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It’s mostly a matter of time

It’s one of the most frustrating aspects of genealogical research: knowing that an ancestor was adopted and not being able to find the records.

mass1And it’s the frustration that reader Kitty K. ran into: “I know my great grandmother was adopted, but I can’t find the records,” she wrote. “What am I doing wrong?”

The answer is: probably nothing wrong at all. There may not be any records to find — or they may not be accessible.

First off, we need to consider the timeframe. Early on in American history, there wasn’t any formal adoption law at all. Children were taken in informally by relatives or neighbors to raise and you’re not going to find any records at all unless the child was placed in what was called a binding out: a legal process that placed the child under the control of an adult where the adult was to raise the child and teach a trade and the child was under an obligation to serve.1

Formal adoptions didn’t generally begin in the United States until the 1850s, when Massachusetts adopted the first modern adoption law. Informal adoption by relatives continued to be common until the 20th century.

The Massachusetts law, passed in 1851, was a model followed by many other jurisdictions thereafter. It provided for:

• Court supervision of adoption proceedings;

• Consent to adoption by the parents or guardian or next of kin of the child;

• Consent of any child 14 years old or older;

• Adoption only with consent of the spouse of any married adoptive parent;

• Consideration of the ability of the adoptive parents to adopt the child;

• A right of appeal by the adoptive parent or the child by a next friend of any order of the court with respect to the adoption;

• The creation of a legal relationship of the child to the adoptive parents “for the purposes of inheritance and succession by such child, custody of the person … and all other legal consequences and incidents of the natural relation of parents and children … as if such child had been born in lawful wedlock of such parents or parent by adoption, saving only that such child shall not be deemed capable of taking property expressly limited to the heirs of the body or bodies” of the adoptive parents.2

Vermont followed in 1853, also giving jurisdiction to the probate court,3 and Georgia and Pennsylvania adopted adoption laws in 1855.4

Michigan, in 1891, was the first state to pass a law requiring a judge to review the “good moral character” of the adopting parent or parents and the parent(s) “ability to support and educate such child…”5

So… we start with the fact that before the 1850s, there aren’t going to be any records of legal adoption at all.

Then more recently we hit the wall of confidentiality — protecting the records from public scrutiny but leaving them open to adopting parents and adoptees themselves to review. Minnesota was the first state to do that, in 1917.6 And more recently still, by the mid-1940s, confidentiality had given way to secrecy: the records were then sealed, a new amended birth certificate issued and even the adoptee was unable to obtain a copy of the original unamended record.7

How do we know what the law is on access to records? There’s a good website for a quick review of current adoption statutes in the United States, including records access laws, kept by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services at its Child Welfare Information Gateway website of the ( Under the State Resources menu, choose State Statutes and then scroll down to Adoption topics and choose the specific subtopics to search. Another option is the American Adoption Congress website.

What this means is, we may need to be particularly persistent and think well outside the box — we have to ask a very broad question about what kinds of records we’re going to look for in a case where we think there was an adoption or a child placed in an orphanage. The fact is, there are a lot of possibilities:

• Adoption petitions and orders
• Agency records
• Bastardy bonds
• Birth (or amended birth) certificate
• Birth indexes
• Census records enumerating institutions
• Church records including baptisms
• Filiation orders
• Guardianships
• Hospital and medical records
• Legislative records
• Name changes
• Non-identifying information
• Newspapers
• Orphanage surrenders
• Overseers of the Poor records
• Probate records

And remember: whenever a child was or may have been illegitimate, we want to be sure to search for records in the surname of the mother, not just the surname of the man who was thought to be the father. This is especially true for birth and church records, such as baptisms.

It’s often a difficult task, tracking down those children in our family histories who seem to have been lost. The records may be hidden in some way, or recorded where we don’t expect them to be. And whether there are records at all may be simply a matter of time.


  1. See generally Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 138, “bind out.”
  2. “An Act to provide for the Adoption of Children,” 24 May 1851; Chapter 234, Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court of Massachusetts in the year 1851 (Boston : Dutton & Wentworth, State Printers, 1851), 815-816; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 21 Nov 2016).
  3. An Act to Provide for the Adoption of Persons and Changes of Names, 30 Nov 1853; No. 50, Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont … 1853 (Montpelier, Vt. : E.P. Walton, Jr., Printer, 1853), 42-44; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 21 Nov 2016).
  4. See generally Emelyn Foster Peck, editor, Adoption Laws in the United States: A Summary … (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1925); digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 21 Nov 2016).
  5. Ibid., 44-45.
  6. Ibid., 27-28.
  7. See generally “Confidentiality and Sealed Records,” Adoption History Project, University of Oregon, Department of History ( : accessed 21 Nov 2016).
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