Orphan Train Riders to Iowa

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Orphan Train Riders to Iowa  Orphan Train Riders
 to Iowa



More information on many of these topics can be found on IAGenWeb county websites, along with people who know more about the county you need to do research in.  You can go to any county by typing iagenweb.org/ and then the name of the county into your browser.  (i.e. to go to Fayette County's IAGenWeb site, type in your browser  iagenweb.org/fayette/)

The topics listed below are basic genealogy research topics but we have added some tips and ideas specific to orphan train riders.

Tips for beginning your research:

First, become well acquainted with your local library, county genealogical and historical societies, the Iowa State Historical Society, Iowa State Archives and LDS Family History Centers.  These places, along with county courthouses, will be some of your contacts for information.

It is very helpful to keep research and correspondence logs -- and keep them current.  These forms are available through most gene societies or online.  Try http://www.cyndislist.com/cyndislistsearch/?q=Genealogy%20forms for a list of sites that may offer them online.

As in doing regular genealogy, there is no "set" plan to getting results, only guides to resources where information can be found.

Genealogical and Historical Societies

One of the best things you can do is write to the genealogical and historical societies of the county where the child was raised and request information.  Tell them the name of the child you are researching and the name of the family that the child was placed with.  Ask if they have old newspapers on microfilm for the dates you need and if they have county census on microfilm.  Also ask if they have any records about Orphan Trains going to their county or city.  Offer to pay for copies and send a SASE.  Joining the society is well worth the investment.


Newspapers may be one of your greatest sources of information for several reasons.  Newspapers go back to the early 1840s in Iowa.  Articles were published before and sometimes after the arrival of the orphan trains.  These articles might give the names of the children brought, their ages, the names of the people who took them to raise, the city they went to live in and the name of the orphanage they came from.  You would start your research from the date that you know the child lived in the city and then go backwards in time looking for an article about their arrival.

It may be helpful for you to place an ad in the current local newspaper where the child was raised stating "Searching for information for genealogy about ________ family who took ________ in to raise as a member of that family.  Please send information to:  (Your name, address, email, etc.)


sisters.jpgWhen a child was placed by the Sisters of Charity, they arrived with a document much like the one pictured to the right.  You can click on it to see a larger version.

Orphanages are reluctant to release information about the children who are placed in their care and later "placed out".  They will release biological information, if there is any, to family members only.  Therefore, be sure to mention in your request that this person was your ancestor.  Keep your letter brief, precise, specific and courteous.  Offer a donation for any records that are found and copies sent to you if you would like to.

Records may be poor to excellent or may not exist all.  The prime concern of orphanages at that time was the care of the child.  Some orphanages burned down or do not exist anymore.  Some children were transferred from one orphanage to another and perhaps the records were transferred as well.

Adoption vs Indenture
Terms of Placement
This form shows what was expected of the boys and the families who took them in. 
(Please click on it to see a larger version) 

While it is most likely that a baby from an orphanage would have been adopted, an older child may have been indentured.  Many times, when teenagers were placed, they were indentured.  This meant that they had to work for room and board.  So until you have positive knowledge that the child was adopted, you may be searching for something that does not exist.  And just because the child carries the last name of the family who took them does not mean that they were adopted, some just "absorbed" the last name.

If the child was adopted this implied, in courts, that the child could inherit property.  The search is worth a small effort it takes to inquire and here is how ----

Write or go to the county courthouse where the child lived and ask for a copy of the adoption record.  State that you are a descendant and offer proof.  Many states still refuse access to adoption records, treating them in as "closed files" even though the person has been dead for several years.  They may suggest you get a court order from a judge to open the records and some may only require a notarized letter of research. In Pocahontas County (where Madonna lives) all that is needed to ask the Circuit Court Judge.  Cost range from $10 and up for a court order.

Iowa adoption laws began in 1860.  Iowa House file 380 states " An adopted person whose adoption became final prior to July 4, 1941, and whose adoption record was not required to be "sealed" at the time the adoption was completed, shall not be required to show good cause for an order opening the adoption record."  This law became defective July 1, 1991.  Obviously, the application for the court order must be made in the county where the adoption occurred.

The key word here is "sealed" records.  Many records involving the child may not be sealed such as probate packets.  You can look at the family probate packet at the courthouse without telling the court recorder specifically what you are looking for.  Or, if you live far away, write to the courthouse and request copies of the probate packet of the person who took the child to raise.  Always offer to pay for copies of the packet as some are quite detailed and include many pages.  Keep your written request brief, precise and courteous.

Birth Name of the Child

The birth name of the child may be the most difficult information for some of us to find but the quest will be worth pursuing.  With some orphanages we will not get anywhere without the child's real name when requesting information.

The first place to search is the census of the city where the child was taken.  The child will be listed under the name of the family who took them.  (Remember that state and city census records may exist in addition to federal census records.)  This may well be the last time you see the child's real name as they may have been adopted or indentured or assumed the name of the family who took them. If you're lucky, the child's last name was never changed.

There were newspaper articles for some cities where the children were taken that lists the child's real name, age and the name of the family who took them.  Do your best to obtain a copy of the newspaper article if one does exist.  (See our Newspapers page.  Some are listed there.)

Birth Records

Birth records will be very hard to obtain for a number of reasons.  Some mothers did not (or could not) record the birth of their child.  Also, many records were not kept well in those years.  However, some folks have obtained birth records from major cities. (See New York Vital Records for forms and cost of a search.)

Some parent(s) gave information to the orphanages when they turned the children over to them.  Some babies were simply placed on the doorstep with a note attached and other children were taken off the streets and placed in the custody of the orphanage.

To collect Social Security, some folks may have filed for a delayed birth certificate.  This, too, may have helpful data on it.  To obtain a copy of this record, write to the county courthouse where the "rider" lived and ask for a copy of the "Delayed Birth Certificate".  You may need proof of your relationship to the person.

Church Records

For the most part, in past years, a local church was the center of life to our ancestors.  Couples were married, babies were baptized, funerals were held to honor the deceased and social events took place as well.

Records of these events were noted in ledgers and documents were prepared declaring the occasion.  Signatures were required of the documents as well as dates.  Some churches kept excellent records while some records are just a notation in the ledger book.  These records can tell us many items of interest, for example, witnesses may be a family member, parent, best friend or neighbor.

Find out the name of the churches in the area where your writer lived in contact the church to see what documents may be available.  Send a SASE for a reply and a donation if you care to for information that is sent to you.

During the era of the orphan trains, churches were contacted to assist in finding local persons of good character to take a child to raise.  This action was not normally documented in church records but is mentioned here to show how churches were involved in procuring homes for the children.

Baptismal Records

You may find baptismal records in old church records in the city where the child was living.  This is particularly true of an infant.  Some people had their child "conditionally" baptized after they received them or renamed them.

If the infant came from an orphanage in Boston, New York, Chicago, etc. they may list on the records if the child had been baptized and, if so, where and when this event occurred.  Ask if the child had been baptized when you write for the child's records.  I would not expect the names of the parents to be on these records, but in some cases they might be.

Census Records

Besides the federal census done in years ending with 0 (1860,1870, etc), the state of Iowa also takes a state census in years ending with 5 (1875, 1885, etc.).  Several special censuses were taken also.  You would need to check with the county you're interested in to find out which records exist. Census records on microfilm can be ordered via inter-library loan from the State Historical Society or through an LDS Family History Center for a small fee.

You will want to start your search with a copy of the Census of the year you know that the child lived in the city.  Search backwards from that date to learn when the child might have first arrived in this city.  You  will be looking under the name of the family who took them in.  He/She may be indicated as a stepchild or orphan.  (Be careful as some families took in children after family tragedies.)  Also look on the census for any other children with the same last name, as this could indicate a brother or sister since sometimes they were taken to the same city to be placed out.  This may well be the first and/or last time you will find their true name.

Some clues to look for are:

  1. child listed as adopted or stepchild
  2. birthplace of child is quite different from that of the family that took them in (e.g. New York, PA, Mass.)
  3. child may be a much different age than other children in that family

More information on state census records can be found at https://iagenweb.org/census/.  More information on federal census records can be found at http://www.us-census.org/.

Courthouse Records

Courthouses have a wealth of data stored in them such as wills, probate records, local census, school records, land records, marriage, birth and death records.

Once you have established the county where the child lived, you can search that local courthouse either in person or by mail.  Copies may cost a nominal fee and there may be a search fee.

You will especially want copies of any wills of the family that took the child and that of the child themselves, as there may be details of either an adoption or indenture of that child.  Along with the will, ask to see the Probate Packet for the people involved.  This will have much more information in it.  If you are writing to the courthouse, ask how many pages there are to the packet and the cost per page to copy the records.  Some probate packets can be quite large.

Do not reveal you are searching for an adoption or indenture record.  You are simply gathering genealogical information.  This is not fraud as you have the right to these records, they are considered public documents.  Unfortunately, if they know there is an adoption involved, this may hinder your search.


Send for the obituary of the person who took this child to raise.  It may contain information about the child or indicate that they were a foster or adopted child.  Also send for the obituary of the person themselves as this may indicate the same as above.

Write to the local funeral home for a copy of the death record.  Funeral records have some information on them such as birthplace and parents names if known by the person interviewed.  However, parentage is not listed on Iowa death records until July 1904.


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