Their Parents Died Young, Now What?

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Their Parents Died Young, Now What?

A child who has a parent die experiences a great sense of loss. Some never recover from the shock and 
the lives of some are thrown into utter turmoil. The death of both parents exacerbates the situation. From 
such a sad situation, records of genealogical significance might have been created. Not every "orphan" 
situation resulted in records, but a comprehensive research plan should consider the following situations. 

Adopted Out? 
Did strangers or relatives raise you ancestor as their own until the child reached adulthood? Not all 
adoptions resulted in records, especially those before 1900. The adoption may never have been formalized 
by a court. Just because someone is adopted does not mean formal adoption proceedings were carried out. 

Apprenticed Out?
Was you ancestor sent out to learn a trade? Perhaps your ancestor was apprenticed out to a neighbor 
or relative to learn an occupation. This can happen even if both parents are living, but could happen also 
if the father was dead and the sons did not have someone from whom to learn a skill or the family could 
not afford to support them. Records of apprenticeships can be found with local government records. The
guidebooks mentioned at the end of this article should be consulted. These records are not found in all 
jurisdictions and are more likely in earlier times. 

Foster Child?
Did someone take care of your ancestor until the surviving parent got back on their feet? Proving these 
arrangements can be difficult and the only documentation may be family tradition (not always reliable!). 
Census records (if the time is right) may be helpful. My own great-grandmother and her sister were raised 
by different sets of foster parents for a few years after their mother "took off." By the time the father was 
able to take the girls back, the oldest was already "working out" and did not return to live with her father. 

Was someone appointed to oversee your minor ancestor's financial interests? Guardianship records should 
be searched even if the mother survives. For much of American history, women had no legal rights and 
another male might have been appointed the child's guardian. Records might exist even if the estate is small. 
An 1850s era guardianship for my small tavern-owning ancestor provided the names and approximate birth 
dates of his two small daughters. 

In another case, a relative informally adopted a baby in the 1880s. When the child was approximately eight 
years old, he inherited some money from a biological relative. Since there was no formal adoption, the 
"adoptive" father could not legally receive the money for the child. A guardianship was filed for the child,
naming the "adoptive" parents and the biological mother and maternal grandparents of the child. 

Not all guardianships were the result of informal adoptions and the guardian did not necessarily live with the 
child or was related to the child. However, the guardian should be analyzed for a potential relationship. The 
guardian was appointed to look after the child's financial interests. Generally there was no relationship 

Poor Farm?
Did the family spend some time at the county farm or local almshouse? The death of a parent can send a 
family into a financial tailspin, especially if the family is living hand to mouth to begin with. Perhaps the widow 
and children spent some time in the county poor farm or almshouse. The detail of these records can vary 
greatly from locality to locality and from one time period to another. An almshouse entry I found for an 
ancestor's wife and children in the 1870s listed the dates of admission and dismissal. In the case of children, 
there were notations as to who took the children. Having the names of these individuals made tracing the 
"adopted out" children much easier as the names of the families they were living with were known. 

Records such as these should always be a part of a comprehensive research plan, however researchers do 
occasionally overlook them. When children have deceased parents, one should always pay close attention 
to records that might have been created other than probate or will records. Records such as these, some of 
which document the family's misfortune, may solve your research problem. 

Where Do I Learn More?
The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretto Szucs and Sandra Luebking, 
( will provide 
an overview of these types of records. My copy's pretty worn and it's not that old (worn due to use, not poor 

Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County, & Town Sources, by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., C.G. 
( will provide 
information on various county courthouses throughout the United States. The records discussed here were 
normally created at the county or perhaps city level. 

The Family History Library Research Guide for the state you are researching. These guides are available for 
downloading at also has state resource guides available at: These resource guides have helpful addresses and 

Post questions about this type of record to the county genealogy mailing list where the ancestor lived. 
Someone on the list might have used these records and know how to access and interpret them. 

Good Luck.

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