| Institution and Organization Records
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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
Orphanages, which date from the seventeenth century in England, were originally workhouses, poorhouses, and asylums. Modern orphanages hardly resemble those depicted by Charles Dickens, but their purpose is the same: to shelter orphaned and abandoned children. Such institutions have existed in the United States for at least two centuries. They have been operated by civil authorities, religious groups, and private benefactors. The types of records kept vary and are often difficult to locate. For background about orphanages in America, see “The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage” by Dale Keiger online.
Orphanages were especially active during the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression, when they cared for more of America’s dependent children than any other means. The great majority of these children were more correctly “half orphans” who had lost one parent but still had one living parent. There was a tremendous variation in how the orphanages functioned and in the level of care and education the orphans received.
During the early history of the United States, town and county officials appointed or elected overseers of the poor to deal with paupers and orphaned children. Local courts usually appointed guardians to care for orphans who might be heirs to property. When relatives or local residents were unwilling or unable to care for the child, he or she, if old enough, was bound out to learn a trade. If the child was too young, he or she was sent to an institution, usually maintained on a local level. County court records or probate records may give the date the child was apprenticed, to whom, and the trade to be learned. These are often indexed under “orphans,” “apprentices,” or “paupers” in court indexes and dockets. For example, the Overseer of the Poor in Ohio County, Indiana, made the following report and financial accounting in May 1827.
- May Term 1827
- And now at this time comes Alexander Dale Overseer of the Poor in and for Harrison Township in Ohio County and exhibits an account of Monies by him Received of Wilkerson McCarty Administrator of the Estate of Samuel McCarty Deceased, which the said Administrator States is the sum which was coming to Nancy Smith (Now a pauper of said Harrison Township) as one of the Heirs at Law of the said Decedent amounting to twenty-two Dollars and Ninety Cents #22.90. Out of which Sum of $22.90 it appears he (Dale) has paid to Eleazur Carver the Sum of Sixteen Dollars and Ninety Three 3/4 cents for keeping said pauper the Last half of the Year ending on the first Monday of May 1827 it being the full of the balance due said Carver for keeping the said pauper the year aforesaid. Leaving in the hands of the said Alexander Dale Overseer as aforesaid the Sum of Five Dollars and Ninety Seven Cents.
Aside he (Dale) also exhibits an account against the County for Services by him rendered as Overseer afsd as follows to wit:
- To Tending court one day with Carver $1.00
- To Binding out a poor boy to the Cabinet making business 1.00
- To Advertising and letting out Nancy Smith pauper aforesd for 1827 2.00
- For making report of Sale to Clerk 1.00
- For going to Carver’s to see pauper and settling with him for keeping pauper one year, the half of his pay 1.00
- Amounting in the whole to the sum of $6.00
- Which account of Six Dollars is allowed by the Board for the Services aforesaid. And the said Overseer agrees to retain and keep in his hands the aforesaid Five Dollars & Ninety Seven Cents in full satisfaction of the aforesaid Charge against the County to Six Dollars which is approved by the Board.
Orphanages maintained by state and local governments were funded agencies that may have maintained better records than private and church agencies. Their files usually include the child’s name, age or date of birth, birthplace, date of admission, names of parents, birthplaces of parents, name and residence of nearest kin, date of discharge, to whom indentured and when, whether the child was orphaned or abandoned, and any remarks. These records are available at orphanages that are still in operation. Otherwise, the records of a state-operated establishment may be with the state archivist or the state’s Department of Social and Welfare Services. Write to both offices to insure that you have identified and obtained all existing records. Records of closed orphanages operated below the state level may be deposited with the town, city, or county clerk, the local agency responsible for currently operating orphanages, or a local historical society or research library. Some records may be in the possession of the families of institution officials.
Orphanages operated by religious groups and private benefactors also kept records useful for researchers. The Vine Street Orphan’s [sic] Home of Chattanooga, Tennessee, operated by the Women’s Christian Association of Chattanooga, maintained excellent records, including a diary of the home, lists of subscribers, names and ages of children there, matrons’ reports, secretaries’ reports, minutes of the Women’s Christian Association meetings, and managers’ books and journals between 1879 and 1903. The attached image is a page from the matron’s report dated 30 May 1887. It notes which children were placed with families (“Laura Henry taken from the Home by Mrs. DeGrummond May 10th”) and also their retrieval (“Martha Bennett taken from Dr. Hall May 16th on account of ill useage [sic] by them”).
The Applications for Children record book provides more information on placement. Sometime between her admission in May 1887 and an entry dated December 1888, Laura Henry’s grandmother asked for custody, but “investigation showed her to be unworthy.” Another child, Frankie Tipton, was adopted by the F. McCullum family of Wilmington, Ohio, in December 1888.
The minutes of board meetings also contain valuable information. The August 1887 minutes report that Jennie Davis, who had left two children with the home for two or three years, had remarried a man named Holmes, and that they had had a child of their own. She “intends applying for them,” and her husband “prefers [sic] a request for the two children. He represents himself as their father. Decided to let them have the one in the Home,” but the second, in “a good home with Mrs. Frank George . . . would be left there at least for the present.” The managers’ books contain administrative information about employee salaries, statistics, health and financial reports, and other information unrelated to a specific orphan.
A much briefer and more formal record, the 1876 Register of the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum in Philadelphia, gives the child’s name, age, admission date, birthplace, names and birthplaces of parents, closest kin and address, date of discharge, indenturing, and trade. This register does not explain the circumstances surrounding the child’s placement in the home, but many records do.
The early records of nongovernment-operated orphanages that are no longer in existence may be difficult to locate. If the orphanage is or was operated by a religious group, the records may be at its headquarters. The Catholic church, which operated the largest number of nongovernmental orphanages in metropolitan cities, usually maintains diocesan archives. State and local historical societies may have some early orphanage records; university libraries are anxious to get them, and many are in the possession of families of institution officials. Check the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) under the name of the institution, names of officials, and localities where orphanages existed.
Problems with using orphanage records include damage, lack of legibility and availability, and difficulty in determining their location. Court records of placement can sometimes be substituted for incomplete or nonexistent orphanage records. But access to officially-recorded adoption records varies widely from one jurisdiction to another. In Ohio, adoptions after 1 January 1964 are confidential and the records are sealed. Access to records of earlier adoptions in the state is only permitted to adopting parents, the adopted person, and lineal descendants. In contrast, both Alaska and Kansas maintain open adoption records.
The information found in orphanage records can be critically important to the family historian. The Vine Street matron’s report of 30 May 1887 notes that Alice Moore was “taken by Mrs. Day, Ringold, Georgia.” Unless family records reflect her transfer to the Day household in Georgia, the researcher might spend endless hours searching for records in Chattanooga, Tennessee, since that is where the Vine Street Orphans Home is located. Furthermore, if her name was changed to Day, it might be impossible to trace her parents without the orphanage link to the name Moore.
- Timothy A. Hacsi, Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), 1–2.
- County Commissioners’ Minutes, Book B, Ohio County, Indiana, May term, 1827.