Back in prior centuries, families were intentionally made large to assure that some children would reach adulthood. Many died of disease, hardship, or injuries. Likewise, mothers died in childbirth, contracted disease, or were injured. Motherless children were cared for by relatives, by a new wife, or by servants. When this was not possible, they became wards of society. There were many children living in poor farms among the alcoholics and the mentally ill. Children were advertised as needing new families to adopt them due to financial hardship, being widowed, or illness. More scandalous reasons were not disclosed.
When the child’s family history was unknown, there was fear that they might not become bearers of genetically sound progeny. There was concern that they might not have marriage potential. Then there were the rumors of illegitimacy, of ill repute, of infidelity. Families guarded the secret of adoption for these children whom they had grown to love.
Recently I spoke to a genealogist who had found photos of her great-grandfather posted by someone that was unknown to her. When she enquired, it turned out that the man making the queries had no idea that his grandmother had been adopted, along with three other girls. The genealogist friend of mine had been piecing together the small clues that letters and records had left behind. My friend was descended from one of the girls, but that was a step-parent adoption. There were two biological sisters out of the four, with connections to the mother. “Was there contact between your grandmother and her biological father?” I asked. “Yes”, she said, “But Great-Grandaddy put a stop to it.” She started describing various gifts that had been received and returned.
An ancestor of mine from the early to mid-1800′s was a politician. He was also an adoptee. There were rumors of a barmaid birthmother. His political competitor tried to mar his reputation, and was successfully sued.
It appears that historically, closed adoption practices were chosen for child-centered reasons, not for the benefit of the adoptive parents. Although in the early days children were all needed to help with chores and to bring in the crops, the intent of child adoption was primarily one of family structure and not one of economic benefits. Those adoptions which were obvious among society typically were the children of relatives. A wealthy mechant’s wife who was in her thirties with no children, took in the daughters of her sisters, who had died of smallpox. One particularly interesting 18th century story is that of a woman who had survived losing the top of her skull in an attack, to have given birth to her seventeenth child. However, the records show that there was a woman who eventually became the second wife, who tended to the family and to the injured spouse for years until her death.
Some people even used adoption itself as a way to conceal the truth from other relatives. The secrecy of adoption protected someone from intense questioning. A woman who did not want her daughter to learn about her grandparents told her an elaborate adoption story all of her life. When the case was researched, the records were all there – NOT adopted in Ireland and raised in a Catholic orphanage, but one of five children born in the same New England town.
Prior to the 1920s, birth certificates were not always issued. Sometimes that was a problem for people looking for jobs or an education. The secrecy of adoption was closely guarded in the days when there were no laws protecting people’s rights. People depended upon references to document their lives, or Baptismal records to show proof of family connections. One man needed his mother’s notarized statement in order to enter a military academy.
Without widespread adoption regulations and practices, the process to adopt orphans was as simple as going to get them and bring them home, to interviews and questioning. While we think of the ease in which adoptions could be obtained in days long ago, we must also remember why child labor laws and other protective laws were created. Philosophies and theories abound, child-centered adoption practices will continue to evolve.
Written by KeadieAdopted, adoptee, Adoption, adoption practices, adoption story, Adoptions, adoptive parent, adoptive parents, biological father, orphan, orphanage, orphans, step parent adoption