Adoption, Orphans and Illegitimacy
When doing research on adoption, if possible, talk to the relatives first for possible information about an ancestor's adoption. Check the back of family pictures for notes or names. A child's birth or baptismal certificate, even if amended, will include the birth date and place. Birth records can usually be found in the town of birth, filed by date. Many state libraries and historic societies may have microfilm records. Search the records for the date, and examine every birth on the day in question.
Before the passing of adoption laws starting in the mid-19th century, many adoption laws were informal and left no records. Most American colonies were legally bound to English common law, which did not recognize adoption. When a couple wished to adopt a child, they would petition the court of legislature to change the child's name instead. Records of name changes were formalized by acts of the legislature or by session laws. The parents then needed to name the child as an heir in their will so that the child could have a claim to the parents' estate.
State laws pertaining to adoption were enacted starting around 1850 and the last half of the 19th century. Check each state for the statute dates of adoption laws and the court having jurisdiction over the adoption. Historic probate, chancery, circuit, and orphans' court records may be at a county courthouse or in state archives. Adoption information before 1930 is generally easier to obtain than more recent adoption records, which usually are sealed. Look through court dockets and indexes for cases with the surname and time frame which are appropriate.
The Orphan Trains
Between 1854 and 1929 more than 200,000 children rode "orphan trains" from Eastern cities to the Midwest and West to be placed in foster homes. The Children's Aid Society in New York City initiated the program in an attempt to provide wholesome homes for orphaned children who might otherwise face a life of poverty and crime. In fact, many of these children were not orphans at all, but had parents who were unable to care for them.
Some orphan train riders found loving families and were adopted; others were regarded as cheap labor and worked long hours at home or in the fields. Changing attitudes toward keeping families together, new state and local laws funding foster care and prohibiting out-of-state placement, and child labor legislation brought about the end of the orphan trains in 1929.
To preserve and document the history of orphan train riders, Mary Ellen Johnson founded the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America in 1986. The society sponsors reunions and publications, offers a website, and maintains a research center in Springdale, Arkansas.
The Adoption Experience. ISTG. Aunt Patty's
Adoption Homepage. Reuniting adoptees and birth
families. Excellent reading for anyone who has been
touched by adoption. Stories are accepted from any
member of the adoption triad, adoptees, birth parents,
siblings, and adoptive parents in an effort to reunite
- Adoption Resources - Online resources for
researching adoption records and adoption parent/child
- Askin, Jayne, and Molly David. Search: A Handbook
for Adoptees and Birthparents. 2nd edition. Phoenix,
Arizona: Oryx Press, 1998. Best adoption methodology
book on the market.
- Culligan, Joseph J. Adoption Searches Made
Easier. Miami, Florida: FJA, 1996. Primarily an
- Drake, Paul and Beth Sherrill. Missing Pieces:
How to Find Birth Parents and Adopted Children, A Search
and Reunion Guidebook. Westminster, Maryland:
Heritage Books, 2004. A complete "how-to" for finding
adopted children or birth parents.
- Friddle, Ava, Judy Andrews, Kristen Hamilton, with
Joe Bardin. Back to the Beginning: Remarkable True
Stories of Adoption Searches and Reunions.
Scottsdale, AZ: Research Etc., 2008.
- Grossberg, Michael. Governing the Hearth: Law and
the Family in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
- Hinckley, Kathleen W. Locating Lost Family
Members & Friends: Modern Genealogical Research
Techniques for Locating the People of Your Past and
Present. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1999.
- Mieszala, Debbie. "Riding the Roller Coaster of
Post-Adoption Research." NGS Magazine 34,4
(October-December 2008): 24-27.
- Moody, Sharon Tate. Child of No One: Researching
Illegitimate Ancestors." NGS Magazine 35, 3
(July-September 2009): 42-47.
National Orphan Train Complex, Concordia, KS.
Museum and Research Center are dedicated to the
the stories and artifacts of those who were part of the
Movement from 1854-1929.
Nebraska State Historical Society -- Orphan Trains.
New York Juvenile Asylum, 1880 Census Transcriptions.
The New York Juvenile Asylum was an
instution in New York City. Many children from the
institution were sent to Illinois and other states on
Orphan Trains between about 1853 and 1929.
Nicolas. A Treatise on the Law of Adulterine Bastardy,
with a Report of the Banbury Case,: And of All Other
Cases Bearing Upon the Subject. By Sir Harris Nicolas.
London: William Pickering, 1836.
- Niles, Reg. Adoption Agencies. Orphanages and
Maternity Homes. Garden City, New York: Phileas
Deigh Corp., 1981.
Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Post Adoption: Mutual Consent Voluntary Registry.
The Mutual Consent
Voluntary Registry is a registry established by the
Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) for adult
adoptees and individuals separated from birth family
members through termination of parental rights
proceedings. It allows these individuals and their birth
family relatives to indicate their willingness to have
their identity and whereabouts disclosed to one another.
- Orphan Trains of Kansas, compiled by Connie
Beginning in 1854, charitable institutions in New York
City began sending orphans on trains to the west to find
new families, feeling that the children would fare
better out west than on the streets of New York. Orphan
trains arrived in Kansas between 1867 and 1930, and some
5000-6000 children were placed in Kansas homes....
- PBS: The
American Experience/The Orphan Trains. In 1853,
Charles Loring Brace, a young minister, founded the
Children's Aid Society to arrange the trips, raise the
money, and obtain the legal permissions needed for
relocation. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 100,000
children were sent, via orphan trains, to new homes in
rural America. Recognizing the need for labor in the
expanding farm country, Brace believed that farmers
would welcome homeless children, take them into their
homes and treat them as their own. His program would
turn out to be a forerunner of modern foster care.
- Rillera, Mary Jo. The Adoption Search Book.
Huntington Beach, California: Triadoption Publications,
1981 (Revised 1991).
- United States Adoption Registry. Worldwide adoptee and birth parent search database.