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.
I have always pictured Sister Mary Irene FitzGibbon, the originator of the New York Foundling Home, as a humble servant doing God’s work in taking care of abandoned infants. While this image may be correct, the more I learn, I realize she had to be so much more.
Prior to starting the Foundling, she filed incorporation papers with the state of New York, part of the process of working toward a more secure financial foundation.
Recently, while researching the Foundling’s history, I ran across a report from a commission appointed by the State of New York. The Extract from the Ninth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities of the State of New York Relating to Orphan Asylums and Other Institutions for the Care of Children, summarizes the workings of all orphanages in New York, and includes several pages describing the Foundling.
I was stunned to read the following statement: “The primary objective of the institution is to prevent infanticide.”
While I knew the Foundling served to save abandoned babies, I had never heard it described in such a direct manner.
The report went on to say: “Those identified with the work assert that ‘there is no class of suffering humanity whose cry for help and life is so sad and touching as the foundling’s. Scarcely has the unfortunate inhaled the vital air, unaware of all of life except its first necessities and sufferings, before its disposal becomes a grievous question with the attendants upon its birth.'”
In current times, it is nearly impossible to imagine the plight of an unmarried woman giving birth around 1870–without a husband or other family to support her, the woman would face the daunting task of survival. The primary work available to the woman would be as a teacher or a servant, and neither would be available to a woman with a child. So what was she to do? A facility such as the Foundling gave her the option of leaving her baby with an agency that would care for the child and, ultimately, find a home for the little one.
The work the Foundling did was not popular. As the report notes: “Many and almost insurmountable difficulties necessarily attended the beginning of such an undertaking; the wants to be supplied were numerous and varied, and many voices were raised to oppose, and even to condemn, the whole work as a real evil under the guise of an imaginary good.” Opponents argued that the Foundling was encouraging and supporting sin.
The report noted: “The first month of its existence twenty-eight little unfortunates were admitted, which the Sisters considered abundant proof not only that vice was prevalent, and that such an asylum for the waif was sorely needed, but also that the opening of the asylum had nothing whatever to do with the existence of the waif or the sin of its parents.”
Sister Mary Irene went against many of the views of her time in that she focused on the child rather than the “sin of its parents.”
Sister Mary Irene is quoted in the report as she summarizes the, at the time, brief history of the Foundling Home:
“We began work about six years ago, without a cent, in a dwelling-house of Twelfth Street, our principal object being to prevent infanticide and save the reputation of the women.” The very idea of “saving the reputation of the women” was a radical concept–she wanted to care for the mothers as well as the children.
“Since that small beginning we have received over six thousand children and over one hundred women.” (At this point in the Foundling’s history, it primarily received infants–6,000 is an astounding number. The women were mothers who stayed at the Foundling to nurse their babies. In order to stay, they nursed their own baby and one other baby. The goal was to get the mother back on her feet so she could resume her place in society, and hopefully take care of her own child. The idea of trying to help a woman keep her baby was revolutionary.)
“The three Sisters who began the work with me were Sister Teresa Vincent, Sister Ann Aloisious (sic) and Sister Frances Liguori. They all continue in it except one. We remained on Twelfth Street one year, and then rented a house on Washington Square, paying $7,000 a year in rent. We remained there three years. In the meantime, we obtained this lot of ground from the city on lease for ninety-nine years, at a nominal rent. By an act of the Legislature the city was authorized to grant us $100,000 provided we could procure a similar amount by private subscriptions. We collected it in about a month. At one single fair we realized $71,000. The rest was derived from private subscriptions. The sum of $320,000 has been expended on the property, buildings, etc. We left Washington Square and came to our new building Feb. 1, 1873. We had about 50 children then.”
That such a “humble nun” had the vision to incorporate the Foundling Home and the business acumen to raise large sums of money and create an economically viable agency is astounding.
Sister Mary Irene summarized: “We commenced this work with two cups and saucers. The first morning we had to beg our breakfasts. We slept on straw on the floor the first year, rolling the mattresses up during the day.” The report noted: “Since that time about a million dollars have been expended by the Sisters, and they now have what is said to be one of the best buildings in the city.” (A million dollars…in six years…)
The report noted: “On the date of the visitation (when the commission members went to the facility), there were five hundred children, and about one hundred nurses in the institution. In addition about one thousand children were being boarded out, at the expense of the asylum. These children are brought, at frequent interval, by those having them in charge, to the Sisters, to be examined as to their health. On Wednesday, preceding our visit, one thousand children were thus brought to the asylum, and after passing inspection, were taken back to the homes in which they were being nursed.”
“‘A great many children in the Asylum,’ Sister Irene said, ‘are between the ages of two and five, the oldest child is about six years. Our first plan was to take the children and keep them; now we return them to their mothers who sometimes come and claim their children. There is no child that cannot, from its first arrival be traced. We have returned hundreds to their parents.'” (Again, the idea of “family reunification” was quite forward-thinking. It is not clear how children could be “traced” or what this means exactly.)
The report contained detailed physical descriptions of the facilities: “Nursery No. 1 contains sixteen iron cribs and sixteen iron bedsteads. Each crib accommodates two infants, the larger beds, which stand one beside each crib, are for the nurses. The cribs have straw mattresses and husk beds.” (The nursing women slept next to each crib, immediately available to the babies as needed.) The cribs also had mosquito netting to protect the little ones.
The facility, located on 68th Street, between Third and Lexington Avenues, consisted of an Administration building that was five stories high, made of brick and stone. It was ninety-nine feet wide by sixty feet deep. It also had a kitchen for the community, dining rooms and offices.
The day-to-day operations were a huge logistical undertaking. There were sewing, linen, and visiting rooms, as well as dormitories and an infirmary. On each side of the Administration building, Ward buildings with large pavilions at each end were under construction. Each story would have a children’s washroom, a small kitchen, a room for stem drying of linen, and a closet and bathroom for nurses. In the basement would be offices for physicians, dispensaries, waiting rooms, nurses and sewing rooms, small kitchens, storerooms and closets. (Imagine the endless work of maintaining food and hygiene for so many little ones and the staff.)
Basements also had coal bins and ices vaults. The entire facility was heated by steam and lighted by gas.
The facility had very tall ceilings, with the first floors having ceilings that measure 15′ 6″, and upper floors being a minimum of 14′ tall. The height of the ceilings and the large windows allowed for considerable light and airflow, minimizing the contagiousness of illness.
So, Sister Mary Irene led an agency from the equivalent of a single family apartment, to a larger home, to a facility that was the size of a small college. While she certainly must have had considerable help, she also must have possessed amazing leadership ability, business skill, and compassion to have brought this about.
“I think healing happens in spite of what actually goes on. It creeps up on you.” –Kim Schotte
My grandfather, Joseph Aner was born on the last day of April in 1896. He was not given a middle name. This fact bothered him throughout his life as he viewed this as a sign of how quickly he was given away to be placed in an orphanage. It is not even clear than his surname was Aner—one database interprets the handwriting as saying his name was “Auer.” The New York Foundling Home records say it was Aner.
The question of his original surname is unanswerable and irrelevant really—whatever the name, it was made up. Neither of his parents bore that name. That name, like the those of his mother and father, was created to take away any traces of his true identity.
Prior to the age of five—I have not yet been able to find out exactly when—he was placed on an “orphan train” to Nebraska where he was taken in by a couple willing to raise a child. Unfortunately, the mother in that family died, and the father was unable to both work and take care of a little boy. Joseph returned to the Foundling Home to live.
What did it feel like not to have a family as a young child? Then to have one for a short time? Then to return to the orphanage?
As a psychologist, I know that children often have a type of “magical thinking” where they blame themselves as a means of making sense of their experiences. What did Grandpa think and feel?
I have talked with various people who know bits and pieces of my grandfather’s life. I know that when he came to Wardsville, Missouri, he first went to a family where he was physically abused. I have heard details of this, but see no benefit of sharing them here. Somehow he was then taken in by the Markway family, a surname he ultimately took on as his own, a name I now share.
When I began searching for Grandpa’s history, I was focused on finding his parents. After two years of searching, I knew the name of his father. A year later, I knew his mother. And, I had a photo of her.
I thought my search was complete.
But then new questions emerged.
I had noticed that Grandpa had changed his date of birth on documents. Why? Also, he had told a few of his descendants that his mother was named Abbie Doyle. How had he discovered her name? His actual birth date?
My mother had once said that Grandpa had gone back to New York and found his mother. But she didn’t know any details. This could explain how he would know her name. I have speculated that learned his actual birth date on that trip. How would I ever know if this is true?
I wondered how Grandpa ended up with the Markway family. I heard from someone in the family that the parish priest came to the Markways and persuaded them to give Grandpa a home.
I wanted to know more about Grandpa going to Nebraska—where? What exactly happened? How old was he? How long was he there?
As the questions kept growing, I had to accept that I would never know the answers, that the answers were buried under the sands of time.
Over the past twenty years, my siblings and I had requested information from the Foundling Home several times. My sister received a response stating the date Grandpa came to the Foundling Home, and that he went to the Markway family where he was “dearly loved.” I was told that there were no records, and how 120 years ago, they didn’t keep the kind of records I was seeking.
In 2019, I heard that the Foundling was digitizing their records. In February 2020, I made one more request. I didn’t have any expectations, but I had a little bit of hope. Then Covid hit New York City, and the city came to a standstill.
In early January 2021, I received an email from the Foundling, an email including “all the records” they had on Grandpa. There were just four pages. Two pages were the front and back of an index card that gave one or two sentence annual updates on Grandpa with the Markway family. (There was no mention of Grandpa going to another family in Wardsville first, nor of his time in Nebraska.) The front of this index card didn’t tell me much.
Then I looked at the back of the card, the second page of the records I received. A one-sentence note dated December 13, 1926 says: “Joseph asking about his History. Joseph Markway” So, Grandpa did return to New York and ask questions. That is where he learned his mother’s name. I still don’t know if he met his biological mother, but it now seemed possible. He was motivated, and it appears someone told him some things—his birth date for example.
The other two pages of Grandpa’s records consist of two letters from St. Stanislaus parish in Wardsville, the town where he grew up.. One, dated February 24, 1903, reports that Grandpa was placed with another family, after the man is his previous home “passed to eternity.” The letter also notes that this was a “change no doubt for the better.” This suggests Grandpa’s first home in Wardsville was abusive, as I had been told.
I have always wondered how Grandpa endured so much trauma and became such a loving person that I wanted to honor him by filling in the missing information of his life. How was Grandpa so resilient?
Psychologist Louise Silvern describes resilience as “that wonderful word for something we don’t understand.” Maybe I don’t need to understand why Grandpa survived and thrived to the point that his descendants revere him. It’s enough to have known him.
At age 30, he was searching for his mother, and in some ways I suspect, he was searching for himself. The pain of not knowing his parents, of being left in an orphanage, stayed with him. But Grandpa showed that the opening of his life did not define him. As he watched his kids and grandkids grow up, the healing crept up on him.
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.
For the past two years, I’ve been searching for clues regarding my paternal grandfather’s origins, and I can now say, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that I have found his father.
My grandfather, Joseph Auer came to central Missouri on an Orphan Train from the New York Foundling Home and was adopted by the Fred Markway and Catherine Schnieders Markway family. Joseph longed to find his birth family, but that was not possible in that era. The Foundling Home asked no questions when a child was left in its care, and the culture of the time required secrecy.
For a while, I have known that my grandfather’s origins could be traced back to the Van Sten family of New York City two brothers possibly being my great-grandfather.
Fortunately for me in my search, multiple descendants of the Van Sten family took DNA tests with Ancestry, and this allowed me to compare my DNA (as well as my brother Jack’s) with that of my fellow Van Sten descendants. Through multiple DNA tests, I have verified that I am descended from a male member of the Van Sten family–so Catherine could be eliminated as a potential great-grandparent. There were three males of that generation, one of whom died in childhood, leaving James and George as possibilities.
DNA testing results showed that Jack and I shared slightly more DNA with descendants of Catherine than with descendants of James (the differences are small statistically, but strongly suggest that James is not our direct ancestor). That left George. He never married, and has no other direct descendants that I’ve been able to identify.
So, what do I know about George and the rest of the Van Sten family?
The first definitive documentation I can find on this family is a James Vansten, born in Ireland in 1809, marrying Sarah Murphy, also born in Ireland (in 1810). They were married at St. Nicholas Catholic church in Liverpool. James’ occupation is listed as a “cordwainer,” or shoemaker.
James and Sarah had a son, Richard born in Liverpool, England in 1834. The family left England for the United States when Richard was two-years-old. James and Sarah had a total of five children. Sometime before 1855, it appears, Sarah may have died (she is not listed in the New York Census record for that year).
Richard Van Sten had a brother that was not listed in the census record above. That brother was named George, but this George died near the end of the Civil War after serving in the Union Army. I do not know if he died as a result of the war, or from other causes.
Richard’s wife, Mary Ann Ryan, was born in New York. She was seven years younger than Richard, and they married when she was about 18. They had four children. Catherine came first in 1860. Then there was James in 1861, followed by Richard Jr. in 1864–but the family endured a tough time when Richard Jr. died four years later. Then, in 1868, George arrived, apparently named after his late uncle. George lost his mother when he was just five. George’s father found a housekeeper, Annie McCaffrey, to help with the children. George’s father died in 1888 when George was 20.
Throughout his life, George was involved in social activities. In 1891, at the age of 23, he was elected Chair of the Dramatic Committee of the Booth Dramatic Society in Brooklyn. In 1901, he was playing Euchre at the Flatbush (Brooklyn) Knights of Columbus and he won a prize. In 1918, he attended a Knights of Columbus dance in Brooklyn.
In 1915, George was involved in a lurid lawsuit after his fiance married another man. (I wrote about that in more detail here.)
George died in Philadelphia, of chronic bronchitis) in 1934. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Brooklyn.
In talking with people who are very distantly related to me, many generations back, I have found various potential branches of the family. The Vanstones came from Devon, England. That is likely the origin of the Van Stens, with the spelling changing for unknown reasons–perhaps it was just a transcription error.
So where does this leave me in my journey? Well, I still have no clear leads on my great-grandmother. There my be clues in my DNA connections, but I have not yet identified them. But…I’m still looking.
Soon, I will write about my maternal side. I have found some wild and fascinating stories about Mennonites getting taken hostage by their church in Switzerland and forced to leave the country, about families being invited by William Penn to come to Pennsylvania, and about descendants of these families coming to Missouri when they are given land. They end up in Cole, Miller, and Moniteau counties.
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, 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.