Orphan train riders, later in life, have described a wide range of experiences in their “adoptive” families. Some children were dearly loved, while others provided utilitarian roles as farm workers and servants. And, some were abused.
For modern eyes, the idea of placing children on a train and shipping them off to new families to raise them seems naive at best. But rather, than judging the orphan train experiment from a present-day viewpoint, we need to consider the situation at the beginning of the 20th century.
For this, let’s turn to an article from 1902, in Leslie’s Weekly, a popular publication of the time. The story begins:
Darkness in the narrow hallway; the sickening odor of the tenements; a woman stumbling along, her hands outstretched; the small, weak, pathetic cry of the very little child; a bundle in the corner which the woman lifts into her arms; the flutter of excitement in the tenement, and the crowding in of neighbors; a policeman arrives; and the baby, a foundling is taken to Bellevue hospital. Then a blank like this is filled out…
All quotes from Leslie’s Weekly magazine, 1902
The form lists where the child was found, its appearance, clothing, approximate age, sex, and by whom found. The magazine story conservatively estimated that 250 infants were “found” in New York every year.
When the little child, most helpless of all living things, lifts its tiny arms in appeal the answer is spontaneous. Whether you are man or woman you do not hesitate; your hand would at once give the little suppliant a gentle caress; your voice assumes a tone of soothing; the spirit of protecting kindness has entered into you. It is this same spirit which is saving the lives, every year of these two hundred and fifty foundling babies, who until recently, for the very want of it died. It is the balm of the mother’s kiss and the cradle of a mother’s arms that give health and growth and happiness to New York’s foundlings; and the system by which this beautiful work of mercy is done is one of the most unique and interesting in the metropolis.
Prior to the work of the New York Foundling Asylum and similar institutions, all foundlings were sent to Randall’s Island (commonly referred to as one of New York’s “island of the undesirables”). Historically, Randall’s Island has had an almshouse, psychiatric hospitals, a juvenile reformatory, and other city-run institutions. Randall’s Island reportedly had a facility with fine furnishings and qualified nurses, nearly 95% of all infants sent there died there. Before the development of modern infant formula, babies died of malnutrition. Disease was also rampant.
“Well, the little fellows are better off dead,” the attendants would say; “they wouldn’t have much to look forward to, anyway.”
With a change in how the little ones were cared for, a remarkable improvement is survival rate was noted. The new approach was summarized in one word by Leslie’s Weekly magazine–“mothering.”
It supplied that which the hospital (on Randall’s Island) could not give, the comforting and fondling and the little attentions, as well as the food and love of them…It is this “mothering” that has reduced the death rate among the foundlings of New York from 99 to a percent lower than all the other children of the city–a remarkable fact when one considers the conditions under which these foundlings begin their journey through the world, the lack of care and the exposure to which they are subjected at the outset.
Earlier, we looked at how a baby might be found. What would happen next to the little one? In 1902, the foundling would be taken to Bellevue Hospital, a city-run facility, and admitted to a children’s ward. By the next morning, the baby would be taken away by what today would be called a caseworker. One caseworker worked for the Catholic charities, and one for the Protestant charities.
Prior to being taken to the orphanage, the infant is baptized at the hospital, christened in the faith of the organization taking custody–half of the foundlings are marked Catholic and half are officially Protestant. Thus, all these babies are Christian.
Not long ago there was a protest from a Hebrew mother whose child, neglected by those in whose charge it was placed, was carried to Bellevue as a foundling and baptized in the Roman Catholic church. When she learned of this the shock against the strong religious faith of the mother was so great that she fainted. The woman herself sick, was unable to care for the child and it had remained in the care of the Guild of the Infant Savior.
The fact that the government agency provided for the baptism of infants, alternating between Catholic and Protestant, is unusual from a current-day perspective. The 1902 magazine story, though, emphasizes that the resulting care of the baby primarily arises from a “human,” not religious feeling, and that caretakers are…
…touched by the sight of the frail bit of flesh struggling for life; they hear the pitiful pleading of their little voice, and the tiny hands and feet, the soft eyes, the little body, all speak in irresistible argument. The religious ceremony is a formality to be quickly disposed of, so that the real personal care of the child may begin.
Rather than staying in the orphanage, the baby would be placed with a mother, often a woman who had recently lost a child. The foster mother would be paid $10-$12 a month to care for the baby until it is old enough to be weaned.
While the majority of foundlings are discovered in or near tenements where the poor and recent immigrants reside, some of the babies are left in expensive baskets or at locations suggesting they were born to women who are more economically well off. In the end, many of the little ones travel great distances on orphan trains to become part of new families.
And these foundlings grow to manhood and womanhood and to their graves under the shadow of their unknown origin. There are those, of course, who may never learn that they were foundlings; but in most cases guardians feel that their charges should be told the truth. Letters come frequently to the city officials from men who know that they were foundling babies. They ask to be told all that is known of their origin. The department of charities looks over the books and finds a record on bland No. 30 for lost children, and that is all that is ever known.
The New York Foundling Asylum led the way in developing a new system of care for abandoned infants and other children turned over for care. The Foundling recognized that children needed to feel loved, in addition to having their physical needs met.
While it now seems obvious that children have emotional needs, this was a revolutionary concept at the time. Placing the youngest of children in a home setting, allowed for these children to have better nutrition and to progress along a healthy emotional trajectory. The Foundling also closely monitored the children’s progress while in this foster care.
While the experiences of the children placed on orphan trains was mixed, it can be argued that these children may have had better chances at life than if they had remained in New York at that time.
“These foundlings are nameless.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch–May 15, 1901
The little ones had been on the orphan train for two days when it pulled into St. Louis Union Station on Tuesday evening, May 14, 1901. Fifty-two children, with the youngest being about three years of age, and the oldest about six, were accompanied by just three adults. There were two Sisters of Charity, and one Placement Agent, Charles P. O’Hara, all from the New York Foundling Asylum.
The adults knew the drill well–keep the little ones occupied as much as possible on the train, pull into the station, get the children cleaned up, fed, rested, and then the next day, dress them up as the most irresistible little waifs anyone has ever laid eyes on.
That night, the children and their caretakers slept in their special train car. On Wednesday morning, 15 youngsters were handed over to their new families. According to a newspaper account at the time, most of the children “greeted their new parents as if they recognized them and were returning after a brief absence.”
The caretakers had told the little ones that they had been away at school and they were returning to their “mamas and papas.” In 1901, the prevailing thought was that children should not know that they were adopted. It was best that they not know the circumstances into which they had been born and how they had come to the New York Foundling Asylum.
That morning, each new parent showed a numbered ticket to the representative from the Foundling Asylum, and that number was matched to a numbered tag sewn into the clothing of a particular child. Thus each little one was matched with the preordained family. The entire process was quite efficient, taking only a few minutes, and the remaining children were placed on the trains that would take them to their final destinations.
An onlooker noted the neat appearance of the children, and Mr. O’Hara explained: “Yes, we commenced washing them at 12 o’clock yesterday. We got through this morning. We couldn’t do the work faster because there were so many of them. They travel in their old clothes, so as to have fresh ones at their destination, and each was given a bath and dressed in clean clothes.”
By 7:35 a.m., 30 children left with two Sisters of Charity, heading toward Osage and Cole Counties in Central Missouri. The other youngsters boarded the 8:45 a.m. train to Vienna, in Maries County. G. Whitling Swayne, the Traveling Agent for the Foundling Asylum, accompanied the smaller group.
Mr. Swayne was responsible for finding homes for the children. He regularly traversed the countryside, talking with small-town parish priests as well as farmers, appealing to their Catholic faith, and their own interests, to take in one or perhaps two of the little ones. Little girls could provide companionship for women who worked at home while the men were taking care of crops and livestock. Boys from the Foundling Asylum would learn to work beside the men, becoming valuable farmhands.
For Mr. Swayne, 1901 was a good year. He had found families for more than 100 youngsters, with all of the families being in Missouri.
On that afternoon of May 15, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a photograph of five of the children, dressed to appeal to even the most hardened heart. There were three little girls in dresses with bows at the collar and bonnets on their heads and two boys in suits of a style popular at the time, also with large bows at the collars, and with stylish hats on their heads.
Underneath that photo in the newspaper, the caption states: “These foundlings are nameless.” This was not true. Each child had a name while living at the “orphanage,” though that name may, or may not, have been connected to the child’s family of origin. Some children were named by a parent with the name being shared with the Foundling Asylum when the child was left there. Other children were dropped off anonymously or were found abandoned on the city streets. In those cases, the Asylum gave them a name that would follow them to their new families.
My grandfather was on that train in 1901. He was five years old, and he had a piece of fabric attached to his jacket with a name, Joseph Auer, handwritten in ink. Little Joseph had no idea who he really was or where he had come from.
Joseph would grow up within the Markway family of Wardsville, Missouri. He was fortunate that many of his fellow orphan train riders would live in the same rural community and attend the same school. Later some of them would attend the same church in nearby Jefferson City, and he would talk with them after Mass. He maintained lifelong bonds with the only other people who could understand his journey.
In the spring of 2017, I began looking for my grandfather’s parents. Grandpa was born in 1896 and left at an orphanage, the New York Foundling Asylum. In the 1900 United State Census he is listed as an “inmate” there.
In 1901, he was placed on an “orphan train” along with about 50 other children, and he rode from New York City to rural central Missouri. He was placed with one or two people (the records are unclear) before ending up with the Fred Markway family in Wardsville, near Jefferson City.
Why was I searching for my grandfather’s parents 47 years after his death? I can’t really explain it, but I felt a need to do it for him.
I have many memories of Grandpa. He was kind, funny, and attentive. I remember the Chevy that he drove. Every Tuesday, he came to visit my family and he always brought me a small bag of Planter’s Peanuts. He came to every one of my baseball games.
Grandpa died when I was just 11. As I was young, I only remember his light-hearted side.
My older siblings remember a more complex man. Jack remembers Grandpa mentioning things that weighed on him–such as being left at an orphanage, and serving in World War I. Jack had a vague memory of Grandpa once saying that his birth mother was named Abbie Doyle.
While Grandpa had been gone since 1970, I feel he has remained with me. I am a psychologist, a career choice that some of my family members found very odd. My father, shortly before his death in 1996, told me that my grandfather (who worked as an auto mechanic) owned a collection of books by Sigmund Freud.
I don’t really know why I began searching for my grandfather’s parents in 2017. But one reason had to be that it now seemed possible to find an answer. Modern consumer DNA testing offered by companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe allow people to find family connections that go back several generations. Technology offered hope.
Over the following two to three years, I was able to track down Grandpa’s family. His father likely was a George Vansten from Brooklyn. Somehow, Grandpa did know his mother’s name–Abbie Doyle. She was from around Springfield, Massachusetts. I eventually found records showing that she lived in New York City.
Technology and various historical records led me to Grandpa’s origins. But even with all the things I had found, my grandfather’s story was incomplete.
How did he know his mother’s name?
Earlier this year (2021), I received a bit of information from the New York Foundling. They sent me copies of an index card from their records and a letter from pastor of St. Stanislaus Church in Wardsville, MO. The index card was a record of Grandpa being transferred from the care of the Foundling Asylum to the Markway family, and then an annual record of how Grandpa was doing with the new family. Notes were very brief, generally stating he was doing well, and in later years, mentioning that he worked on the farm with his “brothers.”
On the back of the index card was a surprising bit of information. A note dated December 13, 1926 said: “Joseph asking about his history. Joseph Markway”
What does this mean? Did he go to New York and ask about his mother? Was he told her name on that date?
Technology helped me identify Grandpa’s parents, but it could not tell me the story.
I accepted that I would never know exactly what happened, but I had already learned more than I could have hoped.
This whole process had been an incredibly emotional journey, and along the way my family reconnected. My immediate and extended families had their share of struggles over the years, but in my searching, I talked with cousins I hadn’t seen in years. My siblings and I shared memories and put pieces together that helped us understand each other better. It seemed Grandpa was working to bring us together.
Then, a few weeks ago, one of my cousins was going through some things in his parents’ house. His mother had died a couple years ago, and his father was moving to a new place. My cousin, Gary, found a surprise–a box of Grandpa’s possessions–a time capsule of Grandpa’s life.
There was a large family portrait of Grandpa with his Markway family. There were items related to his service in World War I–when he was drafted, where he went to basic training, and when he was discharged from the Army. Numerous records, all listing his birthplace as “unknown.” Photos of his children, including numerous pictures of his daughter who died at 17 months of age.
There was a marriage certificate from St. George Church in Affton, Missouri. Why my grandparents married in St. Louis County on a Monday, I likely will never know.
Then, there was this letter–a letter from the New York Foundling Hospital dated January 7, 1926. It reads:
My dear Joseph:
Your letter to the Catholic Home Bureau was referred to us, as this is the Institution that placed you in a foster home.
I have looked up the records and I have nothing to show that your parents are living. Your mother brought you here on May 13, 1896. Her name was Abbie Doyle. As you know, you were born on April 30, 1896. I will get your baptismal record by writing to the Hospital where you were born, and I might be able to get a record of your birth. At least I will try to do so, the first time I have anybody going to the Bureau of Statistics. If I am successful and secure this, I will mail it to you at once. At any rate, you will hear from me again. I need not say that many children are left without their parents in infancy, you surely can appreciate it, but as no inquiry was every made concerning you, I cannot put you in touch with anybody belonging to you. If such inquiry should ever be made, I will be only too happy to write you.
Begging God to bless you and hoping the new year will be a very successful one, I am
Very sincerely yours,
Sister M. Cyrilla
It took me several days to process this new information. Grandpa received this letter in January. Eleven months later, he requested more information from the Foundling–did he do this in person? I don’t know for sure–I can only speculate. I do know that Grandpa later received his baptismal certificate. Sister Cyrilla kept her word and sent that to him. As for his birth record, I don’t know if he ever saw this, but I found it in the New York City Archives. The birth record listed his mother as Adelaide Auer and his father as Joseph King, both names were made up.
In all my searching I had already discovered he had been born at Misericordia Hospital, a facility that served indigent women, many of them giving birth out of wedlock. I had assumed he had been born there to a single mother, and that the hospital had transferred him to the Foundling Asylum.
But this new information revealed my version of Grandpa’s story was incorrect. Abbie Doyle, his mother, carried him in her own arms when she left the hospital. She carried him to the Foundling Asylum, to a place that could care for him. She identified herself by name as she handed him over.
People who have known about my search over the past four years have asked me if I wish I had known about this letter from the beginning.
I have mixed emotions. But my conclusion is no–I don’t wish that I had known. If the letter had surfaced earlier, I likely would not have searched. I would not have learned so much about my ancestors. I would not have learned so much about the Foundling Home and my grandfather’s story.
I also realize I was not just searching for my grandfather. There was something missing for me, something I have found in the process. The struggles of my ancestors allow me to appreciate my imperfect family. No matter how easy we have it, life is hard. But, each of us, just like Abbie, hold the next generation in our arms and do our best, somehow, to find a way to show that we love them.
Between 1854 and 1927, and estimated 250,000 children were transported on “orphan trains” to new families. While a small percentage of those children were old enough to remember their biological families before going to orphanage or agency care, many knew nothing of their family origins and spent their entire lives wondering how they came into this world.
My grandfather was left at the New York Foundling about two weeks after being born in 1896. He did not know how he ended up there.
Joseph John Markway’s rode an orphan train to Missouri at the age of five, where he ended up with the Fred Markway family in Wardsville, near Jefferson City, the state capital.
Grandpa died in 1970, when I was 11. I was not old enough to appreciate that he was haunted by not knowing where he was born or even who his parents were. Throughout my life I heard stories about Grandpa going back to New York looking for his mother. No one seemed to know the details though. Did he find out who she was? Did he track her down and meet her? Everybody seemed to remember the story a little differently.
Over the years, I (and my siblings) made fleeting attempts to get information from the Foundling, but the most we ever learned was when he came to the Foundling and when he came to Missouri.
In 2017, I felt an overwhelming urge to find Grandpa’s origins. Ancestry DNA ads on television got me thinking it might be possible. I began researching what I could learn from DNA tests such as Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and Family Tree DNA. I ran across a couple Facebook groups–DNA Detectives and DD Social–created by genetic genealogist, Ce Ce Moore.
With DNA testing and all that I learned about how to interpret the results, I was able to identify Grandpa’s parents.
I have since helped some other orphan train descendants find their ancestor’s biological parents. I then started a Facebook group called Orphan Train DNA where members help each other in their searching and share historical information. I thought it might be helpful for me to describe how I found my grandfather’s parents so others could follow similar steps.
I began the genetic journey by deciding what DNA test to take. I went with Ancestry DNA as it has the largest database of customers, and therefore, had the most potential DNA matches (potential genetic relatives). Ancestry also has a huge number of historical records to aid in research.
Step 1: Take a DNA Test. I recommend AncestryDNA first. If you can afford to take a second one, also take 23andMe.
As soon as the test arrived, I filled the vial with saliva and returned it for analysis. A few weeks later, my results were in. I saw that my brother, Jack, had already tested, as had my first cousin, Gary. The first thing I did was search for the surname Aner (what I thought was my grandfather’s original surname) to see if I had any relatives with that name. I did not.
My search would not be easy. I had over 40,000 relatives, people who shared at least a small amount of DNA with me, and I would have to begin sorting through my DNA matches to see how we might connect.
Step 2: Identify Known Family Lines and Color-Code Them on Ancestry.
Through DNA Detectives, I had learned how to do this. I had also learned to look at the amount of shared DNA to estimate how closely my matches might be related to me.
Step 3: Look at How Much DNA is Shared/Learn about Centimorgans
Ancestry listed the shared amount of DNA, measured in centimorgans (cM’s), for each match. Here are a couple examples:
Ancestry and other sites, in addition to showing the amount of cM’s shared, give an estimate of how you might be connected. Since I knew my brother and cousin, I knew the exact relationships. If I hadn’t known the relationship, I could have clicked on the number of cM’s and I would have seen all the possible relationships that could exist with the amount of shared DNA:
The next step for me was to begin sorting my DNA matches into different ancestral lines. This was fairly easy in the beginning because I knew the surnames of my maternal grandparents (Kneisly and Yarnell) and their parents (Kneisly, Yarnell, Dunham, Roark). I also knew my father’s maternal side (Bruegging and Maus).
I went through my highest matches and separated them into maternal and paternal sides. Ancestry allowed me to mark which side they came from–I used a star for maternal side matches. I used one of the colored dots for paternal matches. This was easy to do.
I had some difficulty at first identifying very many paternal side matches. (My orphan train grandfather was on my paternal side.) Many of my maternal ancestral lines came to America in the 1600s. They had very large families. The majority of my matches, by far, were from my maternal side.
Step 4: Continue to Refine Ancestral Lines and Color-Code
Fortunately, since my paternal first cousin, Gary had tested, that helped me identify some relatives from my paternal side.
As I sorted my highest matches into my paternal and maternal sides, I clicked on “shared matches” for each individual. I then placed each of those shared matches into the maternal or paternal categories, assuming that they fell into a particular line based on who they shared DNA with.
This method was not foolproof, however. As I used colored dots to sort my matches, I found that some of these individuals matched both my paternal and maternal sides. (I eventually learned that some of my matches somehow connected in the distant past, most likely in Ireland, but perhaps other places as well. I also learned that this is not unusual.)
Step 5: Identify DNA Matches that Appear to Connect with Your Orphan Train Ancestor
After separating my matches into paternal and maternal lines, I used the same concept to separate my paternal lines according to whether they matched my paternal grandmother’s side of the family or not. I began by color-coding a few matches with surnames that I recognized from my grandmother’s side. I then looked at the shared matches of these individuals and marking all those shared matches with the same color.
At this point, the remaining people that shared DNA with me, my brother, and with my cousin Gary, must all be related through my Grandfather’s ancestors.
The number of individuals seeming to connect through my grandfather was relatively small. I sent messages to several of them, without getting many responses. I didn’t really know what to say in a message–what was I really asking? I realized that it was very unlikely that I would get any information from others unless I had a specific question. I needed to look at any available family trees that my matches had posted on Ancestry, and see if there were any names showing up in multiple family trees.
Step 6: Study Family Trees of DNA Matches in Your Orphan Train Ancestor’s Lines
Unfortunately, not many of these individuals had posted trees. There was one person who had an extensive family tree, though. This person, Connie, shared DNA with one clear group of people among my grandfather’s line, but not with another group. I realized I had found my grandfather’s paternal and maternal relatives. But I had no idea which was which. Connie responded to messages and was very interested, but I needed more information.
Step 7: Build Out Family Trees of Targeted Matches as Best You Can
I looked at those DNA matches that also connected with Connie. One of those matches shared 98 cMs with me, meaning she might be a third cousin (sharing great great grandparents with me). I reached out to Pam in a message. She had a family tree posted but it didn’t have the family name I was looking for. The surname Van Sten appeared to be the link. Through several messages back and forth with Pam, I eventually learned she descended from the Van Sten family as well. I had my link. This was confirmed when I received a response from a third shared DNA match, Robert.
But I still did not know if I was closing in on my grandfather’s mother or his father.
Step 8: “Fish in All Ponds”
When searching for genetic family, you need to be in as many DNA databases as possible. I also tested with 23andMe. I downloaded my DNA file from Ancestry, and uploaded in to GEDmatch and MyHeritage. All of these sites gave me additional matches to explore.
In DNA Detectives, I had read about another type of DNA test. Y-DNA is passed down along paternal lines, from paternal grandfather to father to son. A Y-DNA test had the potential to identify the family name of my grandfather’s father, but it was a gamble. The test is not cheap and the results depend solely on who else has tested. I decided to give it a try.
The only company offering Y-DNA testing was Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). Upon receiving the kit, I promptly followed the instructions and then returned it. I waited and waited for the results. When they were ready, I anxiously signed in.
At the level I had tested (37 markers–37 units of Y-DNA were examined), I had seven matches. Two were named Palmer, and there were four other surnames. I felt disappointed at first. Then I noticed the surname Vanstone. Perhaps at some point in the distant past the name Vanstone became Van Sten for some member of the family.
I then upgraded my Y-DNA test to 111 markers, the most extensive (and most expensive) test available. The results came back with four matches, two of them named Vanstone. (Through considerable research I found that the names Vanstone and Vansten could be traced in historical records back to Devon, England. I also learned that the name “Van Sten” was originally Vansten when the family came to the United States in the 1830s.)
I now knew that Vansten was my grandfather’s paternal side. (From this point, I will use the spelling Vansten.)
There were two Vansten males that were candidates to be identified as Grandpa’s father. One had known descendants and one did not. I will not go into all the details here, but I was able to determine that George Vansten is most likely to have been my great-grandfather.
Step 9: Look at Newspapers and Other Historical Records
George never married, but he was engaged for several years. His family was in the ice business. George traveled some–I have found records of him in several cities in New York state, in Pennsylvania, and in Massachusetts. He participated in many social events. The Vanstens were socially prominent and attended the wedding of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s daughter in New York.
Through general genealogy research, as well as newspapers, I learned that the Vanstens also endured tragedy. George’s mother died when he was young. He had two siblings who died before their fifth birthdays.
After nearly two years of research, I was talking to my brother Jack one day. Jack is older than I and knew my grandfather well. Jack, whose formal name is Joseph John, was named after Grandpa. Jack casually told me that Grandpa had stated that his mother was “Abbie Doyle.”
I was stunned. I had no idea Grandpa knew his mother’s name. I had no idea how he would have known. I had heard a rumor that he went to New York and learned her name, but I didn’t know that this was anything other than a family story. I had never heard enough details to know that he had learned a name.
I then searched all my DNA matches for the name Doyle. This didn’t help. Doyle is a fairly common name, and all the matches I found were on my mother’s side.
I then searched all the family trees of my DNA matches on Ancestry, looking for the name Doyle. It was then that I noticed something…
Some of these DNA matches shared DNA with me, with matches on my mother’s side, and with my paternal cousin, Gary! I had marked all these people as maternal matches because they connected with my maternal side. This had caused me to overlook that they also matched my paternal side.
Once I separated out those that also matched Gary, a pattern emerged. There was a small, but significant, number of them that matched each other. I now had a paternal line that did not connect with any of the Vansten descendants. I had found my grandfather’s maternal side.
I feverishly began looking through the family trees of these people. In May of 2019, in one of those family trees, I found this:
This appeared to be my great-grandmother, but how would I prove this?
I started building family trees for my matches. This was very difficult, though–most of them didn’t show any family trees on Ancestry, not one of them was named Doyle, and many of them used some type of nickname on Ancestry. I didn’t know who any of them were.
I reached out to a fairly distant match. Fortunately, she responded. I was vague initially, stating I was curious how we might be related. After she expressed a willingness to explore our possible connections, I told her what I was looking for–my grandfather’s mother. As we continued to look at our shared connections and our possible relationship, she replied that this could very well be my great-grandmother.
It felt so good to have someone acknowledge that I might be on the right track. Somehow it felt as though, 123 years after my grandfather’s birth, someone was acknowledging him as part of his biological family.
I continued to research this Doyle family. I could not put the pieces together. I found other Abigal Doyle’s. I found other Doyles sharing the same names as the first Abbie’s siblings. I was so confused. Was I wrong with my first hypothesis? Who was this Abbie Doyle from Massachusetts?
Somewhere along the way I learned about the naming patterns in Irish families–first sons named after paternal grandfather, first daughters named after maternal grandmother, and many other generally followed traditions…all of which meaning that there were a limited number of names used generation after generation…but to complicate things, these patterns were not always followed perfectly…
I eventually received a response to a message I had sent to a woman who had not used her own name on Ancestry. She provided me with some family history–I was then able to build out the Doyle family tree. This also allowed me to do more research. I was able to confirm my connections to the descendants of Jeremiah Doyle and Margaret Foley.
I found records of Abbie Doyle in and around Springfield, Massachusetts. She was born in 1873. Her father was Jeremiah Doyle and her mother was Margaret Foley Doyle. Jeremiah died when Abbie was eight. A brother died when she was 19, and a sister died one year later. Life must have been very hard.
Local newspapers told me more. In 1895, at the age of 21, Abbie was living with her aunt and uncle, Michael Foley and Margaret Brown Foley. In 1896, Abbie visited her aunt and uncle and then returned to where she had been living–New York City!
I now had proof that Abbie was living in New York at the time Grandpa was born.
I continued to look for records, stories, and DNA connections related to Abbie. I found her marriage record–she married William Dolan in 1898, and they then lived in New York. A newspaper story mentioned her singing in Christmas eve services in Fall River, Massachusetts. Conducting the choir was William Dolan. I can’t prove that where Abbie met her future husband, but it would make sense.
Some of my DNA connections descend from Abbie and William Dolan. I already had considerable evidence that I had found Grandpa’s mother, but now I felt certain.
Step 10: Remember to Follow the DNA, Not Names
(Along the way, I found my grandfather’s birth certificate by using a website from an Italian Genealogical Society. The site links to numerous databases for New York City–it is not only for those of Italians descent. My grandfather was known as “Joseph Aner” but I found his birth certificate filed under Joseph Auer.” His parents were named as Adelaide Auer and Joseph King. It is not surprising that false names were used. At the time, it was thought best that the child would never be able to trace his parents.)
As I built trees for these matches, I looked up other descendants of Abbie on Facebook and other sites. I found something startling–one of Abbie’s descendants lived in Jefferson City, Missouri, my hometown. He and his family belonged to the same Catholic parish I did while growing up. The younger members of this family attended my high school. I reached out via email and received an incredibly kind and accepting response.
I spent so much time looking for Grandpa’s origins, and it turned out that parts of his biological family were right here in my hometown.
At the time I am writing this, it has been about four and a half years since I started searching. I have learned so much about DNA, the orphan trains, and my family. In 2019, I spoke to guests at the 150th anniversary celebration of the New York Foundling. I use what I have learned to help others who are searching.
Feel free to comment, to ask questions, and to tell your own story. Thank you for reading.
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.
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.
(Through searching for my grandfather’s roots, and writing this blog, I was invited to speak at the 150th anniversary event for the New York Foundling Home which operates today as “The Foundling.” It continues in operation, serving those with special needs, including: foster care, developmental disabilities, and child abuse and neglect. Below is the text of my remarks. I will be writing more soon about my experience meeting other descendants of orphan train riders–one of the most moving days of my life.)
Good Morning! I’m honored to be speaking today for the 150th anniversary of the New York Foundling Home, now the Foundling Hospital, or just “The Foundling.”
I want to begin by asking you to think about what brought you here today? What is your connection to the Foundling—is it relatively recent or long ago? Have you ever talked about that connection?
Stories are powerful things—researcher and writer, Brene Brown—says that “our brains are wired for stories,” particularly stories about overcoming adversity, stories of courage, stories that inspire us. Stories give us hope and remind us of what is possible.
Today, I’m going to tell my grandfather’s story, which is also my story. And, in some ways, it is the story of all of us here today.
As long as I can remember, I knew my grandfather came from the New York Foundling Home, to Central Missouri, on an orphan train. As a kid, I didn’t think a lot about it. I never thought about the empty space in his heart, of not knowing how he came into this world, of not knowing the beginning of his own story.
All I knew back then was Grandpa was the best. He made me feel loved and special. When I was three years old, my family moved back to Jefferson City MO from St. Louis. Jefferson City was where Grandpa lived and where my Dad grew up. My parents bought a two-bedroom house for our family of seven.
Grandpa was very handy, and he finished off the attic to be the bedroom for me and my two brothers. For a while, Grandpa also shared that room. It was tight, but I loved him being there.
I could go on and on with memories of Grandpa, but let me just say he was always fun and funny.
Grandpa died suddenly when I was 11. His belongings got divided up among my Dad and my Dad’s two sisters. Dad got the nametag Grandpa had worn on his clothing on the orphan train in 1901. I hadn’t seen that before, and now, seeing that name scrawled on a piece of fabric, Joseph Aner (or was it Auer?—no one knows for sure—various records interpret the cursive handwriting differently)—that nametag suddenly made his background more real to me. Who was he really?
As I grew up, I remained curious about his origins, but I had no way of exploring them. In the 1990’s when, I first got the internet, I dialed up and searched for the surname “Aner” and found a few people in Philadelphia, but that was it. Who knew if there was any connection…
Then, a couple years ago, I took an Ancestry DNA test. I still couldn’t find any connection to anyone named Aner, or Auer. After what seemed like a lifetime of searching, I found a birth certificate, with a child born April 30, 1896—that was Grandpa’s birthday. The child was Joseph Auer, born to Joseph King and Adelaide Auer, born at a Catholic Hospital serving poor, unwed mothers. Records indicate Joseph Aner arrived at the Foundling a couple days after being born, apparently with clear expectations that his parents would never be found.
It’s not surprising that parents would use made-up names when giving a child to an orphanage. A child born out of wedlock was a significant “stain” on a family at that time. An unwed mother, even under the best of circumstances, would have difficulty providing for a child. Women generally were not employed at that time, and having a child could even disqualify them from getting a job. Having a child could also limit her chances of getting married in the future.
I looked through every available online record, trying to piece together what I could about Grandpa’s life. I found his first World War I draft registration. Under Place of Birth, it said, “Unknown.” I don’t know why, but this one word hit me in the gut—it was so sad. It also didn’t make sense to me—he knew he was born in New York and that he came from the Foundling Home.
I became obsessed, knowing that DNA testing had the potential to connect me to his origins. I felt pressure to hurry—I belong to the last generation that knew him. And with each passing generation the DNA trail fades just like an old photograph. That word “unknown” gnawed at me. I didn’t want that word to be associated with Grandpa any more.
I learned more about his life by scouring old newspapers. He was among the first young men from Central Missouri drafted into World War I. I talked to my older brother about this—my brother was named after Grandpa and they did some carpentry and painting work together. They talked a lot. Grandpa wouldn’t talk about the war though—he hinted at traumatic experiences.
After the war, Grandpa married into a prominent family in Jefferson City and he started his own family. He also started a business, as an automobile dealer. Newspapers show he was doing well, when in 1929, the stock market crashed, and his business gradually disappeared.
As I continued to search through thousands of DNA matches on Ancestry.com, I found a cluster of people not related to my mother, nor to Grandpa’s wife, meaning they were the first line I could identify as being my grandfather’s. I found Grandpa’s father was a Van Sten from Brooklyn.
I still did not have any leads for his mother, though. As I was talking about this with my brother one day, Jack told me: “He always said his mother was Abbie Doyle.” (Later one of my cousins told me the same thing.) I was stunned for several reasons…how would Grandpa know this? I remember my mother, Grandpa’s daughter-in-law, once telling me that Grandpa had gone to New York and found his mother, or did he just find out who she was… Mom wasn’t sure. But Mom knew that he had found something about his mother when he went to New York. Family lore says that Grandpa returned to Missouri and announced, “I am a Markway.”
Jack said Grandpa was clearly bothered by what he had learned in New York, and would start to talk and then stop. As a psychologist, I know that feelings of abandonment can be overwhelming. These feelings are real and deep, and they can last for generations. Grandpa had them, and they took away his voice, preventing him from telling all that he knew about his story. Being a secret hurts.
I searched everywhere for signs of Abbie, or Abigail, Doyle. I learned that searching for Irish names in New York in the late 1800s doesn’t narrow things down much. Why did they name their kids Mary Margaret, Margaret Mary, Daniel, Michael, and Joseph…and then the next generation had the exact same names? I then gave up for a few months before starting over. I finally gave up on the idea that he really knew his mother’s name. I could believe he had gone to New York to look for her, but…actually finding her seemed… unlikely.
As I went through my DNA matches again, I found a group of people that matched no other lines in my family. They had to be connected to Grandpa’s mother, but I couldn’t even see how they connected to each other…Then, as I was looking through one family tree, I saw a name, Abbie Camille Doyle.
I can’t yet say with absolute certainty that this Abbie Doyle was his mother, but other descendants of her are showing up as sharing the appropriate amounts of DNA with me. I’m working on tracing all the information I can, both DNA and paper trails, to prove one way or another. I know I’m very, very close. And soon I hope to eliminate that word “unknown” from Grandpa’s history. Or, perhaps, he already did so…
I have learned a lot about the Abbie Doyle who may be my great-grandmother. Some of it is entertaining—for example, she had a granddaughter who dated Elvis Presley. But the more I learn about her, the more I see her as a human being and not just a branch on my family tree. She was the youngest of 8 children. Her father was wounded in the Civil War. There are many signs that her life was not easy. Her sister died at age 26. A brother died at 22. I have no idea how she ended up in New York City after growing up outside Springfield, Massachusetts, but there are documents placing her in New York… And then having a baby…giving up that baby must have been traumatic for her…while, at the same time, hoping that the he would be better off…
Despite all his trauma, Grandpa was able to love. There are so many memories—my cousin Shelley remembers him teaching her to waltz, to dance. I remember coming to visit our house every Tuesday night and always bringing me a bag of peanuts. Hi ability to love—Was it the care he received at the Foundling Home? A natural, inborn resilience? His adoptive family? He has many grandkids, many great-grandkids. From what I’ve learned Abbie has many, many descendants, and her life turned out well, but she had struggles of her own.
Our society has made it a pleasant pastime to investigate where we’re from and who our people are, to see them as names on a computer screen. We are so fortunate that with DNA we can now truly know much about our history. But most Orphan Train riders never knew. I believe it’s our duty as their offspring to find the puzzle pieces and put them together. It won’t help with their feelings of abandonment, but it might help us. There is a basic human need to know who you are, and how you connect to this world.
Scientific research shows that telling our story can have healing effects. By telling our story, we make sense of the world, we figure out how we fit into that world, and we honor the person we are talking about. That is why I felt an overwhelming need to be here today. And I suspect, in some way, that’s why you’re here today as well.
Every one of you has your own story to tell—a story of confronting adversity, and overcoming it in some way. Once again, I ask that you consider telling whatever part of that story that you know, so that we can preserve your memories, and honor the reason why you came to this event.