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Tracing an ancestor who is known to be an orphan can be a difficult and daunting process. Modern-day DNA research is beginning to unlock longstanding mysteries regarding orphans, yet there are historical records which tell the larger picture of a child’s life in an orphanage. Understanding the history and development of local orphanages in the areas where your ancestor lived is crucial, as is locating any remands of records that might tell a more detailed story. Many children who ended up institutions or orphanages might not have truly been orphans, but instead might have required the support of an organization. Their father or mother might have passed away, they could be suffering from a variety of ailments, or their parents could simply not afford to be able to provide for them. As you look into the life and records of an orphan child, it is important to keep the history of America’s orphanages in mind.

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The development of orphanages and similar institutions in America can actually be traced to its British roots. In the early 1700s it was noted that orphaned and abandoned children ‘swarmed like locusts in the street,’ resulting in in the establishment of workhouses and working schools. One London workhouse, opened as early as 1698, and allowed children to work by spinning wool and repairing clothes. Children in the workhouses typically stayed until they reached the ages of twelve or fourteen, when they were fitted with an apprenticeship and left the institution. The records of England’s workhouses are often available from local parish archives, on microfilm, or through online resources.

The first documented orphanage in what is now the United States was opened in New Orleans as early as 1727. Founded by a group of Ursulines the organization’s strong religious ties were central to its mission to help the poor children of New Orleans. Tracing the orphanages of New Orleans, Priscilla Ferguson Clement found that during the antebellum era children admitted to orphanages were not always truly orphans, as some had only lost one parent or had both parents living. In fact by 1915 only 15% of children registered with the New Orleans Board of Prisons and Asylums were reported as full orphans. However, it should be noted that not every orphanage opened their arms to abandoned children. Some New Orleans institutions rejected children under the age of five, due to the high death rate, as well as adolescents, who might have been turned away due to potential behavioral problems.

A large number of orphaned children in the colony of Georgia led to the founding of America’s next orphanages. In 1737 America’s second orphanage opened under the direction of Johan Martin Bolzius in the German settlement of Salzburger. Three years later, George Whitfield opened the Bethesda Orphan-House near Savannah, Georgia. Early accounts note that the colony of Georgia had a number of orphaned children, who were fed and clothed in public stores Georgia’s colonial founder, James Oglethorpe, appointed three men ‘Trustees of the Orphans’ who were charged with finding guardians and work for the colony’s abandoned children. Their records, coupled with the records from the Bethesda Orphan-House would be an important resource to examine when tracing an orphan child in colonial Georgia.

As time progressed, more and more children were placed in the care of an institution or organization for one cause or another. The numbers of children noted to be institutionalized in the United States rose considerably between 1790 and 1850. In 1790 only 200 children of the total or institutionalized children were in an orphanage, with another 1,000 residing in almshouses. By 1850 the total number of institutionalized children reached 24,700 with 7,700 residing in orphanages. The numbers (like the population) had dramatically increased by 1910, when 123,000 of the 126,600 institutionalized children were in an orphanage.

Larger numbers of children in need during the 19th century led to the establishment of additional orphanages and orphan-asylums throughout the United States. Between 1830 and 1850 fifty-six orphan asylums were opened throughout the United States. Each major city in the United States had its own solutions for handling orphan children. The St. Louis Protestant Orphan Asylum was founded in 1834, where it served as one of the city’s only places of refuge for abandoned children until the House of Refuge was established in 1855. In many cases these institutions and their activities left a trail of records, which can help demystify the life of an orphan or institutionalized child in your family tree.

While nearly every major religious denomination established orphanages, the Catholic Church’s charitable work tended to focus heavily on orphaned children. By 1890 there were 175 Catholic orphanages in the United States. Marion J. Morton shares the story of Cleveland’s Catholic orphanages. With a rise in population, and increased diversity, Cleveland was home to many Irish and German immigrants, many of whom were Catholic. In 1836 the city had just 200 members of the Catholic Church, yet by 1860 boasted 20,000 members, 30% of the population. Due to high levels of poverty common amongst newly arrived immigrants the need to care for the city’s children was described as an urgent matter that could lead to ‘eternal disgrace’ if not taken up. Morton’s footnotes indicate that the records of Cleveland’s Catholic orphanages reside within the Cleveland Catholic Diocese Archives and provide fascinating details about the children placed in their care.

In can be said that the stories of American’s orphans – and perhaps our orphaned ancestors – lie waiting to be discovered in records scattered across the United States. From the first orphanages founded in the 1700s to the Catholic orphanages of the late 1800s, the history of children in need provides ample resources for further research. First, learn the history of orphanages in the area where an ancestor lived, most importantly identifying the particular religious or organization responsible for maintaining the orphanage. Then, begin your search of that organization’s archives and records to begin discovering the story of an orphan ancestor.


“Children at New York Foundling cph.3a23917” by Jacob Riis – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a23917. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons



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