Lost and Foundlings: A Tip for Tracing Orphans Pre-Adoption

By Clark Kidder Premium

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“Orphans going to Coney Island, 1911.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Q. How can you trace orphans before their adoption? In early August 1859, David Supple was one of the orphan-train riders bound for Noblesville, Ind. I haven’t been able to obtain his birth certificate. I know his parents’ names and that he was born in New York Sept. 22, 1848. He was an orphan when he was brought to the Children’s Aid Society, but I haven’t been able to trace death records for either of his parents.

A. Obtaining early birth, marriage and death records is a hit-or-miss affair. A full 25 percent of births went unrecorded in New York City prior to 1910. The Children’s Aid Society didn’t house children as much as it gathered them up from other orphanages and street corners before sending them on the trains.

Finding the Supple family in the census should be your first course of action. I located the John and Johanna Supple family in the 1850 federal census. It lists them as living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, 14th ward. Names and ages given for the family are John, 50; Johanna, 30; Ann, 13; Michael, 9; and David, 4; all born in Ireland. Remember that census enumerators sometimes interviewed landlords, neighbors or whoever happened to be handy at the time of the visit. Accuracy can vary greatly, so compare at least two censuses. Try to locate this family on the 1855 state census for New York. If either parent died prior to the census, at least one of the children should be recorded. That child may be listed as an inmate in an orphanage.

Next, post queries on pertinent message boards and visit the National Orphan Train Complex Museum & Research Center’s website. The museum is located in Concordia, Kan., but offers tips for research and other genealogical resources for orphan train riders. If you can determine which orphanage the children were in, your search will be much easier.


From the June 2003 Family Tree Magazine.