Research Notes -
from Park Genealogical Books,
your specialists in genealogy and local history for Minnesota and the surrounding area

Finding Minnesota Adoption Records

One of the most common brick walls in family history research can be adoption, and Minnesota research is no exception. The issue is more than the old argument of nature (genetic family) or nurture (environmental family). Some researchers gleefully respond to an adoption in the family, because it gives them another line to research, even though it may be tough. Others despair, because solving the problem requires knowledge of the law and collection of a diversity of facts to narrow the search. Approaching it systematically, like other research questions, provides the greatest possibility of success.

The first question is whether or not a legal adoption actually took place. In Minnesota, a strong privacy law protects the interests in the legal adoption triad: the child, the natural parents and the adoptive parents. By law, birth records are considered private for 100 years, with few exceptions. When a child is legally adopted, the original birth record is sealed by the court and replaced by another showing the adoptive parents. Unless the adoption is 'open,' adoptive parents do not have the right to see the original certificate, thus protecting the privacy of the birth parents. The opposite is also true: birth parents are not given the names of the adoptive parents either. Adoptions are civil cases, usually heard in the courts of the county of residence of the adopting family.

Though there is a birth certificate, it is not possible to tell from the revised certificate that a legal adoption has occurred. A request for a birth certificate will result in the issuance of the revised one. However, the original certificate showing the birth parents can be opened by the court, at the court's discretion. Each request is reviewed individually.

Be aware that not all 'adoptions' go through the court system. Some involve the assumption of a new surname, through the blending of families. A single parent with small children, either male or female, often looked to remarry so that the traditional roles in the family would be preserved. A grandparent or aunt or some other relative could take in an orphan, become the "nurture-parent" and never see a judge. Which surname would be provided to the school upon enrollment or other institution was more a matter of expediency. In one case in my family, the individual assumed a legal adoption, and did not find out until after her own marriage that it did not happen. There may be no records at all in these cases.

There are situations in which the birth parents may not be named. A child could have been left in the care of an institution or an individual, without information on parentage. Orphanages were usually run by religious or charitable organizations, and records may be found in the archives for the specific organization. Orphanages of Minnesota, a small report by Sister Claire Lynch compiled in 1977 traces the history of the state's orphanages. The library of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) holds a copy of this report. There was a State Public School in Owatonna that placed children in adoptive families, starting about 1886. Typically these children were wards of the county court where they had resided. Those records are held by in the State Archives at MHS. Though privacy laws do apply, access is possible.

Clues may be found in unexpected places. In some communities, local newspapers printed the lists of those who arrived on the orphan trains, along with the names of those who assumed the responsibility for the child. Guardianship or support hearings in other courts can provide clues for tracing elusive relationships. School or church records can hold the key, as can letters or other personal papers.

We've published a listing of 550+ adoptions and names changes listed in state court records from 1851 to 1881. It is available through our catalog.

Though every researcher's dream (an on-line listing of births by date, giving both birth mother and birth father plus the adopting parents) is not available, it is possible to break through the adoption barrier with persistence and patience!

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