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.
It was May 1901, and Joseph Aner was just five years old. As he boarded the train that would take him away from the New York Foundling Home, he was scared. He had ridden a similar train before to Nebraska, or was it Iowa? There he joined a nice family, but when his new Mom became ill, his Dad had a farm to tend to, with no time for Joseph. So, Joseph rode the train back to New York, to his first home, The New York Foundling Asylum.
This time, Joseph was going to Missouri. He knew he wasn’t going there to reunite with his “real Papa and Mama”—that’s what the caretakers told all the children. Even though he was only five, Joseph was an Orphan Train veteran.
There were 52 children on this Missouri Pacific line. In St. Louis, 15 of them met their new families. Another 36 rode deeper into Missouri, most of them to Osage City.
It there that Joseph met his new parents. Unfortunately, the first placement did not work out, and a local priest arranged for Joseph to join the family of Fred and Catherine Markway, of rural Cole County.
As long as I can remember, I knew my grandfather came from the New York Foundling Home, to Missouri, on an orphan train. As a child, I didn’t think a lot about it. I never thought about the empty space in his heart, of not knowing how he came into this world, of not knowing the beginning of his own story.
All I knew as a child was that Grandpa was the best. He made me feel loved and special. My very first memory was when I was three years old and my family moved from St. Louis to Jefferson City, MO. Jefferson City was where Grandpa lived and my Dad had grown up. My parents bought a two-bedroom home, for $6,000, for our family of seven. The house sheltered eight, though, when Grandpa moved in. Grandpa was fun, and funny, and he made me feel loved.
Grandpa died suddenly when I was 11. His belongings got divided up among my Dad and Dad’s two sisters. Dad got the name tag Grandpa had worn on the back of his jacket while riding the train in 1901. I had not seen that before, and seeing that piece of fabric, with his original name, Joseph Aner, written so elegantly in cursive,made his beginnings real to me. I wanted to know more. Who was Grandpa?
As I grew up, I remained curious about his origins, but I had no way of exploring them. In the 1990s, when I first logged onto the internet, the very first search I did was looking for the surname “Aner.” I found a few people in Philadelphia. Was there a connection to Grandpa?
Three years ago, I felt an overwhelming need to know more. I took an AncestryDNA test.
Before getting my DNA results back, I found his birth certificate online. It was difficult to find because it was filed under “Auer,” not “Aner.” As you can see, the handwriting was not clear.
The birth certificate showed Joseph Auer was born to Adelaide Auer and Joseph King, at a Catholic hospital that served the poor and destitute. Records indicated Joseph was left at the Foundling Home within a few days of his birth.
I searched and searched for information about his parents, but there were no records. The names Joseph King and Adelaide Auer were pseudonyms. His parents wanted never to be found.
I continued searching for anything that could tell me more about Grandpa. I found his World War I draft registration. Under “Place of Birth,” it said “Unknown.” That one word, “Unknown,” hit me in the gut—it was so sad.
I became obsessed, knowing that DNA testing had the potential to connect me to his origins. I felt a pressure to hurry. I belong to the last generation that knew Grandpa. And, with each generation, the DNA trail fades like an old photograph.
I learned more about his life by scouring old newspapers. He was among the first young men from Central Missouri drafted during the first World War. I talked to my older brother, Jack, about this. Jack had a lot in common with Grandpa and they would work on projects together—carpentry, car repair, painting—and sometimes Grandpa would talk to Jack about his past.
Grandpa briefly mentioned the war, hinting at traumatic experiences, but then shut down. He said just enough for Jack to know Grandpa had seen the human cost of war up close.
After the war, Grandpa married into a prominent family in Jefferson City and he started his own family. He also started his own business as an automobile dealer. He sold the cars, repaired them, and taught his customers to drive.
His business did well. In September 1929, he went on a tour of Hupmobile factories to see the new models. The next month, the stock market crashed, and his business slipped away.
After several weeks, my AncestryDNA results came in.
A few months later, I found a promising lead, a few DNA matches that connected only through Grandpa. One of these matches had a family tree that included three siblings who all would have been in their 20s or early 30s when Grandpa was born. And…they all lived in New York.
Through a lot of work, I pieced together that George Van Sten, from Brooklyn, was Grandpa’s father. George lived a rather colorful life, and he made the newspapers as a result.
I had no leads for Grandpa’s mother. As I was talking about this with my brother one day, Jack told me: “He always said his mother was Abbie Doyle.” Later one of my cousins told me the same thing.
I was stunned. How could Grandpa know this?
Jack said Grandpa was clearly bothered by what he had learned in New York, and would start to talk and then stop. His feelings of abandonment were overwhelming, and they took away his voice, preventing him from telling all that he knew about his story. It seems he was a secret, and being a secret hurt.
I searched everywhere for signs of Abbie, or Abigail Doyle. I learned that searching for Irish names in New York in the late 1800s didn’t narrow things down much.
Then one day I was looking through a family tree on Ancestry.com. I saw a name—Abbie Camille Doyle–could this really be her?
Abbie was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1873. The timing would fit…
Abbie was the youngest of six children, with four brothers and one sister. Her father, Jeremiah Doyle, and her mother, Margaret Foley, head each come to America from Ireland during the potato famine. Her parents married in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1856.
When the Civil War began, Abbie’s father joined the Union Army, and he was wounded soon thereafter. He was discharged due to “disability. This was 12 years before Abbie’s birth. What happened after that? Did her older siblings work to support the family? Her father died when she was just eight years old.
In Massachusetts records from 1899, I found Abbie married William Dolan. The marriage record listed William as residing in New York City. Additional DNA research provided overwhelming evidence that Abbie was Grandpa’s mother.
I tried to imagine what things had been like for her. I don’t know the circumstances, but she had found herself expecting a child. She gave birth as a poor single mother. Her life could not have been easy and her emotions must have been complex. She must have felt alone, with no good alternatives.
I found myself caring about this woman I had never met.
And then, I received a message from a descendant of one of Abbie’s siblings. My newfound cousin had sent me a family photo that included Abbie and three of her brothers. As I gazed into her eyes for the first time, I saw my grandfather, and I realized he had found Abbie. And so had I.
There was the name I had been searching for–Abbie Camille Doyle, born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1873. Could this really be her? The person I had wondered about since I was a child, ever since I learned about my grandfather coming to Missouri at the age of five, riding the orphan train from the New York Foundling Asylum.
Grandpa had said his mother was “Abbie Doyle.” Now, here I was, looking at a family tree of someone that shared DNA with me. I didn’t know this person, but she listed Abbie Doyle in her family tree, and this was the first concrete clue that my grandfather really knew his mother’s name.
I still have no idea, really, how Grandpa would have discovered her name. I had heard stories that, as an adult, he had gone to New York and discovered something about his mother. I wish I knew more. I wish I had asked more questions.
All I could do was imagine the emotions he felt that made him embark on such a journey. Individuals separated from their biological origins sometimes feel they are carrying someone else’s secret, and feeling that you are a secret can hurt.
Somehow, Grandpa had uncovered at least part of the secret of his origins, but how much did he know?
My older brother, Jack, recalls: “We worked on cars together and sometimes he would start talking. He said when he went back to New York, he found her, or a relative of her, but then he would stop and say that I wouldn’t want to know more…and I should forget what he was talking about.”
Grandpa gave clues…but then he retreated. I suspect he wanted to lock his feelings away, that perhaps he was better off forgetting what he knew, but part of him wanted to talk. With such mixed emotions, Grandpa instructed Jack to forget everything. Yet, more than 50 years later, Jack remembers.
For me, looking for Grandpa’s parents has not simply been a puzzle to be solved. I have felt compelled to search because his story has always been a part of my own story. Grandpa felt he was a secret, and in some way, this feeling has been passed down through the generations. My father had attempted to research Grandpa’s origins, but before DNA testing and the internet, there was not much chance of success.
When I took the Ancestry DNA test, I was surprised to see that my brother, Jack, had already done so, as had one of my cousins. My sister, Sue, had written the Foundling Home, requesting information, as had I. Why were we all searching? What were we searching for?
While looking for information about my grandfather, I came across his first World War I draft registration card. Under place of birth, it said, “Unknown.” This word, “Unknown,” hit me in the gut. It also seemed strange, because he knew where he was born. I have felt so many different emotions while investigating the origins of his story.
As a psychologist, I know families don’t reveal secrets easily, and after several generations, secrets become buried like ancient cities lost under the blowing sands of time. I recently heard a saying–“The past is a different country.” And traveling there is not an easy voyage.
After seeing Abbie’s name in a family tree, I contacted the person who had posted that tree online. Most people don’t respond to messages about their family genealogy. They may not have any information to share. They may fear that any questions about their history involve a scam of some type. They may have taken a DNA test simply to learn more about their genetic heritage, not realizing that there would be thousands of relatives popping up online.
This time, though, I got a response. After sharing a little information back and forth, I got right to the point. I said that Abbie Doyle may be my grandfather’s mother. Additional communication identified a couple of her cousins who also shared DNA with me–they all descended from Abbie Doyle.
So I had “evidence.” But I wanted more. I reached out to others who appeared to be connected to the Doyle family. Some of them shared quite a bit of DNA with Jack and me. No response. And from their Ancestry user names, I had no idea who they were.
I then began scouring every record I could find online. I had gone from wanting to know my great-grandmother’s name to wanting to know who she was. With a name, birthdate, and place of birth, I was able to learn a great deal. Abbie was the youngest of six children, with four brothers and one sister. Her father, Jeremiah Doyle, and her mother, Margaret Foley, had each come to America from Ireland during the potato famine. Her parents married in Holyoke, Massachussetts, in 1856. Holyoke is in western Massachusetts, about 150 miles from New York City.
When the Civil War began, her father joined the Union Army, and he was wounded soon thereafter. He was discharged due to “disability.” This was 12 years before Abbie’s birth. What happened after that? Did her older siblings work to support the family? Her father died when she was just eight years old.
I wondered what happened to Abbie after that. So far, much of what I had learned of Abbie came from census records. The 1890 census could potentially be a gold mine of information…but, unfortunately, nearly all those records were lost in a fire.
So, from 1881 until 1899, there was a huge black hole of information. (My grandfather was born in 1896, and false names are listed for his parents on his birth certificate.)
In Massachusetts records from 1899, I found an Abbie Doyle who married a William Dolan in West Springfield, Massachusetts. This is near Holyoke. So, this could be the same Abbie Doyle.
But what about William Dolan? Was there anything about him that would be helpful? Then I noticed on the marriage record, he was listed as residing in New York. One of my DNA relatives told me that she descended from William Dolan and Abbie Doyle. Two of her cousins shared DNA with me as well, meaning that we all shared a common ancestor. This was more evidence…
This DNA match told me that William had been a Senator. In an old newspaper I found an obituary for William J. Dolan, who had married Abigail Doyle, and who served one term in the Massachusetts legislature. William’s wife, Abigail, was a shared ancestor for four people I had identified so far.
At this point, I had considerable evidence that Abbie was my grandfather’s mother, but I was hesitant to say I had found proof. What was holding me back? Why couldn’t I declare my search complete?
I began by just wanting to know a name. But over time, I was getting to know her. She was a person, with a complex life, and I assume, complex emotions. I don’t know the circumstances, but she had found herself expecting a child. She gave birth at a hospital for unwed mothers. She gave this baby to the New York Foundling Asylum, hoping that he would have a good life. She likely had no other good options. She must have felt alone. I can only imagine the emotions that she had to hide deep within.
I found myself caring about this woman I had never met. I wanted to make sure my conclusion was correct.
And then, I received an email from another DNA match, a descendant of one of Abbie’s siblings. This person was able to identify several of our shared DNA matches. When I analyzed the amount of DNA I shared with all these other people, all the numbers added up. I now had seven different lines of people who descended from Jeremiah and Margaret Doyle, with all of these people sharing DNA with Jack, my cousin Gary, and me.
My new email cousin then sent me some photographs. One was a family picture that included Abbie and three of her brothers. As I gazed into her eyes for the first time, I saw her looking right back at me. I saw my grandfather, and I realized he was not “unknown.” And neither was Abbie.
In searching for Abbie, I found many other bits of information:
It is a small, small world. I share at least one Facebook friend with a member of the Dolan family.
Some of Abbie’s descendants live in the St. Louis area, where I currently live.
Abbie’s husband, William, graduated from Harvard. Some descendants attended US military academies.
The Doyles were known for beautiful singing voices and thick hair. My siblings and I have thick hair.
Abbie had two years of college and worked as a nurse.
One of her grandsons ran for Congress.
One of her granddaughters dated Elvis Presley, performed in Las Vegas, and sang in New York’s Latin Quarter.
I am very grateful for all the assistance I have received from others, particularly those who took a chance and responded to my messages. Thank you, especially, to the relative who shared photographs. I will continue looking for more information and for more stories. Thank you for reading.