Searching for my Adopted Grandmother's Birth Parents


“Your mother was adopted.”  What?  That’s what my grandfather told my father on the night of his mother’s passing.  This kind, wonderful woman grew up too ashamed to tell anyone her big secret, not even her 7 children.  It’s heartbreaking and I can’t imagine what was running thru my father’s head at that exact moment when his dad drops the bomb.  Here he is, dealing with the death of his mother Helen at the age of 74 from Breast Cancer, and now he has to process the fact that her parents were not her parents.  Or were they..........

Fast forward 30+ years later, and I’ve decided it’s time to find out exactly where I came from.  It started out as a simple concept.  Let’s do a little family research on my ancestors and see what I can find, maybe even understand who I was named after.  Someone named Ellen.  That’s it, that’s all I wanted to do.  But one day into my initial search, I was hooked.  My great grandfather worked at the Cracker Jack factory in Chicago.  Very cool.  I had ancestors that came over on the Mayflower.  I was related to Liza Minelli.  Wow.  My great-great grandmother had 16 children. Forget it. 

At this point, my search was spiraling out of control and I couldn’t stop.  My sister and her husband called my office the “war room”.  But I wasn’t touching the adoption situation, at least not yet.  That was too daunting a task and I was convinced I wouldn’t find out anything.   So I let it sit at the bottom of the pile, at the bottom of my list of things to do.

About a month later, I decided it was time to peek into the file and see what I could find out about my grandmother’s adoption and birth parents.  Basically, all I remember hearing over the last many years was a story about how her father really wasn’t her father, and the birth mother was a servant named Fanny.  But then there was this little whisper in my family that maybe her adopted Bohemian father Frank really was her birth father after all.  Yet the birth certificate said the father was a German man named Fred.  Where that rumor originated from is still unclear to me, but hopefully one day I could get to the bottom of that issue. 

Fanny, Fred and Frank.  Seriously, could you have given me at least one name that didn’t start with an F? 

To begin, I had 2 documents to help me in my search.  One of my dad’s siblings actually petitioned Cook County and got Helen’s adoption transcript.  In the transcript, it names the birth mother, which led to Helen’s birth certificate.  That’s all I had.

Oh, did I mention that the birth mother lied about her name and address on the birth certificate?  She used a fake name of Kate on the birth record, but was quoted in the adoption record as Fanny.  What I will eventually uncover is that this is one of many lies that I would come across in my search.  She obviously had something to hide and that’s what I needed to understand.  So what else was she lying about?  The birth father listed on the certificate?  Probably.

I initially felt lucky because my grandmother was born in Feb of 1900, and the once-every-10-year census came out in June of 1900.  I thought it would be fairly easy to find a 4-month old baby Helen in the census records of Chicago, but I was wrong.  So where was Helen in the census, and where was she for her first year?  According to the adoption transcript, Frank says that he took Helen home around the age of 1, and eventually adopted her at the age of 11.  I was convinced the birth mother took her home in an attempt to raise her, although it was possible she could be at an orphanage (Frank gave money to a Bohemian Catholic Orphanage in his will). 

My first serious search was to look thru all the Chicago orphanages in the 1900 census.  It is a painstaking process to flip thru many pages trying to drill down to the exact location of each orphanage, but it had to be done.  Yet I came up with nothing.  So then I wrote to the Catholic Archdiocese and spoke to the woman in charge of the archives.  She agreed to research the Bohemian orphanage run by the nuns in the year 1900.  But after waiting 2 months for a response, all she came back with was that the records couldn’t be found for that timeframe. 

Then I went back to the census record, and searched for baby Helen and mother Fanny, or Helen and Kate.  I did this search multiple times with no luck until I decided to do a generic search for 4-month old girls.  That’s when I came across a very interesting entry = Baby Helen, born in Feb, living with mother Annie (no father with them).  When I looked closer at the document, the mother’s name was actually Fannie.  It had been indexed wrong after having missed the first letter of her name.  I was convinced this could be them.  I also notice that they list the place of birth of baby Helen’s father as Hungary (not Germany, which is the nationality of Fred listed on the birth certificate).  Very interesting indeed.  The only hiccup was that it had more lies – the last name of the mother was wrong, the age of the mother was off by 10 years, and she said she was from Hungary, not Bohemia.


Here is the interesting part on this census record.  This woman Fannie lived next door to a policeman in the census.  And why that gave me chills is because Frank (the adopted Bohemian father) was a cop.  So now this story begins to form in my head.  Adopted Father Frank is the real father, and has squirreled mother and daughter away with a co-worker so no one would find them.  I was also convinced that Fred, listed as the father on the birth certificate, was another lie and they were never married.  That is until I found Fanny’s marriage record to Fred 5 years before the birth of Helen.  Ugh, I mean, yeah !!


So now I know that Fanny and Fred were actually husband and wife.  But I never did find them living together in the 1900 census, much less with a baby.  Of course, they got married by the Justice of the Peace in 1895, which means they didn’t marry in the church, which means there isn’t a church record to look at.  When I searched the Chicago City Directory of Addresses for Fred, I found him listed during the 1st year of their marriage, and then I never found him living in Chicago again.  I searched about 20 years of directories, and only found him twice – in 1894 and 1895.  Now I am back to my theory that he is not the father, and had left Chicago long before baby Helen was born in 1900. 

I’m now months into this search before I finally come across another hit – Fanny living in Yellowstone Wyoming.  She is living as a servant in the house of a military officer in the 1910 census.  The entry does say that she is married and is the mother of 1 child, but she is not living with a husband or a daughter.  At this point, I know that Helen is living with her adopted parents as a 10 year old.  Nonetheless, I found Fanny again, and that’s progress.

Yet I’m running out of ideas and fear I will never figure this out.  But I had one big idea left and that was to search for divorce records since I never did find Fanny and Fred living together in a census.  Not knowing what this meant, I ventured down to the Cook County Archives and sat at the microfilm desk.  (I knew Illinois was broke, but for Pete’s sake, could they get a machine that you didn’t have to crank by hand?  What year is this, 1912?)  So I cranked away for an hour, and I’m getting highly annoyed I might add.  That is, until I hit the jackpot.  Finally.  I found a divorce index – Fanny and Fred, March 1911. 

To quote Harry Carey, HOLY COW.  Now I’m fired up and it’s all I can focus on.  I also realized that the divorce date was 1 month before the official adoption papers were issued for Helen, and the lawyer on the adoption was the same lawyer for the divorce.  That cannot be a coincidence.  Frank, did you pay the bill?  It took 2 weeks of patience, which is not a virtue I possess, but the day finally arrives for me to go back to the courthouse and view the record.  I’m giddy and bouncing in my shoes as I walk the 15+ blocks to the Loop. I can’t imagine what it will tell me, but I’m beyond excited.  What I get is a document folded in 3 parts that hadn’t been opened since 1911.  The original rusty staple holding the pages together was still there. 

The first word I saw was “abandoned”.  According to Fanny’s testimony to the courts, husband Fred abandoned her in 1899 (Helen was born in 1900).  In addition, there is a sister named Anna who testifies to the abandonment.  And finally Frank, the adopted father, testifies that he knew Fanny for the past 10 years, she lived alone, and did laundry for a living.  But the part that still breaks my heart is that Frank tells the court that Fanny would occasionally go to his house to visit her little girl.  Remember when I said I was bouncing with excitement on my way to view the record; well, my walk back home was met with a somber tone, and a few tears. 

My whole perception of my great grandmother changed in an instant and I began to feel a connection that I cannot explain.  Whether I am right or wrong, this is what I think went down.  She came to the US in 1889 to live with her siblings in Chicago, and eventually got married in 1895.  1 year later, her husband left her and never returned.   She was broke, lonely and she got pregnant out of wedlock.  Fanny attempted to raise Helen by herself, but had no money, and lived the life of a servant in someone else’s house, doing someone else’s laundry of all things.  I’m sure bringing an infant into this situation was problematic with her employer.  So she had to give up the baby to a better life, which I’m confident broke her heart.  I truly believe this just based on the fact that she often went to visit her as a child.

Fanny’s sister in the divorce record was my goldmine to their family.  I found sister Anna and 2 other siblings living in Chicago, and I even confirmed their parents’ name and birth location in Bohemia.  However, it was sister Anna’s obituary in 1935 that mentioned her sister Frances.  But now Fanny has a new last name.  Obviously, she remarried and it only took me a couple weeks to piece it all together.  I found Fanny’s 2nd marriage record in Ohio, which took place 2 months after the divorce, and 1 month after the adoption. I found her in the 1920 census with her new husband Clyde and a 6 year old son living in Idaho.  I immediately found her death record in 1942 and subsequently received her death certificate 2 weeks later. 


And yes, there was more lying that I uncovered.  On the marriage certificate to her 2nd husband Clyde, she used her first married last name as the name of her parents, instead of her real maiden name.  Then she checked the box that said she had never been married before, which probably means she didn’t tell her husband about her past.  She also said she was born in Chicago, even though I have her immigration record  and a picture of the boat she came over on from Bohemia.  But who cares at this point.  She lived in an era where shame was the devil, and god forbid you made a mistake.   Yet that mistake led to a wonderful mother of 7 and grandmother of many, including me.  That is not a mistake in my book.  Fanny just stumbled into an unconventional path to motherhood that other people had a hard time accepting.  The hardest thing for me to reconcile is how it affected my grandmother.  I hope to god she isn’t mad at me for uncovering everything.  I wish she were alive today because I believe she would have felt more comfortable telling others.

So there it is.  9 months of brick walls, all to come tumbling down from a divorce record.

I want to meet Fanny in person, but that can’t happen until I see her in Heaven.  So for now, I’d settle for a picture.  I haven’t been able to come up with that yet.  And I will definitely visit her grave in Twin Falls Idaho.  Hopefully soon.  Maybe one day I will get the guts to reach out to the children of her son who now live in Utah.  But I’m too chicken to do that.  I fear they have no idea that grandma had another life.


As for the birth father, I briefly mentioned that I thought Helen’s adopted father was really the birth father.  I have yet to uncover one single hard fact to substantiate this claim.  My theory is based on whispers, and gut.  Frank knew the birth mother and let her into his house.  I doubt that would happen if he picked up a baby at an orphanage.  Also, Frank and his 2nd wife were 46 years old & childless when he brought Helen into his home.  I can’t imagine he wanted to be changing diapers and chasing a toddler into his 50’s.  Don’t forget another key fact - Fanny lived next to a cop in the 1900 census.  Ok, that may be a stretch, but it doesn’t shut the door, just helps to keep the theory alive.

In addition, my grandparents grew up as neighbors, which is how they met and eventually married.  Thus, my grandfather knew Helen's "adopted” parents.  Last year I ordered Helen's death certificate, which was filled out by my grandfather.  The birth father was listed as Frank, but birth mother was listed as unknown.  That's a huge clue, because if they were both adopted parents, then he would have listed her too. 

There is one other factor in my gut speaking to Frank as the real father.  In 1972, my journalist father did a taped interview with his parents so he could document their family history.  What a blessing this has been to my research.  But it is haunting to listen to my grandmother speak, especially now that I know the full story.  Keep in mind nobody knew she was adopted during this interview.  So when my father began asking questions, she ran away from the microphone and told him she didn’t want to do it and didn’t know anything.  He eventually coaxed her over, and we get to listen to her speak glowingly about her father Frank.  Yet, when he asks about her mother, she said she doesn’t know anything and changes the subject.  It’s definitive that something is not right, yet she speaks with such reverence to Frank.  So now I ask you, why would she love her adopted father so much, yet avoid speaking about her adopted mother?  See what I mean? 

This past summer, I traced Frank’s roots to a distant cousin in Chicago.  We met in person and are discussing a DNA test.  I’m all for checking that box on my research skills, and adding to the story, even if it’s only in my head.

MAJOR UPDATE = I am beyond excited to confirm that my research was correct all along.  Frank is the father of my grandmother !!  My cousin and I both took a DNA test. We had to wait a few anxious weeks once the test was taken, but it was an amazing moment to see the results come back positive and confirm her as a 3rd cousin.  If you have any doubts in your family about possible lineage, I strongly recommend taking part in a DNA test such as Family Tree DNA, Ancestry.com or 23andMe.  Any first or second cousin matches could lead you to confirm a birth parent. 


New Facebook page = Adoption Genealogy 


Click on the link above and Like our page, ask questions and join in the conversations related to Adoptions, Orphanages and Guardianships.

Cook County Illinois Guardianship Records

We now have copies of the Index pages (letters A-Z) of the Cook County Illinois Grants of Guardianship. The official name is Probate record - Grants of guardianship Book 1 1877-1884 Book 2 1884-1888. 

Below is an example of the Cook County Guardianship Record that is in the probate books and an example of the index page. If you need me to look up a name, please let me know.




ANNE FRANK MAKES CERTAIN THE HOLOCAUST WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN

This newspaper article was written by our father, Thomas F. Driscoll, about a year before his retirement after 46 years working as a journalist for the Peoria Journal Star.  He was obsessed with Anne Frank and her story.  All of his life, he wanted to visit her home in Amsterdam, more than he wanted to visit Ireland, the land of his ancestors.  He got his wish, wrote this story, and today is probably bugging her from above for a live sit-down interview.  We have transcribed the newspaper article exactly as it appeared in the paper on Sunday, June 3, 1990.





Reminder  At 263 Prinsengracht, Anne Frank makes certain the Holocaust will never be forgotten


Written by Thomas F. Driscoll
Peoria Journal Star, June 3, 1990


AMSTERDAM – It’s painful standing on the sidewalk outside of Anne Frank’s home, knowing she used to play hopscotch there with her friends.

Across the street, the triangular park is still there, the place where the kids used to turn cartwheels and do handstands, something Anne could never master, much to her chagrin.

Around the corner is the same bookstore where her father bought the diary with the red-and-white cover that he gave her for her 13th birthday, the one in which she wrote her way to immortality.

A month after she got the diary, the family one morning in July, 1942, walked the three miles in the rain to the secret Annex, where they hid for more than two years until the Nazis – German and Dutch – found them and sent them off to die.  Eight people hid together in the Annex, and the only one who survived Hitler’s death machine was Anne’s father, Otto Frank.  He was a German Army officer in World War 1 who fled Germany with his family in 1933 when Hitler took power and his hatred of Jews became public policy.

Something like half a million people now go through the tiny rooms of the Secret Annex every year, trying to visualize what it was like for the eight people to share the confinement and the fear for the 25 months.  The eight had this in common:  they all were Jews, and they were taking the only option open to them to escape the concentration camps.

The Frank family – father Otto, mother Edith, older sister Margot and younger sister Anne – went into hiding after Margot, who was 16, got a postcard ordering her to appear for shipment to a Dutch work camp, which was the first stop on the way to death.  By the end of World War II, something like 120,000 Dutch Jews had been killed by the Germans for the crime of being Jewish.  Only about 25,000, Otto Frank being one of them, survived.

Anne Frank lives on as a symbol of the Nazi horror because she was a gifted and prolific writer even though just a child.  She kept a diary from the day of the family’s confinement, when she was 13, until they were arrested when she was 15, not knowing she was writing for posterity.

She didn’t just keep a diary but also wrote many stories and sketches that were found in the hiding place after the police had gone.  They demonstrate a remarkable talent for one so young, but that is not what has given her writing its impact.

Her diary made the world see that Hitler’s victims were not just incomprehensible statistics, such as six million Jews gassed, shot, tortured and starved to death, but people with names, families, dreams – even little children plucked out of school and sent away to be killed.  Anne Frank left a record that personalized the Holocaust.  Her diary has sold more than 20 million copies and been translated into 50 languages.

Walking through the Secret Annex is chilling.  It would be more so, no doubt, to do it alone, for in the never-ending line of visitors the sense of isolation and fear get submerged.

The building, at 263 Prinsengracht, along one of Amsterdam’s many canals, is a narrow structure four stories high.  It was the place where Mr. Frank ran his business, selling pectin for jam and later spices of various kinds, and the Annex was an unused portion in the rear.

To get to it, you climb narrow, steep stairways to the third level, go down a long hallway, and there is the now-famous bookcase, hinged to the wall and pulled aside to reveal the door to the hiding place.  Go through it and you are in Mr. and Mrs. Frank’s room, where Margot also slept, and where Anne’s room, which she had to share with a dentist who went into hiding too.

Anne used to cut pictures of American movie stars from magazines and put them on the wall of her room.  They are still there – Deanna Durbin, Jean Arthur, and all the others.  She fantasized about becoming an actress and wrote a short story about a girl she named Anne Franklin, who wrote to actress Priscilla Lane, who invited her to Hollywood.  She went, but was disillusioned by life there and happily returned home.

Next to Anne’s room is the common washroom that they all shared, a sink and a flush toilet, something they could never use except at night because not all of the workers in the building knew of their presence.

Upstairs is the room of the Van Daan family, including their teenage son, Peter, with whom Anne gradually fell in love.  Who else, after all, was there for her to fall in love with since none of the eight people ever set foot outside of the Annex in two years and no other children ever came in?

Outside the window of Anne’s room, the big horse chestnut tree that she loved to watch as the seasons changed is still there, bigger than ever.  A few doors up the Prinsengracht canal, the church bell tolls in the Westerkerk – the same bell the prisoners listened to day and night for all those months.

To the adults, the confinement was dreadful.  Anne alone seemed able to make it into an adventure, something to write stories about in the future.  She wanted to write, she said, because “I want to go on living even after my death,” never realizing that death was imminent.

Most of the time in the Annex she was happy.  One day, after being confined for a year and a half, she wrote in her diary:  “I looked out of the open window, over a large piece of Amsterdam, over all the roofs and on to the far distance, fading into purple.  As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.”

Six months later, she and all the others were arrested, betrayed by someone never identified for certain.  Six months after that, starving and in rags, Anne died of typhus in the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.  Margot died there too, a few days before Anne, in February or March, 1945, only a couple of weeks before the camp was liberated.  Mrs. Van Daan died in one of the camps too.  Mrs. Frank died of starvation in Auschwitz, where Mr. Van Daan was gassed.  The dentist died in Neuengamme.  Peter was among those marched from Auschwitz by the SS when the Russians approached, and he died in Mauthausen on the very day the camp was liberated by Americans.  Mr. Frank was freed from Auschwitz by Russian troops.

All eight of the prisoners had left Holland on the last train that took Jews to Auschwitz.  Two months after Margot and Anne Frank died, the war ended and the Netherlands was free again.

Amsterdam, or rather the Anne Frank Foundation, has done a good job keeping the Secret Annex available to tourists without letting it become tawdry.  Located in the center of the city, it is easy to find and to get to – and profoundly moving.

There is nothing in Amsterdam, however, to mark where the Frank family lived before abandoning the apartment and entering the Annex.  Their home was at 37 Merwedeplein, which is a V-shaped street around two sides of a triangular park on the south side of Amsterdam.  No plaque or statue or any kind of memento exists there, but the apartment building looks largely the same as it did when the Franks lived there on the third floor (known as the second floor in Amsterdam, where the ground floor is not counted as the first).

Because it has not been made into a tourist attraction, it is a more profitable place to go, to sit on a bench in solitude in the park where Anne and her friends used to play, and meditate on how all these unspeakable crimes could have happened, even to children, in the lifetimes of many of us.


And to wonder whether it could happen again – in what we like to refer to as western civilization.
____________________________________________

Thomas Driscoll is executive editor of the Journal Star.  He was in Amsterdam last month.





EARLY ADOPTIONS, ORPHANAGES AND GUARDIANSHIPS = Amazing Stories Related to our Hardest Family Brick Walls

All family mysteries are interesting to me, but it is always the Early Adoption stories that grab my attention and send me on an unexpected journey.  I call them “Early Adoptions” because they took place long after the Adoptee has passed away, and require creative legwork to figure out where to look since the records are old and laws may not have been in existence.  These Early Adoptions are muddied by the fact that courthouses burned or flooded, family stories handed down are manipulated to hide the truth, laws were not passed yet requiring a paper trail, and basically people were too ashamed to talk about it.

Heartbreaking for sure.  But all mysteries can be solved.

Here are some of our most interesting adoption cases that we have worked on to date:

1.  Giulia was an Italian woman born about 1878 and the family believed she was adopted in Chicago Illinois after escaping Italy due to a fear for her life.  After researching her family, I discovered that Giulia was born in Calvello Italy.  I had the good luck of finding the online birth records for this small town, but they were written in Italian, not English.  I don’t speak Italian.  So I literally went thru the records by hand looking for 3 names that I could read = the name Giulia or her adopted parent’s Rosaria and Nicolai.   I still cannot believe what I stumbled across.  After spending an entire day flipping thru about 5 years of births, I found a record at the back of the book where special cases were written about.




Note the name on the left says Giulia.  The top row on the right shows the name Rosaria.  I had a translator in Italy read the document and tell me the following:
This is the birth record (#14) for Giulia Agrifoglio
Rosaria, a 23 year old seamstress, is not declaring that she is the mother, but that she found the infant. She presents the infant to the official who gives the infant the name Giulia, and the surname [cognome] Agrifoglio. This was usually a "made-up" name and not found in the town.
I believe Rosaria requested that the child be left in her care.  No mother or father is identified... that is why you see "Esposita" under Giulia's name in the left column where you would normally see the parents' names.


It is an amazing discovery but unfortunately one that probably means the family will never know who her real parents are.

2.  An infant named Nellie was adopted in Indiana around 1885.  She supposedly searched a few times in her life to find her birth family but with no luck.  128 years later, her great granddaughter took it upon herself to try to research the birth, but also hit a brick wall.  So she contacted us for help.  After spending several frustrating hours without finding any records, I searched for and found an orphanage in the town where the family lived.  There it was, Nellie’s record of being taken home by her adopted father, and it named the birth mother and birth grandmother who had dropped her off. 

3.  A baby named Joseph was born out of wedlock in Boston around 1924.  We were lucky enough to know the birth mother’s name, but the family could not figure out where she was after the birth.  I was able to locate a simple obituary for Joseph’s birth grandfather, which named the birth mother and her new married name.  All the pieces fell together and we located 11 living cousins for the family to reach out to. 

4.  One of my most interesting and frustrating cases was a son who told me the story about his mother being switched at birth in Quebec around 1929.  She was told the harrowing story after her “adopted” father passed away, and the details were that her real birth parents were unmarried from the United States.  On the same day of her birth, in the same hospital, a son was born to the adopted parents but died because he was a hemophiliac.  The doctor agreed to switch the babies and no records existed.  My research uncovered her baptism to the adopted parents that raised her in Quebec, but no death record of the hemophiliac son.  To date, we do not know who the real parents are.

5.  This month, we just helped a woman in Minnesota figure out the real birth father of her Irish great grandfather James.  Her brick wall was based on a family story that James was told upon his mother’s death that the father he grew up with was not his birth father.  In fact, James’ mother was previously married, gave the first 2 sons away who died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and kept baby James before getting remarried.  With only this story to go on, we scoured through the local courthouse and Catholic Church, and found a vital record entry of her 2nd marriage noting her name as Mrs.  That told us she was a widow.  The client immediately found his death record in the 1870 US Federal Census Mortality Schedules of 1870.  We have not found what happened to the other 2 children born to this couple and even researched local Guardianship records in the County Courthouse.  Sadly it appears the story may be true.   Our next step is to research the cemeteries in Chicago for a burial record since a certificate of death was not found for either son.

6.  Then there is our own family story where my father found out his mother was adopted on the night she passed away.  After spending an entire year digging through Cook County courthouse records, I found the birth mother had actually taken my grandmother home for the first year in 1900, gave her to the “adopted” father in 1901, and would occasionally visit her in Chicago until she moved away before 1910.  By 1911, she agreed to let the official adoption take place, and then remarried the next month.  She died in Twin Falls Idaho.  But the most amazing part was the whispers that the adopted father was actually the birth father.  So we found a living descendant of his sister, and she agreed to take a DNA test.  It came back as a strong 3rd cousin, confirming that he was actually the real father but had to adopt her because he was not listed on the birth certificate.  Thank God for DNA.  Read the full story at the link below:



7.  Today, we have taken on an adoption case that takes us back to Nova Scotia Canada.  It will be very difficult to research foreign records from the 1880’s but we are ready for the challenge.  Fingers crossed for success.



Ancestry Sisters has started a new Facebook page called Adoption Genealogy.  This is a community to help answer questions on how and where to research your family's mysteries related to Early Adoptions, Orphanages, and Guardianships.  Follow us, LIKE our page and ask questions on the link below.  


CHICAGO IRISH GENEALOGY

Announcing a new Facebook Page = Chicago Irish Genealogy

We are here to help you research your Irish ancestors who lived in Chicago, Illinois.  Click on the link below, follow us and post questions.  




Chicago Genealogy & Cook County Genealogy

* How to Research your Chicago Ancestors *

Chicago has such a rich history, and is so ethnically diverse, that it just begs you to search all the various goldmines around the city for clues to solving your family mysteries.  Immigrants flooded the city in the mid to late 1800’s, which helped to shape the Chicago that we know and love today.   Your ancestors could have helped build the railroads, rebuild the city after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, and design and build the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, also known as the White City. 



There is a lot to learn about Chicago Genealogy and what is available to research, but here are some of my favorite resources and what they can tell you:

Chicago Vital Records – After 1871, vital records are available and fairly easy to research.  The challenge is that birth, death and marriage records before 1900 do not name parents.  But other clues can be gathered, including where the person lived on a birth or death certificate, or whether the person was married in a church or by the Justice of the Peace.   And the Illinois index of early marriages and deaths is a great resource, especially for finding misspelled names. 

Church Records – While the Great Chicago Fire destroyed all vital records before 1871, Church Records help to fill in those early blanks and can take you back as early as 1850.   Certain Catholic Churches even kept records that identified where the person was born and when.  This is especially true in the Italian and Polish ethnic churches.   

Cemetery Records – Not only can you find the date of death, but headstones can include place of birth, year of birth and if lucky, where they were born.  You can also see who they are buried with, or near, for major clues.  Don’t just rely on Find a Grave.  Go visit the cemetery in person.  One of my favorite stories is how I began to research the Catholic Cemetery of Calvary in Evanston.  I started out by pulling the cemetery record of my Irish Great Great Grandmother.  What I uncovered was a burial plot with 8 people in the same grave.  Then it spiraled out of control - who were these people buried with my Julia who died in 1884?  Over a period of about a year, I bet I went back to this cemetery 25 times, becoming fast friends with the office manager.  But my biggest discovery was finding my 3x Great Grandfather from Quebec who was buried in the same plot with his grandson.  I had no idea he even came to the US and never thought to search vital records for him.  Without searching for his grandson’s cemetery record, I would have never found him in Chicago.   

Voter Registrations of 1888, 1890 and 1892 – These records identify the courthouse where the person was naturalized, how long the person lived in Chicago, how long they lived in Illinois, and their current address.  It is often in alphabetical order by last name so it can help you see other potential family members.  This is a great replacement for the destroyed 1890 Federal Census.

City Directories & Telephone Directories – Published books began around 1839 and help you plot the areas where your family lived, and when they moved.  These addresses help you define nearby relatives and what churches they may have attended.

Ward Maps – The city was constantly changing its street names and ward boundaries.  It’s important to identify where your ancestors lived, but that can also be a challenge.  Sometimes they lived in the same house on multiple census records, but the street names are different.  Ward maps can help you figure out these changes.

Census Records – Chicago census records show the street a person lived on starting in the 1880 census. 

Naturalization Records – There are 3 places where an individual could have been naturalized in Cook County:  Circuit Court, Superior Court and District Court.  The first 2 are found at the Daley Center, while the District Court filings are found at the NARA Great Lakes Region.

Immigration – the Newberry Library houses many books on ethnic immigration that has an index of names, making it easier to find often misspelled names. 

NARA Great Lakes Region – This repository houses the District Court Naturalization records of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, along with many other court records.

Divorce Records – While records are off-site, once you find an index of a divorce, the record is a goldmine for information.  The divorce of my adopted Grandmother’s birth mother led to naming her sister as a witness in the trial.  That led to helping me find where the birth mother ended up dying, and ultimately where she was born.

Probates – Again, these records are kept off-site.  If an index is found for that person, then it takes up to 2 weeks for them to arrive for viewing.

Land Records – Did your ancestors own the property they were living in and for how long?  That can be found by researching land records. 

Adoptions, Orphanages and Guardianships – There are various ways to research this difficult area of your tree.   Illinois adoptee birth records prior to 1946 can now be obtained by family.  Also, Catholic Charities can be helpful in finding records at a Catholic Orphanage.  Guardianship Records in Cook County can be viewed on microfilm, and census records can be combed for children living at local orphanages. 

Autopsy Records – These records don’t necessarily lead to family clues, but are interesting and help shape the stories of a person’s life.

Newspaper Obituaries – The challenge with early obituaries in Chicago is that the city had so many people dying on any given day, that the obits were just kept to the basics.  Unless the person was of prominence or had an interesting life story, the most you can get from them are maiden names, children, if the person was single or married, along with what church they attended and where the burial will take place.  On a few obituaries, it will tell you what country they were born, but that is rare.

Libraries – Several key libraries are essential to finding nuggets of Genealogy information:  Newberry Library, Harold Washington Library, Family History Library, and Northeastern Illinois University Library


If any of your ancestors lived in Chicago, or even had a brief stay in this great city, then I strongly encourage you research them immediately.  My simple advice is to never give up until you exhaust all avenues available to you.  Based on my years of experience in Chicago, it can be an expansive yet rewarding search.





Adoption Mystery Solved

Ancestry Sisters just helped our client solve his family's adoption mystery from 1900.  Read the story below.

My maternal grandmother was a wonderful Christian woman born October 1, 1900, in Fulton, Illinois. She played her churches organ every Sunday for more than thirty five years. She told me a sad story she thought was true: her mother, Ethel Lynn, died during her birth. This caused her great pain and worse, she believed that her father apparently could not care for five children with one a newborn. She was told that he moved them to York, Nebraska, then asked the County of York to assume guardianship of them in about 1905. My grandmother passed away in 1994, but she got to meet her one sister after a separation of seventy-one years. Her three brothers had all died before she found out who they were from a family descendant in 1984. She died believing that her birth caused the death of her mother and the wardship and separation of her and all four of her siblings, a sister and three brothers, by York County because her father could not raise five children. 

I retained Ancestry Sisters to investigate the facts because they sounded odd to me. It was discovered that her mother, Ethel, became ill with “consumption” a full five months after my grandmother was born and died on 3 July 1901, nearly a full nine months after her birth and five months after becoming ill.  Her mother’s death was unrelated to her birth. Her father had moved to Clinton, Iowa, across the Mississippi River from Fulton, IL, and Ethel’s sister, Elisabeth, and Elisabeth’s husband, George, assumed their guardianship in July 1902. In May 1904 the York County, Nebraska, Court ordered the adoption of my four year old grandmother by the couple whom she always knew as her loving parents, Charles B. and Ella Mae of York, Nebraska. 

A professionally authored and persuasive letter prepared by Ancestry Sisters persuaded the York County Court to release the adoption record (which is routinely a sealed document). The factual revelations Ancestry Sisters discovered gave me the true story behind my grandmother’s past, one quite different from the one she died believing. I just wish I had acted before that wonderful Christian woman passed away.

Walter, California