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Researching Orphans in Genealogy

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New York City, The Colored Orphan Asylum, Boulevard And One Hundred And Fourty-Third Street., Digital ID 805105, New York Public LibraryNew York City, The Colored Orphan Asylum, Boulevard And One Hundred And Fourty-Third Street., Digital ID 805105, New York Public Library

If you have an orphan in your family tree, you may have to go through additional steps to find relevant genealogical records for the orphaned or adopted ancestor. Orphans originating in New York City are not uncommon because of the city's history with the Orphan Train movement.

From the 1850s to the 1920s, the Orphan Train Movement was an organized effort to transport children from overcrowded cities, such as New York City, to foster homes across the country. An estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children were relocated, particularly to 'pioneer' states such as Indiana, Kansas, and Nebraska, though the trains made stops in 45 states as well as Canada and Mexico. The beginning of the Foster Care movement, which grew out of the Orphan Train's "free-home-placing-out" idea, ended the Orphan Trains. Of course, not all children's care institutions took part in the Orphan Trains, and not all orphans were shipped out of New York City.

Brooklyn Orphan Asylum., Digital ID 2040780, New York Public LibraryBrooklyn Orphan Asylum., Digital ID 2040780, New York Public Library

To get started in researching an orphan in your family tree, use Genealogy Insider's Tips For Researching Orphaned Ancestors or Rootsweb's Guide for an Adopted or Orphaned Ancestor. Another helpful resource is Waifs, Foundlings and Half-Orphans: Searching for America's Orphan Train Riders by Mary Ellen Johnson; peppered with personal stories, this book is most useful for its research tips at the end of each section. Cyndi's List of Orphan Train Resources includes census resources and links to several localized Orphan Train Societies. The New York State Library: Genealogy for Adoptees website includes search strategy materials, helpful organizations, and information regarding open records searching for adoptions. Adopting.org's First Steps Guide is generally aimed towards adoptees seeking birth parents, but also contains tips useful to genealogy research.

Hebrew Orphan Asylum, Amsterdam Ave., New York., Digital ID 836667, New York Public LibraryHebrew Orphan Asylum, Amsterdam Ave., New York., Digital ID 836667, New York Public Library

The New York charity institutions involved in the Orphan Train movement include The Children's Aid Society, the New York Juvenile Asylum (now called Children's Village), the New York Foundling Hospital, and the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York. The records of these various institutions are not all kept in the same locations. You can use Adoption Agencies, Orphanages, and Maternity Homes: An Historical Directory by Reg Niles, a state-by-state guide to help you identify a relevant agency. Once you have identified the potential agency or orphanage, search ArchiveGrid for the location of their records. The National Orphan Train Complex Research Resources has an address list of various local agencies for vital records and institutional records, includes the archival locations for most of the major NYC orphanages. Family Tree Magazine also compiled a list of Orphan Record Repositories. The NYPL holds the records of two orphanages: Howard Orphanage and Industrial School records and the Riverdale Children's Association Records (formerly known as the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City, the first institution in the United States dedicated to the care of African American children). Genealogical Resources in New York edited by Estelle M. Guzik also details the locations of many of the records of New York orphanages and children's care agencies.

For further information on the history of Orphan Trains:

Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York / by Renée Wendinger

Orphan Train Riders: A Brief History of the Orphan Train Era (1854-1929) / Tom Riley

Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children he Saved and Failed / Stephen O'Connor

Orphan Trains & Their Precious Cargo: The Life's Work of Rev. H.D. Clarke / compiled by Clark Kidder

Journeys of Hope: Orphan Train Riders: Their Own Stories / edited by Mary Ellen Johnson

The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America / Marilyn Irvin Holt

The Orphan Trains [videorecording] / Edward Gray Films, Inc., WGBH

If you are interested in genealogy research in the Milstein Division, we are located in Room 121 of the Stephen A Schwarzman Building, at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. To get a better idea of our services, holdings, and genealogical methods, please explore the Conducting Research portion of our division's website, including our Frequently Asked Questions and blog posts, as well as links to free genealogical online resources. You can explore the library's catalog if you would like to search for specific holdings in the library collection.

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