History and Background of Adoption in the United States
Guides On the Web
- FamilySearch.org Wiki: Adoption
- Scroll down; at the bottom of the page is a chart of links to Adoption sources and information for each state.
- M. Taylor. All About Adoption Research
- Rootsweb Guide Adoption and Orphan Research
- Hinckle. Finding Your Adopted Ancestors (a power point presentation)
- Searching for Historical Records of Adoption (a blog)
- A professional genealogist at Authentic Origins.com offers to consult with you to help you do your own research or you can hire her to work on your adoption problem. I can not recommend or not recommend- all I know about her is that her is that she was quoted in a 2007 article on adoption in FamilyTree Magazine and her website is still up; so she has been in business for at least 5 years. Adoption research is one of her specialties and she is also a social worker. And her rates ($35/hour as of Jan. 2013) seem reasonable. As always, when hiring work done, proceed with caution.
Adoption in Early America
Legal age in colonial america is an important concept. Generally children over the age of 14 could choose their own guardian.
Guardianships: to protect the property of the infant, see to his maintenance and education.
- This article, Orphans & Guardians explains it nicely.
- Guardianship records are usually in probate or orphan's courts, but may be found in others.
- The guardian did not have physical custody of the child.
Indenture / Apprenticeships (binding out/putting out)
- The indenture is the legal document;
- This article on the Colonial Williamsburg site (York Co., Virginia) offers a good explanation of colonial apprenticeships
- Life as an Apprentice in Colonial America
- Children from intact homes often placed in an apprenticeship, usually when they became adolescents
- Poor of orphaned children may be indentured by town or church officials, often at a very young age.
- Sometimes you can find reference to adoption in the names changes, which will be found in the local statutes prior to jurisdiction passing to the courts. Names were changed for a variety of reasons and the reason is sometimes, but not always given in the legislation.
- Sometimes adoptions were informal and the child kept his or her birth name and/or used an alias.... the birth name on more formal documents, the name of the family otherwise.
- In census records 1880 forward, the relationship often specifies adopted son or daughter, even if the name differs.
- A marriage, death or other official record may reveal the name of the birth parents.
Provision for inheritance through wills - including step children, illegitimate children and “adopted” children
- To be sure an "adopted" child received an inheritance, the specification was made in a will. Often the will designated the individual as an adopted son or daughter.
- Adoption and Inheritance provides a clear and concise explanation of the extent to which inheritance and adoption were intertwined.
Town and miscellaneous local records might contain a wide variety of information that name children under the care of others, including the maintenance of poor families, the binding out of poor children (children without guardians) and (very, very rarely) statements of adoption.
Example that includes name changes, town records and inheritance:
- From the Boston Repertory Oct. 1, 1822
- Marriages In Dracutt, Mr. Samuel Bragdon of Newburyport to Miss Harriet Swett Varnun, adopted daughter of the late Hon. Joseph B. Varnum and daughter of Major Daniel Swett, of Newburyport.
- From Dracutt Town Records: To all whom it may concern. Be it known that I have taken my granddaughter Harriet Swett into my family and, by the consent of her parents, have adopted her as my daughter, and with their consent and at my request she has assumed the name of Harriet Swett Varnum, and is hereby entitled to a share of my property equal to other daughters or their heirs. In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand at Dracutt the 14th day of September 1812. Joseph Bradley Varnum.
- From Massachusetts Laws, a private act passed 17 June 1817 the name of Harriet Swett became Harriett Swett Varnum.
Institutions: Poor houses, Orphanages and Maternity Homes
Parens Patriae - the state has an obligation (and right) to look after citizens who can not fend for themselves; the government as parent.
Poor Houses housed children and adults; children were sometimes bound out from the poor house (almshouse)
- You may find children in orphanages, poorhouses or childrens' homes in census records, but the fact that a child is in an institution does not necessarily mean that both parents are dead.
- Poor Houses by State -- this is a nice site, but mostly contains postcard pictures of some institutions. A few entries have more substantial information.
- Oh if only every county was as helpful as Chester County, Pennsylvania!
- I found this interesting excerpt of information about the Onondaga County New York Poor House on the internet, but the link is now dead.
- "POOR HOUSE CHILDREN Children of both sexes, from infancy to 15 years of age, can be obtained at the 0nondaga County Poor House. on trial for 2 months, and then if desired, to be bound out until the females are 18 and the males 21 years of age. Applications may he made to either the County Superintendent or to the Keeper of the Poor House. Male and female help from the age of 15 upwards can be supplied for reasonable support and clothing. signed H. K. Warren Secretary
The State Board of Charities had passed a law prohibiting admission of children over age 3 or under 16 to the poorhouse unless they were insane, epileptic or otherwise "unfit for family care". Children were instead sent to orphan asylums or placed with what we now call foster families.
Orphanages, Children's Homes, Maternity Homes
- In 1800 there were 7 established private orphanages in the United States. By 1820 there were over 20; by 1900 there were ___
- The Bethesda Orphan House, est. 1740, is still in existance, athough it no longer functions as an orphanage.
- General rule of thumb: Records of government run orphanages best; those run by churches usually good. Private organizations, especially earlier ones, more lax.
- Nils. Adoption Agencies, Orphanages and Maternity Homes: An Historical Directory. (find in a library)
- A copy is available online
- Omits institutions inactive by 1900; focus on 20th century; addresses are as of 1979 or earlier.
- Orphan's Home Website: Transcriptions of orphan, adoptee, and foster children listings in orphanages, homes, and poorhouses from U.S.-Canadian censuses and other records.
- Orphan and Orphanage Records: Olive Tree Genealogy -- links to online information and records.
- Orphanage Records at Family Tree Connection (you may need a subscription)
- Orphage Records -- a brief overview
- Family Tree Magazine: Research Orphan Train Ancestors
- Examples of places you might find children's home records
Orphan Trains:ca 1854-1929
- Ancestry Redbook wiki: Orphan Trains (note there are links to resources specific to some states)
- More than 200,000 children sent on "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
- Many of these children were not orphans ; in theory parents agreed to their being sent, but not always so.
- Results mixed
Program ended in 1929
- Philosophy moving towards keeping children with families
- foster care better funded in states; some states prohibited out-of-state placement
- and child labor legislation
Adoptions Laws & Records
Later 20th Century records tend to be sealed (not always), but in some states adoption records prior to 1930 can be obtained from the court. It may be necessary to request the records in person. Prior to and into the early 20th century, adoptions were not necessarily formalized.
In general, when adoptions are formalized, that happens in the appropriate court of jurisdiction for a given state -- the title of the court will vary. It may be called probate, Circuit, Surrogate, Chancery, Common Pleas or something else.
- First effective adoption law in the United States: Massachusetts 1851; note it gives jurisdiction to the probate court, as did Vermont in 1853.
- Georgia and Pennsylvania follwed in 1855, with jurisdiction to the Superior Court and Court of Common Pleas, respectively.
- You must first establish which court has jurisdiction in the state you are researching.
Whitmore. The Law of Adoption in the United States and Especially in Massachusetts (reprint of 1876) (Find in a library) (Read Google copy online ) ( Google Ebook for $10) Laws as they existed in 1876.
Current state laws regarding child welfare (select adoption topics to find laws on adoption)
Non identifying information: how used in the Search for Evelyn
Searches for living persons :
Books and Articles on Adoption Searches
Cyndi's List: Adoptions
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This page last updated
January 28, 2013