Many children in orphanages, such as the New York City facility that cared for these “inmates” in 1913, had one or both living parents. Families might temporarily sign over children when unable to support them financially.
So how can you determine what may have happened to the families of children who suddenly show up on (or disappear from) your family tree? Here are five possible scenarios for what happened—and the paperwork that may help you piece together the stories.
1. Taken in
If neither able-bodied mother nor family fortune existed, then family, friends or neighbors often stepped in. This wouldn’t have generated formal adoption paperwork. Evidence of their caregiving might appear in a census listing showing the child living with a new family, in correspondence, or in the child’s inclusion in the new parents’ wills or estate paperwork.
2. Bound out
More than 1.8 million Freedmen’s Bureau records are newly indexed. Search them at DiscoverFreedmen.org or among more than 125 related databases at FamilySearch. Ancestry.com has a database of field office reports for multiple states. Find a directory to scattered indexes of labor contracts at The Freedmen’s Bureau Online.
3. Signed over
If you think a child may have been placed in an orphanage, look for him first in the US census. As early as 1850, he should appear as an “inmate” of a home, listed alongside other residents. When you find children in an institution in the 1880 census, also look for their enumeration in the Defective, Dependent and Delinquent special census schedule, available for several states on Ancestry.com. Censuses of homeless and institutionalized children may include information about their parents, such as country or state of birth. If you can determine what facility housed a child, try to locate records. Search online for the facility’s name and location and look for:
- Record indexes on websites such as Ancestry.com or USGenWeb articles about the history of the institution, which may point to surviving records.
- Manuscript finding aids for original record collections at archives.
- The FamilySearch catalog also includes hundreds of microfilmed orphanage records. Find relevant ones by running a keyword search with the name of the facility or the word orphanage and the location.
Any surviving orphanage records are probably rich in detail. Records may include intake registers, surrenders of children (also called quit-claims) and even death and burial records for those who passed away in the home. Some individual files may be restricted, especially those that contain medical data. But you may at least be able to confirm a residence along with some family information.
4. Shipped away
Start researching an orphan train relative with his or her appearance in federal and state censuses. Look for him both in institutions before placement and in homes afterward. Ancestry.com has a database of about 5,000 children who lived in Children’s Aid Society facilities during various state or federal censuses. Also research local newspapers for ads or articles about the arrival of the train. Several state-level orphan train groups and regional research facilities gather information about riders in their areas.
Look for help integrating DNA testing into adoption research at sites such as DNAAdoption.com and in The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine Bettinger (Family Tree Books).
A version of this article appeared in the December 2016 issue of Family Tree Magazine.