Orphans and Illegitimate Children
by Bob Brooke
While compiling a genealogy usually concerns members of a family with complete ties,
occasionally a genealogist will uncover an individual who doesn't seem to fit the
pattern. This might be because he or she was born illegitimate or was orphaned at
birth or a young age.
While illegitimacy was frowned upon until the mid-20th century, attitudes have come
full circle since the turn-of-the-century when single mothers were hidden away until
they had their babies. The baby, in turn, was often brought up by the maternal
grandparents as one of their own or its existence explained away as a orphaned
But times have changed. Dealing with illegitimate children may well become a moot
point when genealogists compile their 20th-century family histories. Today, fathers
usually acknowledge their offspring, either voluntarily or by order of the court.
And records identify the father. In some instances a child even bears the father's
name. In fact, in the New England colonies, an illegitimate birth was frequently
recorded under the mother's name, with the child being given its father's surname.
Occasionally, records show the birth under both names, paternal and maternal.
Certainly in the compilation of a genealogy, illegitimate or adopted children bearing
the surname of the family should be given full treatment if they live to adulthood
and have their own children and carry the family name forward as heads of their own
families. Although adopted children usually don't have the family "blood," they too
bear the name and hand it down to their descendants. When the actual parentage of an
adopted child is known, it should be recorded in the genealogy. The fact of
illegitimacy or adoption can be given in a footnote in the genealogy, with as much
detail as the compiler decides to use.
Once an adoptee begins his or her own family, it should be treated as another family
group in the genealogy. During the last 10 years, happy and sad accounts of adopted
children seeking reunion with their natural parents or birth mothers searching for a
long-relinquished child have appeared in countless newspaper and magazines. The talk
show phenomenon, begun nearly 20 years ago, has amplified these stories and brought
them to the attention of the nation. These are usually stories of anxiousness and
frustration, of restrictions established by law in the various states, and of
bureaucratic procedures rigidly fixed by social agencies. But mostly, they're stories
of the adoptee's innate desire to know "Who am I?" and the natural parent's right to
In genealogy, the idea of someone bringing up an adopted child as their own conflicts
with the identity of the biological parents. One solution may be to list both the
biological and adopted parents. However, then the lineage of the child becomes split.
This can become an unnatural growth on the family tree. Only the genealogist can
decide which direction to take.
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