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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 families.

  • Adoption Resources  - Online resources for researching adoption records and adoption parent/child location.
  • Adoption Search
  • 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 address book.
  • 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. The Museum and Research Center are dedicated to the preservation of the stories and artifacts of those who were part of the Orphan Train 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 DiPasquale. 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.