Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Postscript on Orphans

After having wrapped up my series on the quest to identify my orphaned second great grandmother's roots, a comment on last Friday's post prompted me to provide this brief addendum. Janet had mentioned that she also had a second great grandmother who was adopted. If Janet's research has also run into the same roadblock that mine has, you can be sure there are many others stymied with that same scenario in their own roots.

Now that I've run across research issues involving parentage puzzles, the further I delve into seeking explanations, the more I realize we, as researchers, may have arrived at some assumptions which, in deconstructing the scenario, may not prove as challenging as we first thought.

While I'm still in process on making my mind up about tackling unknown parentage issues, I want to take the time to note a few observations.

First among those thoughts is the observation that we need to be careful to delineate the difference between adoptees and orphans. Not all orphans become adopted—which, in essence, means not all orphans will have the kind of paper trail attached to an adoption. On the other hand, not all paper trails are equally accessible, which means that it sometimes is easier to uncover records indicating the parents of an orphan than of an adoptee.

Digging further into this topic, it is important to realize that adoption, twentieth century style, is not at all the same as adoptions from prior centuries. The closed adoptions legally arranged in the 1900s often barred the general public—and even the most vitally vested individuals—from knowing the truth about a child's birth parents. On the other hand, it is only a matter of time, moving back through the decades, to find an orphaned child's parents, if the orphan himself or herself can be located in records.

It is so important to learn the assumptions of the era in which we are seeking our ancestors. That is the context in which our ancestors lived their lives. The customs for dealing with orphaned children were vastly different in the 1800s or 1700s than they are in our current times. We can't make the mistake of assuming our mindset and attitudes apply to previous time periods in quite the same way as they do to our own.

Besides the experience I had while muddling through my orphaned second great grandmother's situation, from time to time I've encountered indications that surprise me about how such situations have been handled, regarding children bereft of their parents.

For instance, once while researching my mother-in-law's Ohio family, I was reading articles in local newspapers when my eye strayed to a legal notice about a couple in the process of adopting a child. The article named the child, provided the name of his parents—both natural and adoptive—and the reason for the change. (If I remember correctly, the birth mother had died, the father had to attend to business obligations barring him from caring for the young child, and a neighboring family was willing to take the child and raise him as their own.) In addition, the legal report also gave the birth name of the child, as well as the name change for which the adoptive parents were petitioning the court—providing a perfectly delineated trail for any interested genealogical researcher inquiring about that person now.

Newspapers of past decades sometimes named the parties involved in guardianship issues (not to mention, the court records themselves would provide this information), named specific children as the adopted children of a specific couple, or otherwise identified the parties involved in this change of parentage. In some instances in which we would afford more of a cover of privacy in our own times, previous eras might have been much more transparent.

In short, upon discovering an ancestor was not raised by his or her birth parents, assuming that we could never identify who the true parents were may be a misleading conclusion. There may well be a way to discover that truth, just by means of the appropriately named exhaustive search we have learned to do as genealogists. 


  1. We also need to remember that "adoption" was not always a formal and legal process but just a casual thing between neighbors or even a term used loosely to mean a child was living with someone not his/her parents. My great-grandparents had a short string of "adopted" children. One lived right next door to the natural parents. One was a nephew but was labeled in the census as "adopted son." It would be worth one's time to look at family and neighbors as potential biological parents.

    1. Good point, Wendy! Thanks for sharing those examples.

      The main take-away from all this: for anyone discovering an orphan or adoptee in that family tree, don't just assume that fact means a closed door to further research. It's amazing what details are sometimes out there for the adoptees and orphans of previous generations.

  2. Years ago my Father's family was large...14. A neighbor asked if they could have one of their sons since they had 12. I think it was common, and those questionable early births...you know a sister raising an unmarried sisters child:)

    1. I think I remember you sharing that story before, Far Side. It does seem unusual, from our point of view, but life was very different one hundred years ago.


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