Finding Adopted Ancestors

05 Nov 2013

November is National Adoption Month. The month was founded to bring awareness to adoption as an option for couples to have children. Activities are funded by the Children’s Bureau, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


National Adoption Month


Adoptions play an important part in family history. Sometimes we know that there is an adoption. Perhaps it was a parent or a grandparent who was adopted. Sometimes it is further back in the family history. You may have discovered it by reading a compiled genealogy of the family. Or, perhaps a census record identifies a child as an adopted son or daughter.

Sometimes, however, we are unaware of the adoption. Perhaps a DNA test reveals a “non-paternal event.”  This is the technical term for y-chromosome DNA that does not match that known DNA of male-line descendants of a particular individual.

All too often, when hearing of a non-paternal event, people’s thoughts turn to one thing: adultery. The thought is that at some point in the family history, a wife stepped out on her husband and bore a child fathered by someone else. Such is not always the case, however. It is at least equally as likely that at some point in the family history, a child was adopted into the family. This would create the same problem.

Prior to the 1930s and 1940s, adoption was a very informal process. Children were often placed with other families when their parents had died or could no longer take care of the entire family. Young girls would help around the house. Young boys would help the father with his trade, be it farmer, blacksmith, or merchant.

Sometimes, especially in the case of a child whose parent(s) have died, there may be some official paperwork. The probate court may have issued guardianship papers for a child who had lost one or both parents. But this did not always happen. Arrangements may have been unofficial, especially if the deceased parent(s) left little or no monetary estate.

Quite often, however, these arrangements were completely unofficial. Relatives or friends would take children in, and they would eventually be adopted as full family members. But no legal paperwork was ever filed. This can make it more difficult to identify the birth parents.

The first thing to do when a non-paternal event appears is to try to determine at what point this event occurred. The best way to do this is through DNA tests. Look at individuals who are descended from different sons in each generation. As this is done at each level, you will be able to determine in which generation the event occurred. The next step is to look at your family’s DNA and see what surname it does match. Check DNA databases to discover your match.

Once you have a generation and a surname, you can start examining traditional genealogical resources. Look for a family with the surname of your DNA match living in the area where your ancestors lived. Then look for births of children to that DNA match family. And look for deaths of one or more parents in the same time period.  This may help you to identify your DNA ancestors.