My third great-grandmother was an orphan, whose mother passed away either during childbirth or shortly after, and whose father passed away January 24, 1880 when she was six years old.

There is a family story that she was interned in an orphanage in Arkansas and that the orphanage burned down, destroying most of the records.

I was wondering if the U.S. Federal Census took count and record of children in orphanages. I would be looking for the 1880 Census, as she was married in 1891 when she was seventeen.

By the way, why is there no "orphan" tag!?

  • 1
    If you'd like to propose that we have a tag for "orphan", that's a question for our Genealogy & Family History Meta area. Bear in mind that the word "orphan" has a specific meaning in the 20/21st centuries that isn't necessarily the same for earlier eras, and the difference in language usage over time is something that we'd have to address in our usage guidance. I encourage you to ask the question about the tag on Meta, after which you or one of the mods can edit it out of your question.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jun 28, 2017 at 18:18

3 Answers 3


Orphanages were enumerated in the 1880 census.

I tried "orphanage" as keyword at 1880 United States Federal Census and got 40 results, but none in Arkansas. Most results matched "orphanage" in the occupation field, but linked census images had many child boarders or students. Creative searching using related keywords may find more results.

In later censuses, institutions (hospitals, orphanages) often had their own ED (enumeration district), but you would have to be able to pinpoint a county or township.

Don't limit yourself to a single state: in one of my related families, 3 Ohio-born children were placed in a church-run Michigan orphanage by their widowed father.


The 1880 Enumerator instructions, which can be viewed at ipums.org, say:

Wherever an institution is to be enumerated, as a hospital, an asylum, an alms-house, a jail, or a penitentiary, the enumerator will leave three lines blank, and enter the name of the institution (as "St. Mary's Hospital," "Protestant Orphan Asylum," "Insane Asylum," "City jail," etc.) above the names and the inmates. All persons having their "usual place of abode" in such institutions, whether officers, attendants, beneficiaries, or persons in confinement, should then be entered consecutively on the schedules, and at the close of the list another space of three lines should be left blank.

The FamilySearch Wiki article United States Records of Childrens Homes and Orphanages (National Institute) says:

By the 1880s, most states had enacted laws requiring children to be cared for in facilities separate from adults. It is at this time you will see the creation of government-run county children’s homes.

The term ‘orphanage’ is often a misnomer. These institutions often took in not only parentless children, but also children whose parents were unable or unwilling to provide for them. Such children could be placed there either by the choice of their parent(s) or by the courts.

Let's assume for the moment that the family story is true, and you won't be able to find any records from the orphanage itself. What you might be able to find are records that mention the orphanage by name, like the census, or there might be other records created by other agencies, like the local courts. The article in the Wiki article on Burned Counties Research (see the resources) was written for situations where the county courthouse has burned down, but the same principles apply to any record loss. Be sure to search all levels of jurisdiction (federal, state, county, and smaller localities) for records. Arkansas state statutes and those for surrounding states can tell you at what point children were placed in institutions separate from adults. Check online (Google Books, Hathi Trust, Internet Archive) for local histories that might mention the names of institutions operating at the time, then use that information to search the US Federal Census.



Although it's a bit of long shot, you might also want to try the Orphan's Court records (or Surrogate's Court, or whatever it's called in Arkansas) for the county she lived in. I say long shot because most of the Orphan's Court records I've seen deal with guardianship and protecting childrens' inheritances from the surviving parent (and others). I don't think I've actually seen a case where the Orphan's Court sent an orphan to an orphanage, but that may be because most of what I've looked at dates well before 1880.

  • It would certainly be worth a try. Thanks for the answer. +1
    – user6136
    Jun 27, 2017 at 21:29
  • +1 because using more record groups may give indirect evidence that will help answer the original question.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jun 28, 2017 at 18:25

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