It took me a few years to find my grandfather’s birth mother, Abbie Doyle. As I pieced together Abbie’s life as best I could from records and small town newspapers, it was clear that Abbie was very close to her her uncle, Michael Daniel Foley and his wife, Margaret Brown Foley. There were newspaper accounts of Abbie visiting them in Fall River, Massachusetts around Christmas time, and Abbie was visiting them while pregnant with my grandfather.
This raised questions for me. I knew Abbie’s father had died in 1881, when she was just eight years old. In my five years of searching, though, I could not find what had become of her mother, Margaret Foley Doyle.
Abbie’s parents had married in 1856. Her father was born in County Kerry, Ireland, likely near Killarney. Jeremiah Doyle was wounded early in the American Civil War. Abbie’s parents show up in United States Census records in 1860, 1870, and 1880. Nearly all of the 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire, so that time is a mystery regarding the Doyle family.
When Jeremiah died, Margaret was somewhere between 45 and 49 years of age–records give varying estimates of her age. She had young adult sons who likely worked to support the family financially after their father’s death. I had wondered if circumstances forced Margaret to go to work outside the home as well.
The psychologist in me wondered what life was like for Abbie. She lost her father when she would have been in the equivalent of 2nd to 3rd grade. Abbie’s mother surely would have been grief-stricken. Who would have been there for Abbie?
Why did Abbie’s mother disappear from the records? Record-keeping in Massachusetts and the rest of New England tended to be meticulous. I had found birth, marriage, and death records on many other family members from that time. Margaret Foley Doyle kept eluding me…
Then last week, I somehow hit upon the perfect search terms, and found a death record. Margaret Foley Doyle died of cancer on July 16, 1890. So, finally, I knew another piece of Abbie’s story. She lost her father at eight, and her mother at 17.
I could not help but wonder what those intervening years had been like…and then I discovered a partial answer to this question…
With the date of Margaret Doyle’s death, I searched historical newspapers and there, in the Transcript-Telegram from Holyoke, Massachusetts, I found a notice of her death.
This information about Margaret helped complete a picture of Abbie’s early life. Abbie lost her father, and to some extent it appears, she lost her mother that very same year. Two years later, in 1892, her brother, Jeremiah, died at the age of 23. Then, just 17 months later, Abbie lost her sister, Margaret, to tuberculosis at age 26, in 1893.
I began searching for Grandpa’s origins because his early life story was missing so many pieces. Who were his parents? Why didn’t they keep him? Did they love him?
Such simple questions–but simple questions have complicated answers.
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.
While researching the Yarnell branch of my family, I came across an amazing piece of history. I had long known that the Yarnell (also spelled Yarnall) family is well-documented from colonial America to the present.
Philip and Francis Yarnall came to America in 1683 to be part of William Penn’s new colony of Pennsylvania. Philip Yarnall is my 7th great-grandfather.
Recently, I thought to look at eBay for items related to my family history. One particular item caught my eye—a book titled Forty Years of Friendship: Correspondence of Lord Coleridge and Ellis Yarnall.
Ellis Yarnall was a great great grandson of Philip—I will have to do more work on the family tree to calculate our exact genealogical relationship.
Ellis was very well-traveled and was, truly, a citizen of the world. His friend, Lord Coleridge, was an English lawyer, judge and Liberal politician. He held the posts, in turn, of Solicitor General for England and Wales, Attorney General for England and Wales, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and Lord Chief Justice of England.
I purchased Forty Years of Friendship, thinking there might be an interesting bit or two of family details, but I’ve found it to be an incredible piece of history. The letters between Coleridge and Yarnall provide a window into the thoughts of two prominent gentleman about the events of their times—and they contain ideas very relevant to the present day.
The book was published in 1911, about six years after the death of Ellis. It was edited by Charlton Yarnall, Ellis’s son. (Charlton is a fascinating character himself, and I may write about him down the road.) The book opens with letters dated in 1856, as the two men discuss issues of race and slavery.
Regarding slavery, Coleridge states: “It has always seemed to me that there are peculiarities in the question which a foreigner cannot understand. I have heard Americans, with whom on every other subject I seemed to agree generally in feeling and principle, use language on this which filled me with horror, and I am sincerely persuaded that there must be something more than a foreigner can see, on the surface of the question, to explain the intense disgust which very good and gentle people among you feel for negroes and negro blood.”
Coleridge does not express support for immediate abolition of slavery, though, as “Southern men cannot be expected to submit patiently to absolute ruin, and to what I suppose would be in many cases confiscation.” He continues: “But what puzzles me is to hear the institution, pure and simple, defended, and that nothing seems to be done, or attempted to mitigate its iniquities or prepare the way for gradual abolition.”
Coleridge’s next letter brings up the presidential election of 1856, a time when tensions were running quite high in the buildup to the Civil War: “At Washington one would expect some, at least, of the best men in America to be met together and the prevailing tone of the place ought to be decorous and gentlemanlike…I really feel that either we do not in the least understand America, or else that what is bad and ruffianly has a greater ascendancy there than any true friend of liberty can think of without sorrow and mortification.”
Ellis Yarnall replies: “I rejoice that you feel interest in the great struggle in which we are engaged in this country…You do well then to watch the present contest, and your sympathy with those of us who are struggling for the success of liberal principles, is well bestowed. I have given myself to the cause with ardour, and there are many around me who are like-minded. Here in Philadelphia there is a great deal to be done; we are in one sense a pro-slavery community, for the influence of the money-getting spirit is very much opposed to the love of a wise liberty. Then, too, people of Southern birth are among us, and there have been marriage connections and there is neighbourhood—a sort of border feeling. And, as you say, timid and refined people are averse to entering into what they call politics.”
Yarnall then gets more specific: “In regard to this Slavery question the South is now greatly excited: they are a fiery people and at present are not in a condition to listen to reason. Their leaders have told them the North is refusing them their rights, and the story is believed.” Later Yarnall notes that a Southern leader had advised his constituents that if Mr. Fremont wins the election, then Southerners should “march to Washington and seize the Archives and the Treasury.”
To be continued…To be notified of future articles, enter your email in the box in the right side of this page and click Follow.
Ms. Copeland does a wonderful job of summarizing the science of DNA testing in brief and easily understandable ways, while also raising questions about where this new technology is taking us. Family secrets are bursting out of the closets and saying “hello” through Facebook messages.
Consumer DNA testing, such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe, has given rise to the new field called “genetic genealogy.” Yes, this is what allowed me to uncover the roots of my grandfather who came to Missouri from New York City on an orphan train.
The Lost Family struck such a chord in me that I reached out to Ms. Copeland–yes, in a Facebook message. She responded promptly, and we struck up a conversation.
I mentioned that I was a psychologist, and that my dissertation was on how people develop a sense of identity–what makes them who they are, or at least who they believe themselves to be. More specifically, my research was on how family influences an adolescent’s identity development.
Ms. Copeland then asked me a question about how difficult it can be for someone to incorporate new family information after they are well into adulthood. She asked if my profession and education gave me any particular insight into that.
I initially stumbled trying to come up with an answer. I realized I was more comfortable talking about my own experience in researching family history than I was with talking as the “professional, the psychologist.”
I referred her to a couple things I had written, one of them being the talk I gave at the 150th anniversary of the New York Foundling Home, the “orphanage” that sent my grandfather to his new life in Missouri. Ms. Copeland replied that she thought I put it well in that talk when I said: “There is a basic human need to know who you are, and how you connect to this world.”
This got me thinking some more…I developed a talk recently that was to be given at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City, MO, the town where I grew up, the town where my grandfather had lived his adult life, just a few miles where he had disembarked from that orphan train at age five.
In that talk, I repeat the idea of “our story.” Knowing it, owning it, and being able to tell it. All of this makes us, and our story, real.
I am a psychologist. Back when I was in graduate school, my favorite therapy book was titled Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel. It suggested that a good therapist may think of a client as a character in a great book–what do you need to know about the person to make them more interesting? Keep asking questions until you fill out their personality, their story.
I find myself using that same concept in my genealogy work. I don’t just want to discover my ancestor’s name and date of birth. I want to learn their story as best I can uncover it–what did they do, think, feel? What was it like to be them. How does all that contribute to who I am? Every story I uncover becomes part of my story, part of who I am.
Every person in my family tree has a story to tell. Some seem better-suited to a best-selling book than others. But then I remember the main premise of Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel…and that is…Everybody is fascinating–it’s just that some people hide it better than others…
So, as a psychologist, amateur historian, and someone always wanting to learn more about myself, there are always more stories to discover. And for me, that is part of how I know who I am, and how I connect to this world.
Recently, I heard someone refer to their family as “just simple farmers.” I would argue that there is no such thing–every family has an amazing story if you just dig deep enough. Average, down-to-earth people may seem “simple” because they are focusing on surviving day-to-day, working to support their families. But they are part of the unfolding of history, history that is only understood later when we can view it from a distance.
My maternal grandmother was Lily Myrtle Kneisly. The Kneislys were well-known around central Missouri, having farmed and worked around Enon, High Point, California, Eldon, Russelville, and Clarksburg. Their family history can be traced back to Switzerland, escaping religious persecution by going to Alsace, and eventually to Colonial America. Those stories will be told in future posts to this blog. But first, let’s go to my grandmother…
I remember my grandmother having an old “Big Chief” tablet that had a history of the family, handwritten by her “Aunt Nan Agee.” Here it is, with some minor editing to make it easier to read:
History of Some of the Kneislys–by Nancy Belle Kneisly Agee
Part 1) Many years back, my grandfather came over from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania and from there four of his sons came to Ohio, and settled near Dayton Ohio. At the time of my birth, which will be 88 years ago the 30th of Nov. 1938. My grandfather was the wealthiest man in those parts. He owned cotton factories, saw mills, and distilleries, along the little Miami river. He also kept merchandise to supply his employers.
My grandmother’s maiden name was Seigel,of German descent also. Their family consisted of several boys, and one girl Serah. There was to my knowledge four boys, named: John, George, Adam, and Will. Serah married Dr. Ely. He died and left her a widow. I recollect her visiting my mother when I was quite young.
My Grandfather’s name was George and my father’s name was George Jr. My father was drowned near the paper mills six weeks before I was borned. My mother had dismissed the boarders and was alone with us children. He was in the habit of going away for several days at a time on his sprees and had gambled until he had nothing left, so grandfather made him Pay Master at the paper mills.
One evening, he came home early to supper and said he was going fishing, that he had promised to meet some parties at the fishing rock. So when morning came and he did not show up, and the dog, an old Newfoundland kept going to the river and coming back, howling so pitifull, she went to the mill to inquire about him. So they went to the fishing rock and dragged the river and found his body all wrapped up in his trot line. They called the coroner. My Mother never saw him after he was dead.
In a few days she went to Grandfather Kneisly to see if he would loan her some money, until she could go to work again. And what do you suppose he said to her? “Pops, you are still young and good looking, bind your children out and you can marry again.” (Binding refers to selling the children to another family where they would be indentured servants.) She replied, “No father, I will not bind them. I will work my finger nails off first.”
Then she went home and wrote to her Father. He came and moved her home, and in six weeks I was borned then. She remembered a Mr. Nixon, a big mill man she had often heard my father speak of. She wrote to Mr. Nixon for a job in his paper mill and a house. He answered back that his houses were all full, but he had a small cottage that was empty, and she could have a job in his mill. So in six weeks, grandfather Stewart moved her to the Nixon Mill, one half mile of Clifton Ohio.
There she lived in the little cottage working and sending the older Elizabeth, Dave, and Jane, to school and Sunday School, and church for three years. But the tide was bound to turn. One quarter of a mile from town you came to a bridge across a small stream of water that flowed through the meadow of a large farm. You left the main road and followed the river down to Mr. Nixon’s Mills. About another quarter mile, you came to the little cottage where my Mother lived. Next was five other large houses with two families in each house. On a little farther, you came to the paper mills across a narrow plat farm. You walked in to the upper part called the rag room where the woman worked.
Part 2) One Sunday, Mother was fixing the children off to Sunday School when there was a knock on the door. She thought it was some neighbor. She called, “Come in,” and in walked an old gentleman. Well, she was so confused that she forgot to set him a chair. She said, “I was just getting the children off to Sunday school.” He replied, “Go ahead and don’t let me bother you. I just called on a little business.”
So Mother sent the children on and the old gentleman broached the subject of his visit–he was alone with a large farm and he would love to marry her, and move her and her children to his home. Mother replied, “I haven’t given a thought about marriage, but would study about it” and let him know. So he continued his visits. Mother, being wise, decided she would be doing well to go with him, so they were married. I was three years old, my sister Elisabeth was about eleven, and Jane about nine, Dave about seven, and Jim about five.
So Father Braley and Mother worked together sending the children to school, Sunday school and church for several years. One day, Father was building a fence when he let a rail fall. It skinned his shin bone, making quite a wound. He neglected to doctor until it became poisoned, causing him to have a chronic sore. That was before civil war. Mother and the boys still kept the work going on the farm. In the year of Sixty, the war broke out, and he died, leaving Mother a widow again. Elisabeth had married a Dave Berg of the Methodist church. Jane had gone to Aleto, Illinois, to my Aunt McDoy’s.
Dave went and joined the Army. That was about the year of 1863. That left Mother, Jim, and I at home. Jim ran away, went to the Army. Mother followed him, taking him out twice. The third time, Mother followed him to Cincinnati. There they talked her out of taking him back as a man by the name of Shadric had sworn him in as his guardian and left with the Eight-hundred bounty, so she came home without him. That left Mother and I at home to care for the home and livestock.
Dave would write to Mother not to sell the livestock, that he would be home soon as he could. She wrote for Jane to come home and be with her and I. She came and when the War was over. Dave came home as soon as he could.
One day Mother looked out and up the lane, she saw Jim coming. She started running to embrace him. He called out, “Mother, don’t touch me–I’m lousy, (covered in lice). Take me some clothes to the garden.” So she did. He changed his clothes and buried his war clothes before coming in the house. So there we were, all that was left of us, at home again.
Mother had received a letter from Illinois that Elisabeth had died from the cows eating a poison weed. Dave Berg and his three children got well. I suppose some of them are still living. Their names were Sam, Henry, and Emma Jane.
Part 3) I was going to school to graduate as a teacher for two six months terms. Dave was going with a girl at Yellow Springs. Her name was Anna Blue. They were married. He brought her home. Jim was working for George Brayley, grinding bark for the tannery house.
Dave traded his government bonds for land in Missouri. Joining Wess Hackys, he wanted to go to Missouri to his land. Mother thought she could not part away from him, so she sold her dowry in the farm. Father Brayley left her to his son George, and sold her belongings, and sent Dave on before to buy her a place. He bought the old Hicks place, paid Seventy Dollars for it.
We then came to Jefferson City. Mother, Jane, Jim and I and Dave’s wife. We were there over Sunday and Monday Morning. We started home, were on the road all day, reaching home late in the evening. In the morning, the man that moved us took Mother and I as far as Mt Pleasant to get the deed fixed. He went on home and Mother and I walked back 2-1/2 miles the post office in Mr Franklin’s Store.
That was the day I first met Mr Franklin, Alice Simpson’s father. He claimed it was love on first sight on his part. He was a frequent visitor to our home until Mother gave her consent for us to be married. He would come every Sunday with a horse and buggy and take me out to Salem to church. Well that fall, in October, we were married. He was 30 yrs. old that day and Nov. the 30th I was Eighteen. We were at his Brother Will’s for a few weeks and we went to housekeeping. He was a partner in the store with his Brother Will,
We bought a house and a cow and moved. We were very happy. He worked in the store and I worked fixing up my home. Mother would come up to see us for several months. He had to go to town to California for his goods. While he was there, came a hard rain and raised the Moreau, a stream he had to ford. It was so swift he came very near being washed down the stream. That night he was taken sick. Mother was there. We called the doctor.
The doctor worked and stayed with him until daylight. He got so he could walk to the store. One day he got to shaking. They carried him home. The doctor called it St. Anthony dance. He had those spells quite a while, nothing but the shooking machine would stop them. One evening, several men came in. I was sitting, visiting with them when I saw one of them straighten his feet. I looked at him and saw the death pallor on his face. I didn’t remember anything more.
When I became conscious, he was laid out. The doctor told the woman, “Don’t let her get up.” They tried, but I did get up and knelt down by the casket. They carried me back to bed. Doctor gave me some dope. They took him away for several weeks. I couldn’t realize he was gone. Mother moved me home so she could take care of me. I would go out and set for hours. I imagined I could hear his horses feet. he rode horseback and I could always tell when he was coming.
One day I realized he was gone. I was out sitting by a strawstack crying. Mother came out and said, “Nan, you must be reconciled–you will bring more trouble on your self. I am doing all I can to save you and your baby.”
So I went in the house with her and it wasn’t long until Allie was borned. The doctor came every day until I was out of danger. Mother would set by the fire place and watch her play with her hands. When Brother, Jim heard the baby was borned that it was a girl, he walked home from Wess Hackney’s, where he was working, and the first thing he said, “Mother, what are you going to name her?” She said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Call her Alice.” So we called her Alice, after Alice Williams, the girl Jim loved first, so that’s that.
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 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.