Identify Adoptions and Orphans
Sometimes your own family history or the search for one of your ancestors is stalled because the circumstances of an ancestor's birth are shrouded in mystery. The first step in such a situation is the obvious one — to discover the names of the unknown birth parent or birth parents. If you believe the individual was formally adopted, the next step is to contact the agency or state that handled the adoption for a copy of the adoption order (in most states this information is sealed), or “nonidentifying information,” which, governed by state law and agency policy, may include important details that aren't considered revealing enough to identify the birth parents. This nonidentifying information may include information on the adoptee (such as the date of birth and place of birth) and the birth parents (including a medical history, education level, religious affiliation, age at the birth, financial status, other siblings, and a physical description). Laws governing the release of identifying and nonidentifying information about adoptions vary from state to state and country to country.
The Internet is also especially helpful in adoption searches because of the access it provides to reunion registries that match up searching family members who have been separated by adoption, foster care, or other means. The International Soundex Reunion Registry (
If you manage to locate the name of a birth parent, or at least enough family facts to offer the chance of being able to identify them, a variety of genealogy resources can be helpful in your search. Census records, newspaper notices and obituaries, online telephone directories, public record databases, the Social Security Death Index, and other resources discussed throughout this book can be used.
Because of the difficulty of adoption research, and the possible emotional issues involved, it can often be beneficial to join an adoption search support group. The Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) (
Adoption is not the only thing that separates a child from his parents. It's not unusual to find a child sent to live with family members, or even neighbors, after a remarriage or the death of a parent. A child may also have been bound out as an apprentice to learn a trade. Children didn't even necessarily have to lose their parents to be considered orphans, placed for a time under the responsibility of the county or local government. There are many records of orphans, especially in large cities, with at least one living parent who for some reason wasn't able to support them. These children might be traced to a poorhouse or orphanage, or may have been reared by foster parents (related or unrelated) or even sent west on an orphan train.
A good place to search for information on orphans is the county courthouse. Many areas maintained an Orphans' Court that handled the sale and division of real estate arising from estates, as well as the guardianship of minor children. In areas without an Orphans' Court, these matters were usually handled by the Probate Court. A guardian was generally appointed by the court to take charge of a minor's property, not necessarily custody of the child; thus, a child could have a guardian even if one or both parents were alive. But many true orphans can be found in the records as well, as they needed to have a guardian appointed to manage their parents' estate for them until they became of age — generally age eighteen for females and age twenty-one for males. Orphans' Court proceedings may contain records of orphans being bound out as apprentices as well.
Sometimes you'll get lucky and an Internet search will turn up Guardianship and Orphans' Court records online, as in the case of the Wills, Orphans' Court, Guardianship, and Letters of Administration database (
Orphan asylums were established by governments, churches, and private charities and their records are understandably scattered. Check with the local library or historical society to see if they have information on orphanages that operated in the area, or do an Internet search such as orphans western pennsylvania. Cyndi's List (