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 cousin.

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 privacy.

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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