Researching Your Adopted Ancestors

Adoption has existed in one form or another for much of human history. Whether formal or informal, it can play a significant role in shaping your family tree. Below is an overview of the history of adoption in the United States and some resources you can use to research adopted ancestors.

We also have an online class on researching your adopted ancestors coming up on Thursday, June 16 at 6PM. For more information and to register, visit our website.

History of Adoption in the United States

Before 1851

Adoptions were often informal, and biological parents generally retained legal rights over their children regardless of where they lived. Children 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.
  • 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
  • 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
  • 1994: S. Multiethnic Placement Act - 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 - Allowed adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
  • 2000: 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.

Further Reading

Search Tips

  • 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

Useful Records

  • Cemetery records- Burial records may include detailed information about the family of the deceased, including an adoption
  • Census records - Records from 1880 onwards may indicate that a person was the adopted child of the head of the household
  • Church records - Adoptions may be noted in baptism records and include information about the person’s biological parents
  • Family papers - Documents such as letters and diaries may contain information about a child being adopted or placed for adoption
  • Immigration records - Useful for gathering information about children that were adopted from other countries
  • Institutional records - Records form places such as orphanages, foundling and other hospitals, and charitable organizations may contain information about foster placements and adoptions.
  • Military records - Personnel records may have a record of an adoption if it took place during someone’s active military service
  • Name change books - Records of names changed in courts, earlier books will not note the reason for a name change, however later books will note if it was changed due to an adoption
  • Newspapers - May include announcements of children available for adoption as well as probate court announcements of formal adoptions
  • Probate records - Documents such as wills, guardianship records, trust records, and other estate records may note that a person was adopted
  • Published genealogies - Information about an adoption may be noted in a person’s individual entry
  • Vital records - Adoptions may be noted on birth record, particularly if the adoptee was adopted at or shortly after birth

Resources at the BPL

Online Resources

  • Genealogy Research Guide, Researching Adopted Ancestors - Includes more information and links to further resources
  • American Ancestors - Multiple collections of genealogical and public records from around the world, focusing primarily on the U.S. and New England. Available for use in the Central Library only.
  • Ancestry Library Edition -  Billions of genealogical records focusing primarily on the United States, with some records from Europe and Canada. Highlights include immigration and naturalization records, fully indexed U.S. Census records from 1790 to 1940, and Massachusetts vital records from the colonial era to the early 20th century. Available for use at BPL locations only.
  • ArchiveGrid - Detailed descriptions of archival collections, including historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and other materials at thousands of libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives worldwide.


Government Resources

Useful Websites