The Orphan Train and the Mystery of William Jennings Duckett


When I give genetic genealogy presentations, I always talk about the causes of NPEs (Nonparental Events) or what I prefer to call, undocumented adoptions.  This means that the DNA doesn’t match the expected family line.  In the case of 20th century documented adoptions, this is obviously true as well, but before the 1900s and sometimes into the early 1900s, adoptions were much less formal.  In fact, sometimes they never officially took place, but the surname got attached anyway.

And then, there were the orphan trains, originating in the East, loaded with orphans, and stopping along the route westward, with the orphans being adopted to families along the way who needed additional children to help with farm work.

All of these things happened to William Jennings Duckett, shown at age 11 in the photo, just before heading west on the orphan train.  William, known as “Papa D” to his family, has a daughter, Virginia, now age 91, who would very much like to know the rest of the story about her father and his parents.  It’s a very interesting mystery, a puzzle really, and maybe you hold the missing piece.  Here is what we know.

According to the baptismal certificate provided by the Foundling Home in New York City, William Jennings Duckett was born on October 28th, 1894 and was baptized one month and one day later, November 29th at the St. Vincent Ferrer’s Catholic Church in New York City.

Duckett baptism

On November 28th, 1894, he came under the care of the Foundling Hospital in New York City, a place for abandoned or orphaned children, under the name William Erington, later spelled Errington.  In later communications, the home says that he was a “true foundling.”  If this is the case, then how did the home know his birth date?  And how was he baptized under the name William Jennings Duckett, or did the home simply use the name from his request for information in 1918, omitting his earlier “assigned” last name.  And how was Errington selected in the first place?  The baptismal certificate was sent to William in a response to a letter written by him to the Foundling Home in 1918, probably in order to prove his age for military draft registration.

In 1897, Richard and Mary F. Duckett of Orange, Essex County, New Jersey “fostered” William.  His release papers from the Foundling Home to them state his name as William Errington.  Two years later, in 1899, he was returned to the home, but Mary Duckett insisted that he retain the name William Jennings Duckett, even though he had never been adopted.  He was then placed with another foster family before leaving on the orphan train, but retained the Duckett name for the rest of his life.

In 1905, at about age 11, when the photo above was taken, he was put on the Orphan Train, ultimately winding up in Texas.  Whoever his parents were, he came from some healthy stock, as he lived until age 99 years and 9 months.  At his funeral, the following was read, as told in the first person by Papa D himself.

“The only early memories I have of my time in New York are of going to classes through the 3rd grade, and serving as an altar boy.  I faintly remember a Mr. Kelly, who came to the home frequently with gifts and food.

In June of 1905, I was sent to Texas on a train with 65 other children and two nuns.

The children sat two in a row, and I held an infant girl, Kristina, on my lap most of the way.  The Railroad car would be left off at sidings . Some of the children were dispersed to Galveston.  Kristina and I were let off at the Glidden depot near Columbus, Texas.  She was adopted by the Anton Holeszewski family of Fayetteville; and I was placed in their foster care. They couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak Czech, so we had trouble communicating, especially the next morning, when they handed me a pail and told me to go milk the cow before breakfast.  I’d never seen a cow in New York.  Most of my recollections of my time with this family are of working very hard and spending hours serving as an altar boy. The family was devoutly Catholic and weekly sent packages of their most delicious farm foods to the priest.

When serving as an altar boy on special occasions, weddings, funerals, etc., the priest would share his fees with me, 5 to 15 cents, and tell me to buy some ice cream. My foster parents would take this away, as they believed I “didn’t need” any treats.

After some eight years, the priest at the Live Oak Hill Catholic Church in the area of Fayetteville and Ellinger, Texas bought me a new suit of clothes, gave me a prayer book and a gold watch and chain, on which was inscribed, ” To W. J.  Duckett – God give you strength,” and a railroad ticket to Galveston where I was to attend seminary and study for the priesthood.  I traded the railroad ticket for a wagon ride to Elgin, in the other direction, where I spent the first night under a railroad trestle.

My first job was as a water boy for the M&M Railroad which was building a bridge near Smithville, Tx., where I was allowed to sleep in a box car.  When summer came, I found a job at the cotton gin in Taylor, TX. With the few dollars I was able to save, I returned to the Fayetteville-Ellinger area, where I hired out as a farm hand and worked at the Walla gin. Life became enjoyable for a change.  I played 3rd base on the LaGrange baseball team for which I would receive approximately $2.00 per game, depending on the crowd.

The Hruska brothers were my teammates, and I was fortunate to meet their wonderful sister, Anna Marie, whom I married on Nov 23, 1915 in the Czech Moravian Brethren Church near Fayetteville, which church still stands and serves to-day.”

Duckett wedding

“Anna’s brother Henry made his home with us.  From this area we moved to Notowa, TX., and then in the fall of 1923, to a farm in the Bernard Prairie Community between East Bernard and Wallis, and in 1948 to the farm near El Campo where our two sons were attorneys.”

Duckett house

“We had five children, 2 boys and 3 girls.  While living in Notawa, our first son was bitten by a Cottonmouth Moccasin snake and I carried him by horseback a distance of fifteen miles, chucking up and delirious with fever, to the doctor in Wallis, TX.  Miraculously, he survived.

We became reunited with Kristina (Shoppa) and also with the son of my foster family, both living in Wharton, TX.  To this day we are in contact with the son’s remaining daughter, who came to visit me on my 99th birthday on October 28th of this year.

So as not to be totally dependent on the whims of nature and a cotton crop, I secured a job in the general store in East Bernard, joined the local S.P.J.S.T., group and then the Masonic Lodge.  I received The Masonic 75 year Service pin, and the S.P.J.S.T. honored me on my 96h birthday.

Once we were able to buy a car we took daylong journeys to visit friends and relatives in various parts of south and central Texas.  One summer Sunday morning we took off for Galveston with promises of hamburgers and the beach.  We got too hungry before we made it to Galveston, so we stopped at a roadside café and ordered hamburgers.  We waited and WAITED, and then we heard a shot.  I said, ‘Well… They’ve shot he cow-it won’t be much longer now.’  All forgot their hunger pangs and laughed.  This was a funny family story for years.

Our children were all bright and beautiful respectful and obedient.

Educating our 5 children was the top priority of my wife Anne and I because we wanted something better for them than farming…so we pinched pennies and scraped so that they could participate in all school activities and outings.  They rewarded us by making top grades, and all worked to earn their way through college, of which we are all proud.

One  son, a graduate of Law School at The University of Texas in Austin, paid his way by also working every week day pushing an old fashioned lawn mower on the huge lawn in front of the State Capitol building in Austin,Tx…then at night he spent the night in a funeral home answering the phone…where he was allowed to study between calls…plus other jobs.”

My only medication I’m on daily is two tablespoons of good bourbon in my coffee every morning, it gets my circulation going.

When my daughter asked me what I wanted for my 99th birthday, I replied, “ JUST WHAT I HAVE.”

The report about the orphan trains, including Papa D’s story, can be found in the book, “Their Own Stories” by The Orphan Train Riders Historical Society in Arkansas (OTHSA).  It’s available through the Train Riders Museum and Research Center in Concordia, KS., (785) 243-4471.

We know what happened to Papa D after 1905, but the time from 1894 to about 1900 is murky at best.  What clues do we have as to who his parents might have been?

DNA Testing

The first avenue we tried, was, of course, DNA testing through Papa D’s son.  The good news, Papa D’s Y chromosome is quite unusual, so when a solid match is received there will be no question.  The bad news is that there is no solid match today.  There are a couple of 12 marker matches who did not test at a higher level, and none of his 5 total matches have taken the Family Finder match.

We’ve also checked at Ancestry where we found 3 of 4 matches were hand entered from Family Tree DNA.  Sorenson has been offline lately, so that resource can’t be checked at present.

It goes without saying that he matches no other Ducketts, nor did we expect that he would.  You can see his results in the Duckett project, kit number 262691, or at Ysearch, User ID 69C3G.  Papa D has established a new Duckett genetic line.

However, the circumstances surrounding Richard and Mary Duckett make me wonder if they were related to William.  Were they his grandparents perhaps?  Why did they take him, not once, but twice?  Why did they return him?  Why was Mary insistent that he retain the Duckett name?  And is his middle name, Jennings, significant.  Is it perhaps a family name?  So many questions and so few answers.

Family Finder testing showed no people with Duckett surnames, but then again, Duckett is a very rare surname.  It did show two people with Jennings surnames in Ireland, but this could be coincidence only.  His closest match is at the 2nd to 4th cousins level, estimated to be a third cousin.  This means in essence, he is 4 generations from his match to a common ancestor.  That person has a lot of Bohemian/Czech in their 4th generation pedigree chart, which they have uploaded to Family Tree DNA.  Papa D’s wife was Czech.

Clues – The Baptismal Record and the Duckett Family

We have two viable clues.

  1. The first clue is the baptism record.  I suspect that when the Foundling Home provided this to William Duckett in 1918, they simply entered his name as it was in 1918.  This means that the original records, at the church, would not be under the name of William Duckett, but William Errington, or perhaps his real name if there was some kind of note with him providing at least his birth date.  The records of St. Vincent Ferrer’s Catholic Church need to be checked for the actual church record of his baptism.
  2. The Richard and Mary Duckett family.  Preliminary research on the Duckett family shows the following information.

The Duckett Family

In the 1900 census, there is a Mary F. Duckett who is living with her adult son in his household along with her 2 adult daughters, ages 26 and 29, in South Orange, Essex Co., NJ.

Mary is a widow, born in 1843, of Irish parents, but born in New York.  She has had 7 children, and only 4 are living.  Her daughters are Frances and Nelly, ages 29 and 26, both hat trimmers.  Her son is a gardener.  This would account for 3 of her 4 children.  The Irish are most often Catholic, and if Mary was of Irish parents, she most likely was Catholic.  They lived at 309 Scotland Street.  If Papa D is the son of one of the Duckett daughters, Frances and Nelly are the best candidates.

duckett 1900 census

Mary is listed as widowed, but there is a Richard who is living in a home for disabled veterans in Hudson Co., NJ.  He is born in April of 1830, age 70, married for 30 years, immigrated in 1847 and is naturalized.

Unfortunately, the 1890 census is missing, but the 1880 census should show this family.

Indeed, in the 1880 census, we have Richard Duckett, age 50, so born 1830 in Ireland and a hat maker.  His wife Mary is age 40, so born about 1840 in New York to Irish parents.  They have daugher Fanny, age 19, a hat trimmer, daughter Ellen age 9 and Samuel, age 6.  They live at 276 Teanount(?) Avenue in Orange, Essex Co., NY.

I was not able to find either Richard or Mary Duckett in the 1870, 1860 or 1850 census.

There was a Richard Duckett who filed for a Civil War Pension in 1889 from New Jersey.  A military headstone was provided for Richard Duckett in Springhill Cemetery in Milburn in November of 1901.  This is in Essex County.  He died November 7, 1901 although I cannot find him through Find-A-Grave.

Looking at other records, we find:

Mrs. Richard Duckett of New Jersey contributed in 1861 to a St. Mary’s Hall scholarship and contributions are listed as from “graduates and former pupils.”  Unfortunately, this is probably not the “right” Mary as St. Mary’s Hall, located in Burlington, NJ, was a private Episcopal School, not Catholic.  It is now the Doane School.

In 1883, Mary Duckett of Orange is listed as a laundress in the city directory.

In 1891, in Orange, East Orange and West Orange, NJ, Richard, Ellen G. and Lesher Ducket are listed as “hat” (Richard) and hat trimmers.  The address is 40 Forest.  Who is Lesher Duckett?  Is this Sarah Lesher from the 1895 census?

The same year in the business directory, Richard P. Duckett is listed as a hatter at “Main op Spring.”  Op probably means opposite.  In 1893 he is listed exactly the same.

In 1893 in the city directory, Mary F. Duckett is listed at 478 Scotland.

In 1894, there is also a Mary P. Duckett in Camden who is a dressmaker who is listed for many years.  This is not Mary F. Duckett of Orange.

In 1895 Richard P. Duckett is listed as “hat” on Church.  Mrs. Mary F. Duckett is listed at 478 Scotland.  One may be a business address and one personal, or they may be separated or divorced.

On the 1895 NJ State census, the family is listed as Mary F. Duckett, Sarah Lesher, Ellen G. Duckett, Samuel Duckett and William Williams.  William Williams is under age 5.  The adults are all listed age 20-60.  Who is William Williams and how is he connected to this family?  Who is Sarah Lesher and how is she connected to the family?

In 1898 and 1899 Richard H. D. (or Richard H. D. S.) Duckett is listed on S. Passaic Av in Newark, NJ.  In 1901 Richard HDS Duckett is listed on Belgrove Drive.  He is noted for many more years, so this Richard is not the Richard Duckett of Orange.

However, Richard Duckett is listed in the 1901 and 1902 Orange directory as “hat” on Scotland Road and N Irving Ave.  It could be he has died but his business is still in existance?

So we know that Richard and Mary have either 3 or 4 daughters and one son.  In 1900, two of the adult daughters remain unmarried.

In summary, the children are:

  • Fanny b 1861 (from the 1880 census)
  • Ellen b 1871 (from the 1880  and 1895 census)
  • Frances b 1870 (from the 1900 census, possibly the same person as Ellen in the 1880 census?)
  • Nelly b 1874 (from 1880 census and the 1900 census)
  • Samuel b 1875 (from the 1800, 1895 and 1900 census)

Mary had 2 more children who died, and there is a 10 year gap between daughters Fanny, born 1861 and Ellen, born 1871.

Solving the Puzzle

I made the following suggestions to the Duckett family:

  1. Obtain the original records from the church reflected in the baptismal certificate provided by the Foundling Home, dated November 29, 1894, from the St. Vincent Ferrer’s Catholic Church of New York.  This baptism occurred the day after he was “found” and admitted to  the Foundling Hospital.  He could  have been baptized as William Errington, or perhaps another name.  See if there is any note as to how they knew his birth date.
  2. Contact the school that Mrs. Richard Duckett attended prior to 1861 and see if you her maiden name can be determined.  With other records, this could either  confirm that she is not the wife of Richard.  I strongly suspect not, given that this is an Episcopal school and your Mary was later a laundress, not appearing to be from a wealthy family who could afford for their daughter to attend  a private school.  Also, Mary Duckett in the 1897 transaction with the Foundling Home signed her name and it appears from the signature that she struggled to do so.   I strongly suspect this woman in the 1861 record is NOT the Mary Duckett you seek, so this would be a low priority.
  3. See if you can locate a marriage record for Richard and Mary Duckett about 1860, probably in Essex County, NJ.  Once Mary’s maiden name is determined, check Family Finder matches for other people researching that surname.
  4. Track the children of this couple forward in time to find a current living descendant and see if they will DNA test.  The autosomal DNA would be the only one to test unless by some chance you find a male descendant of  Samuel Duckett and in that case, I would test both the Yline and autosomal.  I do not expect the Yline to match.  If William Jennings is from this family, he is likely the son of one of the daughters.
  5. Obtain the death certificate of Richard Duckett.  You may need to order his military records in order to determine his death date in order to order the death certificate.  If  this is the right family, his death certificate, as well as that of his      wife Mary, will hold their parents names which may allow you to find siblings      which can also be tracked forward in time.
  6. Check to see if Richard Duckett had a will.  If so, his children will be named and possibly his grandchildren as well. The same goes for Mary.
  7. I suspect that William’s middle name, Jennings, may be a key to this puzzle.  I looked for Jennings/Duckett marriages and found none that seemed to be relevant.  This could be Mary’s maiden name or perhaps that of her mother.
  8. Finding an obituary or other information, perhaps through a funeral home, that will lead you to a  church may well be the key to finding an original baptism of William Jennings Duckett, which could contain his father’s name.  The baptism performed at the Foundling Home could have been a second baptism, if they didn’t know about a first one.
  9. I would suggest that you search the St. John Catholic church records in Orange for William Jennings Duckett’s baptism.  If he was born to a Duckett female, and they had him for a month before giving him up, it’s very likely he was baptized sometime after October 29th, 1894 and before November 29th, 1894.  I would suggest looking at all baptisms that took place during that time, especially any to Duckett, Lesher or Williams women.

On the map below, the Catholic churches in the area of Orange, Essex County, NJ, where the Ducketts lived are shown with purple balloons and the location where the Duckett’s lived on Scotland is shown in red.  They are very close to Our Lady of the Valley, but the original St. John’s isn’t far either, at the top of the map.  There is also a cemetery by St. John’s church which suggests it was likely the original Catholic church in the area, although there are no Ducketts listed as buried there at Find-A-Grave.  The history of St. Johns indicates that the priests there were Irish, which makes this church an extremely good candidate for the Ducket family.

Duckett map

Can You Help?

Anyone who is familiar with the Richard and Mary Duckett family of Orange, Essex County, NJ, or has other observations, information or suggestions to offer can contact Lara Gibson, great-niece of Virginia, Papa D’s daughter, who is now deceased.  Lara would love to hear from you at