Place of Birth, it said, “Unknown.” I don’t know why, but this one word hit me in the gut—it was so sad. It also didn’t make sense to me—he knew he was born in New York and that he came from the Foundling Home.
I became obsessed, knowing that DNA testing had the potential to connect me to his origins. I felt pressure to hurry—I belong to the last generation that knew him. And with each passing generation the DNA trail fades just like an old photograph. That word “unknown” gnawed at me. I didn’t want that word to be associated with Grandpa any more.
I learned more about his life by scouring old newspapers. He was among the first young men from Central Missouri drafted into World War I. I talked to my older brother about this—my brother was named after Grandpa and they did some carpentry and painting work together. They talked a lot. Grandpa wouldn’t talk about the war though—he hinted at traumatic experiences.
After the war, Grandpa married into a prominent family in Jefferson City and he started his own family. He also started a business, as an automobile dealer. Newspapers show he was doing well, when in 1929, the stock market crashed, and his business gradually disappeared.
As I continued to search through thousands of DNA matches on Ancestry.com, I found a cluster of people not related to my mother, nor to Grandpa’s wife, meaning they were the first line I could identify as being my grandfather’s. I found Grandpa’s father was a Van Sten from Brooklyn.
I still did not have any leads for his mother, though. As I was talking about this with my brother one day, Jack told me: “He always said his mother was Abbie Doyle.” (Later one of my cousins told me the same thing.) I was stunned for several reasons…how would Grandpa know this? I remember my mother, Grandpa’s daughter-in-law, once telling me that Grandpa had gone to New York and found his mother, or did he just find out who she was… Mom wasn’t sure. But Mom knew that he had found something about his mother when he went to New York. Family lore says that Grandpa returned to Missouri and announced, “I am a Markway.”
Jack said Grandpa was clearly bothered by what he had learned in New York, and would start to talk and then stop. As a psychologist, I know that feelings of abandonment can be overwhelming. These feelings are real and deep, and they can last for generations. Grandpa had them, and they took away his voice, preventing him from telling all that he knew about his story. Being a secret hurts.
I searched everywhere for signs of Abbie, or Abigail, Doyle. I learned that searching for Irish names in New York in the late 1800s doesn’t narrow things down much. Why did they name their kids Mary Margaret, Margaret Mary, Daniel, Michael, and Joseph…and then the next generation had the exact same names? I then gave up for a few months before starting over. I finally gave up on the idea that he really knew his mother’s name. I could believe he had gone to New York to look for her, but…actually finding her seemed… unlikely.
As I went through my DNA matches again, I found a group of people that matched no other lines in my family. They had to be connected to Grandpa’s mother, but I couldn’t even see how they connected to each other…Then, as I was looking through one family tree, I saw a name, Abbie Camille Doyle.
I can’t yet say with absolute certainty that this Abbie Doyle was his mother, but other descendants of her are showing up as sharing the appropriate amounts of DNA with me. I’m working on tracing all the information I can, both DNA and paper trails, to prove one way or another. I know I’m very, very close. And soon I hope to eliminate that word “unknown” from Grandpa’s history. Or, perhaps, he already did so…
I have learned a lot about the Abbie Doyle who may be my great-grandmother. Some of it is entertaining—for example, she had a granddaughter who dated Elvis Presley. But the more I learn about her, the more I see her as a human being and not just a branch on my family tree. She was the youngest of 8 children. Her father was wounded in the Civil War. There are many signs that her life was not easy. Her sister died at age 26. A brother died at 22. I have no idea how she ended up in New York City after growing up outside Springfield, Massachusetts, but there are documents placing her in New York… And then having a baby…giving up that baby must have been traumatic for her…while, at the same time, hoping that the he would be better off…
Despite all his trauma, Grandpa was able to love. There are so many memories—my cousin Shelley remembers him teaching her to waltz, to dance. I remember coming to visit our house every Tuesday night and always bringing me a bag of peanuts. Hi ability to love—Was it the care he received at the Foundling Home? A natural, inborn resilience? His adoptive family? He has many grandkids, many great-grandkids. From what I’ve learned Abbie has many, many descendants, and her life turned out well, but she had struggles of her own.
Our society has made it a pleasant pastime to investigate where we’re from and who our people are, to see them as names on a computer screen. We are so fortunate that with DNA we can now truly know much about our history. But most Orphan Train riders never knew. I believe it’s our duty as their offspring to find the puzzle pieces and put them together. It won’t help with their feelings of abandonment, but it might help us. There is a basic human need to know who you are, and how you connect to this world.
Scientific research shows that telling our story can have healing effects. By telling our story, we make sense of the world, we figure out how we fit into that world, and we honor the person we are talking about. That is why I felt an overwhelming need to be here today. And I suspect, in some way, that’s why you’re here today as well.
Every one of you has your own story to tell—a story of confronting adversity, and overcoming it in some way. Once again, I ask that you consider telling whatever part of that story that you know, so that we can preserve your memories, and honor the reason why you came to this event.
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.