One thing that jumped out at me during last Friday’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” was when Matthew Broderick discovered his grandmother grew up in an orphanage.
I knew that my grandfather grew up in an orphanage from letters he wrote as an adult seeking his birth records, but through research I’ve been able to find out a lot more. His parents weren’t dead; rather, his father had gone to prison and I’m still trying to find out what happened to his mother (the family later reunited).
Fortunately, my grandfather seems to have had a positive experience. I’ve found newspaper articles about his hard-working ways and awards he won. Soon after his father retrieved him from the home, he returned to finish high school there.
Here are some of my tried-and-true tips for researching ancestors in orphanages:
- Search census records. You may see an orphanage resident referred to as “inmate” in the census. The name of the institution is usually written at the top of the schedule that lists the residents. Typically, the census taker didn’t talk to each child. Instead, he’d transcribe names from the home’s records (which is why residents may be listed in alphabetical order).
If your orphan ancestor was around during the 1880 census, he or she may have been listed in the special schedule of “Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Classes.” You can download a PDF guide to finding these records from FamilyTreeMagazine.com.
- Run a Google search on the name of the institution. My grandfather lived in the Corsicana State Home in Texas. From the online Handbook of Texas, I learned which entity has authority over the home—the Texas Youth Commission—so I visited the commission’s website and found out how to request records related to my grandfather. If you find the state home where your ancestor lived has been shut down, chances are any surviving records were sent to the state archives.
For an orphanage run by a religious group, search online for denominational archives. You also may find historical records of homes affiliated with churches or other private organizations at state and local historical societies, local libraries, or on Family History Library microfilm.
- Follow request instructions. Orphanage records may be considered sensitive and more-recent records may be restricted. I included with my request copies of my grandfather’s death certificate and my driver’s license. I also provided his name, his parents’ names, and the years I believed he lived there. Months later, I received an envelope with his admission records.
- Keep looking. Further online research yielded TexasGenWeb pages with photos and alumni stories, a panoramic photo on the Library of Congress website, a Flickr image of a historical marker at the home and more. Apparently the home’s school had a yearbook I need to get my hands on.
- Explore orphan trains. If you think your ancestor was on one of the trains that transported orphaned children from Eastern cities to adoptive families in the West, try these sites listed on Genealinks.
Related resources from Family Tree Magazine
- Orphan Train Ancestors (free online article)
- Research toolkit for adopted ancestors (free online article)
- Early Adopters article on researching adopted ancestors from the February 2007 Family Tree Magazine (available in Family Tree Shop as a digital edition; or Family Tree Magazine Plus members can access the article online)