Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.


Resources for researching your ancestors and your family history

Researching Adopted Ancestors

Adoption has existed in one form or another for much of human history. Whether formal or informal, adoptions can play a significant role in shaping one’s family tree. This section will provide an overview of the history of adoption in the United States and some of the resources available to research adopted ancestors.

Adoptions were often informal, and biological parents generally retained legal rights over their children regardless of where they lived. Orphaned children or children whose biological parents could not care for them could be bound out as indentured servants or be sent to live with relatives, friends, or neighbors. Such arrangements were not always recorded.

Legal adoptions were processed through the state legislature. Records of name changes for children can be an indicator that the child was adopted, and the adoption may be noted in the record.

1851: Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act
First modern adoption law to be passed in the U.S. It transferred the responsibility for legal adoptions to probate courts, gave authority to a judge to determine if the adoption was “fit and proper,” terminated the legal rights of biological parents whose children were adopted, established the right of adopted children to inherit from their adoptive parents, and established the requirement that children age 14 and over had to consent to the adoption. This law was soon copied by other states.

1854-1929: Orphan Trains
About 250,000 children were taken on trains from East Coast cities to be placed with families throughout the rest of the U.S. and Canada. Many of the children were homeless, whose parents had either died or were unable/unwilling to care for them. Some children sent on Orphan Trains were not true orphans, but had been placed in orphanages by their biological parents due to financial or other hardship.

1917: Minnesota Adoption Act
Requires an investigation prior to placing an adopted child into a new home, and established the requirement that adoption records be kept confidential. Minnesota is the first state to pass such law.

1948: First Recorded Transracial Adoption
In Minnesota, the first recorded adoption of an African-American child by a white family takes place.

1994: U.S. Multiethnic Placement Act
The first federal law related to race in adoption, prohibits adoption agencies that receive federal funds from denying adoptions due solely to race. Amended in 1996 to prohibit the consideration of race as a factor when placing children for adoption or foster care.

1998: Oregon Ballot Measure 58
This ballot measure allowed adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. After being stalled by several failed legal challenges, the measure took effect in June of 2000 and is still in effect.

2000: U.S. Child Citizenship Act
Established the automatic granting of citizenship to foreign-born adopted and biological children of U.S. citizens upon their arrival in the United States.

  • Join an online community focused on adoption research
    • Other people doing the same kind of research may have advice or be able to help
  • Register on an adoption reunion registry
    • Some states have their own and there are several private ones
  • Consider the time period the adoption may have occurred; it may have been informal
  • Research your ancestor’s adoptive parents
    • They may be related in some way or have a shared heritage with the biological parents
  • Research the history of where your adopted ancestor was from, especially if there were any children’s charities or orphanages active in the area
  • Look at every kind of record you can find, even ones that don’t have an obvious connection to adoption (see next tab)
  • Consider using DNA testing along with traditional research
    • Take multiple tests and have other relatives take tests as well
  • Reach out to experts including adoption search coordinators, state and judicial archivists, and Registers of Deeds and/or Probate
  • Make sure you know the applicable laws relating to adoption records in the area you are researching and what you have the right to request

Records in which an adoption may be noted or indicated

  • Cemetery records- burial records may include detailed information about the family of the deceased
  • Census records- may indicate adoption in relation to head of household column (1880 onwards)
  • Church records- may be noted in baptism record and include information about biological parents
  • Family papers- including letters, diaries, etc…
  • Immigration records- for children adopted internationally
  • Institutional records- including orphanages, foundling and other hospitals, and charitable organizations
  • Military records- may be noted if the adoption took place during active military service
  • Name change books- records of names changed in courts, early books will not note the reason for a name change, later books note if it was changed due to an adoption
  • Newspapers- including announcements of children available for adoption and probate court announcements of formal adoptions
  • Probate records- including wills, guardianship records, trust records, and other estate records
  • Published genealogies- may be noted in a person’s individual entry
  • Vital records- may be noted on birth record, particularly if child was adopted at or shortly after birth

Online Resources

Books at the BPL