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Timeline: A History of Adoption in the United States

1693-1955 | 1956-2001  


Governor Sir William Phips of Massachusetts adopts a son, marking the first recorded legal adoption in the colonies.


Ursuline nuns found the first orphanage in North America in Natchez, Mississippi.


William Russell of Georgia leaves 300 pounds in his will to Anna Hunter for her dowry. Hunter is a "foster child" who lives with Russell's family. During the colonial era, most orphans are taken in by relatives or people in their community, who either treat them as indentured servants or raise them as their own children, but never adopt them legally.


The first Jewish orphanage in the United States is established in Charleston, South Carolina.


The Colored Orphan Asylum, the first orphanage for African American children, is established in Philadelphia.


Alabama passes a law stating that an adopted child has the right to inherit property from adoptive parents.

Orphan TrainThe first "orphan train," initiated by the Children's Mission for the Children of the Destitute, leaves Boston. About 30 street children are taken to foster homes in New Hampshire and Vermont.


Massachusetts passes a law permitting the legal adoption of children in probate court.


A young minister, Charles Loring Brace, starts the Children's Aid Society in New York.


Charles Loring Brace makes the "orphan train," movement national in its scope. He hopes to send urban orphans "to kind Christian homes in the country." During the next 65 years, an estimated 150,000 street children travel from Northeastern cities on "orphan trains" that take them to rural areas in the Midwest, the West, and the South. At various stops along the way, the children are "put up" on platforms, and chosen by local people to become their foster or adopted children.


Michigan becomes the first state to pass a law requiring the investigation of adoptive parents.


The first laws requiring the sealing of adoption records are passed in Minnesota.


Ida Parker conducts a study of adoptions in Boston, and discovers that nearly 70 percent of them are independent. Adoptions are often arranged through attorneys rather than agencies or governmental organizations. Open adoptions (where the birth mother meets the adoptive parents) are the norm. Many unwed mothers advertise their children for sale in newspapers.


After 75 years, the "orphan train" movement ends.


Edna Gladney successfully lobbies to have references to "illegitimacy" removed from birth certificates in Texas. At this time, many states mention children's out-of-wedlock status on their birth certificates, or else issue them birth certificates of a different color.


The Child Welfare League advocates secrecy in adoption proceedings.


Following World War II, the Displaced Persons Act enables more than 200,000 refugees to come to America, including approximately 3,000 orphans.


%Pearl Buck founds Welcome House, an organization promoting the adoption of Asian American children.


An estimated 70 percent of adopted children are infants. Prior to the development of infant formula in the late 1920s, most adoptees were older children.


%Congress allows up to 500 special visas for orphans adopted by U.S. servicemen or civil servants during the Korean War.

The Refugee Relief Act allows an additional 4,000 orphan visas to be granted over the next three years, but this provision is not able to accommodate all the orphans waiting to be adopted.


The Child Welfare League of America holds the first professional conference on adoption.

1693-1955 | 1956-2001  

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