My late father-in-law was adopted by his step-father when he was 10. My late grandmother-in-law never talked about her first husband and there is some confusion on the first husband's surname.

My father-in-law was born in 1934 in Syracuse, New York.

I went to the New York State archives in Albany and got a copy of my father-in-law's birth certificate. The certificate was altered at the time of the adoption and his step-father's name was overwritten with the fact of the date of the adoption.

I've been unsuccessful at finding any documentation on the marriage or on his birth other than the birth certificate. I searched local newspapers.

I have not been able to locate him or his mother in the 1940 census. They were not living with her parents and I can not find her under her maiden name. Without the surname, I do not know how to locate either of them in the census.

Is there any way to find the birth father's surname?

Are adoption records (for New York State for a 1930s birth and 1940s adoption) accessible?

  • 1
    I wish you had included some approximate dates and locations in your question. Records/record collections, laws, customs--all the stuff we utilize in genealogy are often time and location sensitive.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 12, 2012 at 2:59
  • 1
    this question had been downvoted so I took the feedback in the comments and tried to improve it. It was downvoted again on 17 Oct 2012. Could whoever downvoted provide feedback in comnments so the question can be improved and/or a scope discussion can occur in meta on what is out of scope?
    – Duncan
    Oct 19, 2012 at 10:43
  • @Duncan If you find an answer helpful, don't forget to mark it as your accepted answer by clicking the check mark beside it.
    – Luke_0
    Oct 26, 2012 at 13:40
  • It also depends on where you where adopted and when Apr 3, 2018 at 17:39

5 Answers 5


I have not been able to locate him or his mother in the 1940 census. They were not living with her parents and I can not find her under her maiden name. Without the surname, I do not know how to locate either of them in the census.

At both FamilySearch and Ancestry, it's easy to do this. In the search form, enter your father-in-law's first name, birth 1934 +/- 1 year. Then in the Search by Relationships or Family Member section, select Mother and enter just her first name as well. Leave everything else blank, and try the search. If you get too many hits, perhaps edit the search and add New York as your father-in-laws's birth location, and try the search again.


From the altered birth record, you probably know the father-in-law's date of birth and location. Likewise, I assume you know the date and location at which the adoption took place.

Those two dates and locations provide you with two points on a timeline. I would begin from the adoption date (and location) and inch my way back in time.

  1. What was the law and practice at the time covering this type of adoption. As for very general information, I reviewed the Wikipedia entry, "Closed Adoption," which includes the statement, "An adoption of an older child who already knows his or her biological parent(s) cannot be made closed or secret." For even more general information, see The Adoption History Project, "Adoption History in Brief."
    Your understanding of the specific laws and practices in effect at the time the adoption was undertaken should guide the steps you follow to learn the details of the adoption. You would presumably seek any court records or documents that you or your spouse may be entitled to receive.
  2. Marriage of grandmother to her second husband. It isn't clear to me from the question whether you have the name of this husband, but if you have her death record/cemetery record, etc., then you should be able to learn that name. The marriage record would report the grandmothers name at the time of the marriage--that might be her married or maiden name. (Marriages and/or marriage licenses are sometimes announced in a local paper.)
  3. Divorce of the presumed biological parents. Assuming this divorce occurred when/where divorces were documented/recorded, you should seek these records. You will need to learn where the divorce was entered; start with the locations where grandmother would have lived, work toward the location where her son was born. Continue to broaden the search until the record is located. (Divorces are frequently published in local papers.)
  4. Intervening census. Lorraine mentioned that depending on the time of all these events, there may be a census record or two in which you will find the grandmother either with her son or with former husband, or both. Depending on how size of the town and the names, you may even be able to location prospects for this by doing some creative census searching.
  5. Marriage record of later divorced parents. Even if you do find a record of the divorce, I recommend you find this marriage record. I would do it anyway, but would hope to learn if that marriage happened before or after the birth of the son (your late father in law).

Note: You did not mention whether the son (your late father in law) had any siblings, but if there was more than one child born to the divorcing parents, there may be even more records you could seek.

Ah ... I see there is an intervening edit to your question. I may edit this post after reviewing your changes.

  • 1
    this answer gave me lots of things to think about in my own research. Thank you.
    – Lorraine W
    Oct 12, 2012 at 12:13

If your father-in-law has a son, then I highly recommend having him take a genealogical DNA test -- specifically, a Y-DNA (Y chromosome) test.

As I explained in response to a previous question about DNA testing, a Y-DNA test follows the direct paternal line (father's father's father) and is most often used for surname studies.

If your father-in-law's biological direct paternal line has used inherited surnames for at least 300+ years, then there's a good chance that a Y-DNA test will yield matches with other people who share his biological father's surname.

On the other hand, if the biological paternal line started using surnames only within the past 100-300 years (this is common among Ashkenazi Jews, Scandinavians, and any other population that used patronymics until recently), then the Y-DNA test may yield matches with too many different surnames to provide a definitive answer.

Of course, since you don't know anything about the biological father, you won't know which case applies to your father-in-law's family until you get the test results back and see who the matches are. So you definitely could strike gold, but if you don't, then you won't be any worse off than you are now.

If your father-in-law doesn't have any sons, then unfortunately a Y chromosome test won't work here -- the tester must be a male from the same direct paternal line as your father-in-law.

Family Tree DNA is a company that offers this type of test. You will need a 37-marker test or higher. There are lower-level tests, but the results of those would definitely be too ambiguous for this situation.

In full disclosure, I am a consultant for Family Tree DNA. However, I was a customer long before I started doing work for them.


A lot depends on when your father-in-law was born.

My great grandfather's name was not known by any in my family, but I was able to find him in the 1910 U.S. Federal Census because I knew the names of his wife and children.

If your father-in-law was 10-years-old when adopted, it's possible that he appears in the U.S. Federal Census with his birth name. Search for his mother and him in the census and see whether you can find their last name that way.

Also, look for his mother's family in the Census to see if she was living with them after her divorce from her first husband.


As you already know, in New York State, divorce records can be tricky to obtain. Dick Hillenbrand at the "Upstate New York Genealogy Blog", published this post in 2008. Although time has passed, NY hasn't done much, if anything, to loosen up vital records access, so it probably still applies: http://www.unyg.com/blog/index.php/2008/02/are-divorces-sealed-in-upstate-new-york/

I agree with Hillenbrand that newspaper searches will probably be your best, quickest bet. "Old Fulton NY Post Cards" is a good starting point even if you have access to other online newspaper databases. Be aware that this is a one-man operation and the search function is quirky. Read the FAQs first to save yourself some frustration: http://www.fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html

This could be a long-shot, but NYS has an "Adoption Information Registry" at: http://www.health.ny.gov/vital_records/. However, due to the time lapse, I doubt that it can help your family, but you can never tell until you try.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.