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Was One of Your Ancestors Adopted?

For genealogy enthusiasts, adoptions within their family history may create a stumbling block due to a lack of records — particularly if the adoption occurred in the era before open adoptions happily became the norm.  Often, the paper trail that our ancestors left behind can end with one person. This could be a sign that this ancestor may have been adopted.

A History of Adoption

The concept of adoption is an ancient one that goes back beyond recorded history. Adoption even exists within other species of the animal kingdom. But adoption was once an informal and rarely-discussed event within families. Modern open adoptions are infinitely more emotionally healthy, mutually beneficial for everyone involved, and more celebrated than they  were in the not-so-distant past. Open adoptions are now the standard thanks to the research that has shed light on the generally negative nature of most closed adoptions and the benefits of open adoptions.
In the past, adoptions were often secretive, complicated and left large gaps in the personal histories of the adoptee — which creates even bigger gaps for their descendants who are researching their own family tree. Typically, few (if any) records will exist of the adoption, so family researchers are left to puzzle together whether or not an adoption may have been the reason for missing information in their genealogical research.

What Adoption Means for People Piecing Together Their Family History

Because adoption wasn’t as well-regulated, well-talked about, or well-documented as it is today, past adoptions can leave you with inaccurate information about birth dates and biological family members, confusing timelines, and other inconsistencies in your research.
Could that ancestor who suddenly pops up or disappears in records have been adopted?
Adoption adds a whole new family tree into your personal history, so your familial history begins to look more like a forest! This is common, but it can make sorting through historical records a bit more confusing.

How to Tell If an Adoption Occurred Within Your Family

Again, because adoption records of the past weren’t always very clear, you’ll likely have to rely on indications and clues that an adoption occurred.
Terms or documents that can sometimes indicate an adoption of a family member could include:

  • An apprenticeship
  • A guardianship
  • Probate records that mention a child’s name for the first time or mention a birth mother
  • Census records that include new children with different surnames
  • Census records that include residents of orphanages or adoption agencies, then a similar name is also included in later family census records
  • Juvenile court documents
  • Poor farm records
  • State charity, children’s homes, or social service agency documents or correspondence
  • Travel records that could indicate an Orphan Train adoption
  • Original and/or amended birth certificates
  • “AD son” or “AD daughter” on census records indicates the listing of an adopted child
  • Name changes
  • Newspapers that include adoption hearings, advertisements regarding paternity or adoptions, etc.
  • Adoption petitions within local or state legislative records

Common Instances that Don’t Necessarily Point to Adoption

It should be noted that even if you find records of an ancestor being placed in an orphanage or being listed as an “orphan,” that doesn’t always indicate that they were later adopted. Orphanages were often used similarly to modern-day foster care. Children would frequently age out of the orphanage without ever being adopted, or even more frequently, their stay in the orphanage was temporary and they later were reunited with their biological family.
If an adoption occurred between close family members (for example, an unmarried woman placing her child with her married sister and her brother-in-law), there is rarely any record of the event unless mentioned in family notes or correspondence. Typically, the only way you’ll discover relative adoptions is if someone within your family is willing to talk about it.
Similarly, finding out whether one of your ancestors placed a child for adoption can be difficult, as there are often very few records of these adoptions other than an absence of a child on census records with no records of death.

If Your Ancestor Was Adopted…

Congratulations! You just gained new biological or adoptive relatives that you probably never knew that you had. Almost all of us have adoption somewhere in our family histories, whether it was recent or distant.
Adoption creates unbreakable bonds between birth and adoptive families that last for generations, all thanks to love for a child.