For most people, figuring out where you came from is just a matter of asking mom or dad or any other member of the family. Sure you might not get a full family tree back to the 1500s, but at least there’s a good chance you’ll get some idea of a starting point from which you can begin your genealogy research. But for many of us who were adopted, it’s not such a simple matter. However, adoption and the challenges it poses do not have to be reasons to avoid genealogy. So, I’m sharing my own story as an example of what type of research can be done and why I believe genealogy can still be worth pursuing even if you are adopted.
My efforts in exploring my family’s past began in third grade in response to an assignment to figure out what countries my family came from. Although I was fully aware at the time I was adopted, I never even thought back then to make a distinction between my own ancestral past and my adopted family’s past. Their story was my story. Perhaps this is because they were always sharing so much about the family, and as my brother and I grew up we too were woven into the family tapestry. But eventually I started to wonder, where did I really come from?
Like many adoptions, mine was closed; the records were sealed. Because of this I thought there was really little hope for finding any facts about birthparents much less ancestors. So over the years, I instead focused on the genealogy of my adopted family and expanded my research and skills as more online resources became available. I started to work on family histories for other people. Eventually I got married and had my own children. And for the first time I had someone around who was a blood relation. I also realized as each child was born, in a strange sort of way, I was getting the opportunity to meet my ancestors through my children.
I think it was this glimpse into the past that pushed me to take advantage of the ability to request non-identifying information from the agency that handled my adoption. I had not previously done this thinking it would not be worth it – was I ever wrong. Initially all I got was the age of both parents at my birth, their profession, and their nationality. By itself, that did not do much. But it led me to take the next step which was to request the agency to make contact with my birth family to see if they were interested in talking with me. Unfortunately they said no. However, I did find out other critical information from this. My birth mother had just passed away – it was her sister who had denied the request for contact thinking my birth grandmother, who was dealing with this death and her husband’s illness, would not need another thing to deal with.
So I took the information I learned which was a range of birth and death dates for my birth mother, her first name, the state where she passed away, the nationality information, and after about eight years of research and waiting for records to come online, I was finally able to figure out her name. Looking back, I don’t think I could have done this if she had not passed away and if I had not had access to genealogy records. The end result was I was finally able to make contact with the rest of the family and eventually meet them. Although this allowed me to begin researching the genealogy of my maternal line, the meeting also provided a type of closure for me. I also think it did the same for my birth grandmother. From what I was told, she was the one who decided I should be given up for adoption or was at least very influential in the decision. She had to wonder all those years if it was the right thing to do, and I think our visit convinced her it was. I had been well taken care of and was raised by a good family.
My next challenge came in finding my birth father – with my birth mother gone, I believe only my birth aunt and birth grandmother knew who he was, and they were not telling. So again using genealogy sites, I found several people who I thought might also know his name. I think without these sites and the help of a few critical people I would have never figured out his name. Unfortunately for me, when we did contact him, he was not interested in meeting me or my family at all. But on a more positive note, I was able to talk to other members of his side of the family including his sister before she passed away. Since then, I’ve located many wonderful living relatives on my paternal side to add to those I found on my birthmother’s side.
Through my entire search for my birth parents, I made use of many typical genealogical records such as social security indexes, obituaries, public records, marriage indexes, death certificates, newspaper clippings, probate files, city directories, and archived yearbooks. It was not easy; it took a lot of time and patience, and there were frustrations along the way. But that is also typical of genealogy in general. What I also learned as I stepped back through time was that adoptions happened in many families. Sometimes they were openly acknowledged and sometimes they remained hidden until recent DNA testing brought them to light. So even though you might think you are researching a “bloodline” in reality you might one day find it is actually an adoptive line.
Overall, the discoveries of my birth family’s past have turned into an amazing adventure that I hope to continue exploring. However, this article would not be complete if I didn’t return to my adopted family. I think of my grandfather on the paternal side of my adoptive family as a kind of patriarch. He was very interested in and proud of his ancestors and rightly so – they represent an old German family that immigrated in the early 1800s, worked hard as farmers, and today have many descendants. He most definitely wanted his family history documented and shared, and he knew I, along with a few other members of our family, had a great interest in doing this. The fact that I am adopted made no difference to him – he knew his story is my story too. Because while we might arrive here through a certain set of ancestors, the history we carry forward is not just our own, but also that of those around us with whom we have shared our lives. And genealogy can greatly assist us in this task.
Note: For those who were adopted in Illinois, good news! A couple years ago, the state changed the law to allow us to receive our original birth certificate with the names of our birth parents. You can find out more about how to go about getting your certificate by visitinghttp://www.idph.state.il.us/vitalrecords/vital/non_certified.htm.